Washoe finally making progress
Lake Tahoe is a lot of things to a lot of people.
It is home to thousands.
It is appreciated and enjoyed by millions.
To one group of people, however, Lake Tahoe is the center of their world.
For more than a century the Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California has not owned or had access to property in the heart of its ancestral land – Da ow a ga, or the “edge of the lake.”
This has changed as recently as this year, with the tribe leasing about 400 acres at Meeks Bay and a process under way to officially have access to another significant portion of land on the South Shore.
To the Washoe Tribe, it’s progress.
“They are steps in the right direction,” said Brian Wallace, Washoe Tribe chairman. “But, we certainly hope we don’t become victims of gradualization – small steps.”
The Washoe Tribe was awarded the lease of the U.S. Forest Service’s land at Meeks Bay earlier this year. With the busy summer season ending, Wallace said the tribe’s first year of operating the Meeks Bay Marina and Resort has been great.
“It gives a new direction to the Washoe Tribe. Up until now, our economy has been focused on agriculture and vegetation. This moves us more into tourism and our heritage,” Wallace said. “It’s been a tremendous opportunity for us to refocus.”
The resort occupies about 50 acres. Another 350 acres of meadow sits behind the resort, where tribal members are planting vegetation, preserving the area and putting their “hands in the earth.”
The Meeks Bay area is important to Washoe culture.
“Everyone’s pretty happy, not only in a business sense but also psychologically. Washoe and non-Washoe were uplifted about our return,” he said. “People who were born in Meeks Bay and are still alive were very happy to see it that they were able to return to the place of their childhood.”
About 150 acres of property on the South Shore is in the permit process, and may become available to the Washoe Tribe. Wetlands and stream zones around Taylor Creek, Baldwin Beach and Cascade Creek will become available for Washoe restoration work. A long-planned Washoe Cultural Center could be built on the land.
“What we’re trying to do is repatriate our homelands. There is a large number of people born into this area, that, up until recently, were treated as trespassers,” Wallace said. “This has a tremendous amount of meaning for them.”
The traditional homelands of the Washoe Tribe exceeded 1.5 million acres in Nevada and California. Thousands of Washoe members occupied those lands, returning each summer to Lake Tahoe.
Early settlers had little regard for the tribe, however. Lake Tahoe was clear-cut, the valleys were over-grazed by livestock and rivers and streams were polluted from mines. The supply of fish, game and plants was exhausted.
By the late 1860s, there were about 300 Washoe members left. The tribe rebuilt itself, starting from about 40 acres of land south of Gardnerville.
Now, there are 1,749 Washoe members. Four communities are housed in Carson City and Douglas and Alpine counties, and the Washoe Tribe has recovered more than 70,000 acres of its ancestral homeland.
Wallace said the tribe takes advantage of acquisitions outside of the Lake Tahoe area, too. Once acquiring land – either purchasing it, leasing it or receiving it as a gift – the members work to restore it.
“We’re going to continue to fortify our resource management infrastructure, literally getting more people out on the land to do traditional stewardship and conservation, from cleaning up acid mine waste sites to protecting bracken fern populations in the Tahoe Basin,” he said.
Acquiring and preserving land for the Washoe is not the tribe’s only conservation-oriented goal. Because of the lake’s importance to the tribe, Wallace said, the Washoe have an interest in preserving its natural beauty.
The Washoe Tribe is another piece of the partnership – made up of the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Army Corps of Engineers, the California Department of Transportation, the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency and many others – committed to preserving the lake’s clarity.
“We value every opportunity we get to project our traditional values in any discussion related to the environment,” Wallace said. “We have the ability to bring a lot to the basin. A more powerful part of it is the knowledge we can provide ancestral knowledge we’ve had from the beginning of time, from our perspective. From our first day.”
Wallace said, while Lake Tahoe may be very important to many people, it is most important to the Washoe Tribe.
“Some people have said we were born to die for the lake. That’s how strong we feel about Lake Tahoe,” Wallace said. “It’s central to the Washoe religion – Lake Tahoe.”
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