Tending Ancestral Lands: Modern methods merge with traditional ways in Washoe Tribe’s stewardship of Meeks Bay

For thousands of years, the Washoe Tribe has inhabited the Great Basin. Winter months were spent hunkered down in the valleys where less snow fell, while spring, summer and fall were enjoyed in the mountains around Lake Tahoe, a sacred place where the tribe fished, foraged and gathered together.

“When the tribe would return to the land surrounding the lake, that’s when the Washoe would get a chance to truly interact with each other,” explains Serrell Smokey, Chairman of the Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California. “New friendships and marriages were formed. Springtime, summertime and through the fall was really that time of true togetherness for the tribe as a whole.”

In fact, Tahoe is a mispronunciation of Da ow, the Washoe word for “lake.” But just as the lake’s name was overtaken, so too was the Washoe’s cherished land as settlers pushed westward in search of gold and silver.

“By 1850, the price for an Indian scalp in California was 25 cents, and by 1860, the price of a scalp was $5,” recalls Smokey. “When we had bounties on our heads, that changed a lot of things as far as the Washoe even being allowed in the area.”

All around the Tahoe Basin, the land and waters once sustainably harvested by the Washoe Tribe were being over-taxed. Forests were clearcut for mining, railways and community building; waterways were diverted and overfished. Tribes around the region were pushed into reservations while their children were forced into Indian boarding schools where they were punished for speaking their own language and stripped of their culture.

As other tribes were allocated land at places like Pyramid and Walker lakes, the Washoe tribe was overlooked countless times, until one Indian agent wrote in 1866, “There is no suitable place for a reservation in the bounds of their territory, and, in view of their rapidly diminishing numbers and the diseases to which they are subjected, none is required.”

“Fortunately for us, that wasn’t true,” says Smokey. “Our people have adapted and slowly persevered, and now we’re trying to thrive. We have four communities split out over three counties, and we even have a couple of parcels of land in the Tahoe Basin.”

Returning Home

Today, the Washoe Tribe is around 1,500-members strong, with more than half living on tribal land in the Reno, Carson Valley and Gardnerville areas of Nevada and Woodfords, California. But the tribe continues to work to maintain its ties to the Tahoe Basin.

In December, the tribe was awarded a second 20-year lease by the U.S. Forest Service as concessionaire for Meeks Bay Resort — a major win in the tribe’s quest to maintain access to this historically significant stretch of land.

“Máyala Wáta is the Washoe word for the area, and it was an original encampment for the Washoe people,” explains Smokey. “That was one of the main reasons that we fought to get this permit…We’re not just running a business to get by and make a little money. It means a lot more to us than that.”

A private resort was first developed at Meeks Bay in 1928, which steadily grew over time to include cabins, a campground and other facilities, and in 1960, roughly 23 acres of important wetlands were dredged to create a marina at the mouth of Meeks Creek. In 1974, Meeks Bay Resort was acquired by the U.S. Forest Service.

Volunteers helping to thin the trees in Meeks Meadow learn about Washoe traditions during a break.
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In 1997, politicians, including President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore, turned their attention to the lake’s declining clarity and water quality and forest management issues at the inaugural Lake Tahoe Summit. Out of this first summit, organized by the late Senators Harry Reid (D-NV) and Dianne Feinstein (DCA), came the 2000 Lake Tahoe Restoration Act, which allowed $300 million for restoration projects around the Tahoe Basin and launched the Lake Tahoe Environmental Improvement Program (EIP). To date, $2.9 billion has been invested in 835 environmental improvement projects completed through the program.

“The Washoe Tribe played a big part in working with our state senators to start the Lake Tahoe Summit,” explains Smokey. “And that’s how we were able to get our initial access back to the lake.”

A year after the Lake Tahoe Summit, the tribe was awarded its first 20-year special-use permit to operate Meeks Bay Resort. (Over the years, the tribe has also acquired roughly 30 acres of land at Skunk Harbor on the East Short and in Olympic Valley.)

Stewardship of this ancestral land has opened up opportunities for access to the tribe. Hiking and camping trips are organized throughout the summer and often incorporate elders to share stories and teach the Washoe language. Every April, before the resort opens for the season to the public, the Washoe Tribe gathers on the shore and hosts a private blessing of the water.

“That togetherness in our culture is something we’re really trying to reimplement through these programs,” says Smokey. “We want the youth to learn what every tree is called, what areas were called, and why they were called that, so that they’re speaking more words in Washoe throughout their whole trip.”

Washoe children participate in the release of native Lahontan cutthroat trout into Tahoe at Meeks Bay with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
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Meeks Bay is also the site of the annual Waši∙šiw ?itde Festival, an Indigenous culture and arts event. Set for July 27-28 this year, the free public festival was originally just about getting the tribe together, but has grown over the years to be a shared experience of their native identity with others.

Reviving Stewardship

Just as their ancestors did, the Washoe Tribe wants to give back to the land, and in modern times, that means working within the new system established throughout the basin for environmental projects.

The Máyala Wáta Restoration Project is the largest project taken on by the Washoe Environmental Department, in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service, with the goal of restoring the biodiversity of Meeks Meadow and the flow of Meeks Creek.

Volunteers carrying felled lodgepole pines from Meeks Meadow as part of the Máyala Wáta Restoration Project, which seeks to return the sensitive landscape to its original state.
Contributed photo |

“In the summer months, the Washoe would go up there and they would set up camp in the meadow and hunt fish, collect basket-making materials, collect medicinal plants, and then at the end of the season, they would burn their camps, burn the meadow, and return to the Carson Valley for the winter where it was less harsh,” explains Rhiana Jones, director for the Washoe Environmental Protection Department.

As the mining boom brought settlers to the region, the meadow was used for grazing cattle and logging, and the flora of the meadow was drastically changed.

“The goal is to thin 300 acres of encroaching lodgepole pine and restore the ecological and hydrological processes to the meadow as it once was,” says Jones. “They’re sucking up the moisture, we think, and taking away from the medicinal and cultural plants and reducing the f low in Meeks Creek.”

Once the meadow is cleared, the plan is to do a “culturally guided prescribed burn.” Fire is a crucial part of most ecosystems; it reduces dead vegetation while stimulating new growth.

“Historically, the Washoe tribe used to burn all the time for land management, but in this case the burn plan is written by the Forest Service. We hope to have some cultural fire practitioners up there and elders and be a part of restoring that land management process by the tribe to the meadow,” notes Jones.

After the fire, Jones and her department will monitor the meadow to see what plants are returning. They will also be able to compare the data collected from groundwater monitors to know just how much water the overgrown stands of trees were sucking up.

“Doing this type of monitoring on a meadow before and after the trees have been removed hasn’t been done in the Tahoe area before. It’s been done in other places, but not here,” says Jones. “There’s a lot of meadows in Tahoe that need restoration, and this work could really help, strengthen those projects or secure funding for those projects.”

Though the Máyala Wáta Restoration Project is the biggest environmental endeavor that the Washoe Tribe is a part of, it’s just one of many projects they have their hands in across the region. Of utmost cultural importance is joining in the work to restore the population of the native Lahontan cutthroat trout to Tahoe, an important part of the tribe’s ancestral diet that was once thought to be extinct.

“I think the history of tribes being able to work in the environmental sector hasn’t been great,” says Jones. “My goal is to reassert ourselves as stewards of the land where we were caretakers for thousands of years. There’s a Native American saying that in everything you do, you need to think about how it’s going to impact your descendants — you need to think seven generations into the future. Development just continues to happen and we’re running out of natural space. So if there are any areas that can be reclaimed, like the meadow, or reserved for conservation and protection, that’s what we want.”

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the Summer 2024 edition of Tahoe Magazine.

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