Hung-a-lel-ti: Washoe at Woodfords
Driving Southeast in Alpine County on sagebrush-lined Diamond Valley Road, a sign whips back and forth in strong gusts of wind. It reads Hung-a-lel-ti – Washoe Indian language for the Southern Washoe people.
The name of the road leading to the Washoe colony could have derived from Washoe legend.
It is rumored that the first boulder turned to begin construction on the community commonly known as Woodfords, unearthed a den filled with diamondback rattlesnakes.
From the road, the 62-home community is a forgotten corner of California, an isolated place situated in the stubbled shadow of the Sierra.
Two brown water tanks that blend into the backdrop of the community’s highest hill are the first landmarks of Hung-a-lel-ti. A closer look reveals “native pride” sprayed on the tower alongside a more profane version.
Populated by 402 residents, the reservation extends a mere 80 acres. Hung-a-lel-ti is one of four Washoe communities located in Carson City, Douglas and Alpine counties.
The traditional homelands of the Washoe people exceeded 1.5 million acres. Today the Washoe have reclaimed 70,000 acres of its ancestral land. Members of the tribe believe their people have lived in the Lake Tahoe area for 10,000 to 15,000 years with a population of 3,000 to 5,000.
There are 1,700 members today.
There is no industry in the Woodfords’ colony. Only a quarter of the residents have phones.
There is not one fluorescent sign to attract travelers on the lonely road to pump gas or feed an empty stomach.
There are no accommodations – no place for residents to get a carton of milk in the middle of the night; no way to get fast food unless fast is measured by a car’s racing speedometer as it hurries down the road to nearby Douglas County.
There is no medical center in the area. It, too, is down in the valley.
“The only problem we have is getting down the hill,” said Willard Bennett, community council vice chairman. “We’re kind of stuck in here.”
Approaching the reservation, the only visible signs of life are dusty dogs with layers of matted fur who happily roam the streets. There is an outdoor basketball court and a gazebo that looks like it’s on its last legs.
Old newspapers, faded Pepsi boxes and various pieces of litter wallpaper the wire fences of identical housing that are sometimes shaken by 80-90 mph winds.
“It feels like it’s going to shake your house apart,” said Bennett. “I’ve wondered if the roof would blow off.”
Every structure has sterilely white propane tanks hooked up in the yard that oddly contrast with the cluttered surroundings. It seems that there are tires in nearly every yard and at least one spare car which barely runs, if it does at all.
The first landmark of the community is a 5-year-old canary yellow firehouse with slightly discolored blotches that hide the spray-painted tag markings on the side of the building. It is the only two-story building in the community.
The firehouse is the community center.
Once inside, it becomes evident that the garage is absent a fire engine. It is used as a children’s recreation facility. In place of the fire truck are pool, air hockey and foosball tables, and a free-weight collection.
There is also a multi-purpose room used for church, day care and a summer food program.
The second floor of the firehouse is the community council meeting room where Willard is in charge while his brother, council chairman Philip Bennett, is ministering in New Zealand for three months.
Willard Bennett grew up on the reservation and remembers his childhood days when he and his family and friends were able to roam the land. Groups of 50 men would go hunting and fishing together.
“We were told shoot straight or behind, not down the lines,” Bennett said. “We’d come home and skin anywhere from 150-200 rabbits.”
“All of a sudden there were barbed wire fences and ‘no trespassing’ signs,” he recalled.
When he was 16 Bennett was hunting in an area he had hunted in all of his life when he heard the voices of other hunters and decided to duck behind a bush. Two white men from the Sacramento-based Apache Gun Club were also hunting. They saw Bennett and confronted him.
“They said I couldn’t hunt there,” he said. “The hardest thing was losing freedom. We never locked our homes. Guns were on racks inside homes and fishing poles and refrigerators were on the outside.”
Bennett is concerned about the tribe’s future. “In the name of progress everything is being subdued,” he said, “Everything is disappearing.”
(Editor’s note: First of a five-part series)
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