Washoe elder looks back
Winona James first came to Lake Tahoe in 1904.
She was a baby, less than a year old, and her mother carried her wrapped in blankets.
When she was old enough, the young Washoe girl walked to Tahoe each June, hiking up the old, dirt Kingsbury road from Carson Valley. There was too much of a load for her uncle’s horse-drawn wagon to carry her up. However, when he got to the top of the grade she would be wait for him to get a ride down to the lake. She always beat him to the top, taking a shortcut by walking straight up the canyon.
Now, sitting in her home near Carson City, James smiles when talking about how the next century is only days away, as if pleasantly surprise she will see it. She wasn’t around for the last turn of the century – but almost.
Born Sept. 14, 1903, James, a small woman with long white hair braided into rolls on each side of her head, is the oldest living member of the Washoe Tribe.
“I’m 96 years old. My goal is to be 100,” she says. “I have a date to go dancing at 100. I’m looking forward to that.”
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Sitting in a green recliner – her cat, Tootsie, sleeping lazily on top of the chair – James remembers what it was like to live at Tahoe each summer.
“It was wonderful,” she says. “You could go any place you wanted. You could go up into the hills and pick wild strawberries, medicine, food. The Indians had a lot of food growing up in the hills. You could dig it up, pick it off bushes. They would survive off fish they caught, certain kinds of squirrels. They ate deer.
“We went up the first of June, then came back down the first of September to go pick pine nuts in the hills east of Gardnerville.”
James has fond memories of Tahoe.
Born Winona Kyser, she used to live each summer in the area where Camp Richardson Resort is now. She and her family stayed in a teepee-like structure. Some family members made baskets to sell to tourists. Some worked at The Grove, a resort that existed there before Camp Richardson.
“I was too young to do anything but play,” James says. “In later years, when I grew up, there used to be a resort called Jameson Beach. I worked there as a maid for a few summers. I couldn’t have been more than 12 to 15 years old.”
James remembers when someone came and turned that area into Camp Richardson, which exists today.
“He came down and liked (Tahoe) so much he built that property and made it what it is now,” she said. “Al Richardson was his name, I think.”
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James remembers how her uncle used to take tourists fishing, clean their fish afterward and box them up so the visitors could take them back to the Bay Area.
What started bringing more and more people to Tahoe, James remembers, was automobiles.
“Years ago, people would come to stay for a month, or even the summer,” she says. “After the roads were in and the cars started coming up, that brought scores of them in all the time. It wasn’t as nice as it was in the early days.”
Later she and her husband, Don, had horse stables at Camp Richardson and Fallen Leaf Lake.
“It was very interesting and very nice,” she said. “You learned a lot from a lot of different people. There were all kinds of different people to talk to.”
They gave the business up in 1977 and moved to tribal land near Carson City.
One of James’ fondest memories is when she and Don planted West Shore lakes with fish during the summers. Hired by a California fishing club, they rode horses, loaded up with cans of fish, from Echo Lake around the Desolation Wilderness lakes and eventually to a stream near Tahoe City.
“That was the most interesting job,” she said. “I loved the backcountry.”
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In her life, James has gone from knowing almost everyone at Tahoe to now knowing almost no one.
Still, family and friends often visit her in her cozy home in the tribe’s Carson Colony.
She points to a collection of photographs that adorn the mantle behind her wood-burning stove. Pictures of her family – two daughters, three granddaughters, three great grandchildren and her husband, who died in 1983 – fill the area.
Above James’ television a framed picture hangs of baskets built by Dot So La Lee, the Washoe Tribe’s most famous basket maker and James’ step-grandmother.
A recent painting of James and Tootsie given to her by a friend hangs on another wall; Native American art decorates others.
One photo illustrates a recent fond memory of something that happened at Tahoe.
It shows James speaking to President Clinton, who she says is a good man for the attention he has given the tribe and Tahoe.
Taken during the president’s visit to Tahoe in 1997, the picture shows the Washoe elder giving the nation’s top official a gift of pine nuts.
“He couldn’t break them open, so I was showing him how to do it,” she says. “I enjoyed meeting the president and vice president. They were very nice people.”
The president’s visit brought a lot of attention to the environmental issues at Tahoe. And James, who may be the only living person who was at Tahoe in the very early parts of the 20th century, has a small piece of advice for those trying to preserve the beautiful blue lake in the 21st.
“I think it’s good if everybody cooperates,” she says.
She has some advice for the world, too.
“I hope that it will be better than this century has been,” she says. “I hope there’s not any more wars. I hope people will understand the world will go on without wars.”
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Living in a town so intertwined with nature allows residents to hike desolate trails, ski wide open slopes and swim in crystal clear waters. With the privilege to reside in the wilderness comes the responsibility…