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Washoe home at last

Cory Fisher

Perhaps one of the most emotional and far-reaching events of 1997 was the signing of an agreement that will bring the Washoe Tribe back to the shores of Lake Tahoe after more than a century.

When Brian Wallace, Chairman of the Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California, first learned there would be a Lake Tahoe Presidential Forum last summer, he contacted officials in hopes the tribe could participate. He never anticipated what was to follow.

“What started out as working just to have a role in this forum has been compounded into something so much more profound and important – it was a lot more than we expected,” Wallace told the Tribune in July. “The future is much brighter for us now – this is a historic period of new hope and boundless possibilities for the future.”

On July 25, Vice President Al Gore met privately with Washoe elders. The following day, President Clinton’s opening address at the Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe was met with few dry eyes.

“We will assist the tribe in their efforts to protect sacred areas and preserve their culture,” Clinton said. “The Washoe wrote to the president of the United States asking for help on these matters in 1877. It took 120 years, but I can tell you, from now on, the mail will run more rapidly between Lake Tahoe and Washington, D.C.”

The ensuing agreement, signed by Wallace and U.S. Forest Service Supervisor Juan Palma on October 29, now allows for the Washoe to regain control of 350 acres of West Shore meadow near Meeks Bay and roughly 90 acres near Taylor Creek on the South Shore – 15 of which is beach-front.

Although the new special use permit is set to expire in only five years, a long-term agreement is expected to be reached prior to the expiration date, thereby extending the tribe’s supervision of the two sites.

After hurdling initial environmental and legal requirements, the Washoe will begin work on a $2.1 million public cultural center at Taylor Creek. Construction could begin as soon as next summer.

In addition, U.S. Secretary Dan Glickman announced that a study of Cave Rock will be funded by the federal government.

“Cave Rock is considered our most sacred site – even though we see the whole mother earth as sacred,” said tribal elder Jean “Yetta” McNicoll. Wallace has said he hopes a long-term management plan of the rock will emerge from the study.

“(This agreement) closed a breach of history, which was the omission of a Washoe presence – it was really a magnificent moment,” said Wallace. “It was hard to contain all of the emotions, especially because of memories of the people who had dreamed of that moment but would never be able to see it come true.”

The agreement comes nearly a century and a half after the Washoe were driven away by thousands of white settlers seeking gold and silver. In the 1800s, large portions of Tahoe’s forests were clear-cut, meadows overgrazed and streams polluted from nearby mines.

“Everything we survived on was reduced to bare land due to the rapid and massive immigration,” Wallace said. “We were looked upon as a nuisance, as lice – something to be exterminated.”

In the late 1860s, the federal government made no effort to form a Washoe reservation, as extinction was considered an inevitability. The tribe’s population had dwindled to roughly 500, a shocking loss of almost 80 percent. Not until 1917 were 17,500 acres in small parcels of land returned to the tribe – all in the Carson Valley and none in Tahoe.

Committed to preserving its heritage and cultural identity, the Washoe Tribe remains a sovereign nation, with the Washoe Tribal Council serving as its governing body.

Washoe ancestors visited the sacred shores of Tahoe, or “Da ow a ga” each spring and summer to hunt, fish and gather plants. A return to the lake will signify a renewal of social and ceremonial gatherings that have been missing for many years.

“Lake Tahoe has a special meaning to the Washoe,” said tribal elder Dabert Wyatt, 60, who served on the presidential panel. “Each family has a special place where they camped and summered. Those things were erased when the land was bought up and the ‘no trespassing’ signs came in. I don’t have many years left, but at least I can say it happened in my lifetime. There are Washoe kids who have probably never been up here. Now they can come up and enjoy Lake Tahoe like the old people did.”


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