Washoe Tribe strives to preserve traditions, pass customs on to next generation
For the Washoe Tribe, Lake Tahoe is a sacred place. It’s where their ancestors lived for thousands of years, where they harvested food to sustain life, and where their most important traditions were born — the same traditions they are working to keep alive today.
“Lake Tahoe is the center of the Washoe universe,” explained Darrel Cruz, tribal historic preservation officer for the Washoe, now a tribe of roughly 1,500 in California and Nevada.
The Washoe called the crystal clear waters Da ‘Ow, which translates to lake, and is the root of the lake’s current name.
“In Washoe County there are many lakes, but when they say Da ‘Ow we know it means Lake Tahoe,” said Cruz.
“It was the water itself. The water is the giver of all life. There are a lot of Washoe people that believe that water is a living force. Only life can give life, and without water nothing can survive.”
Researchers estimate that the Washoe people have lived in the Great Basin for at least 6,000 years. Summer would generally be spent around Lake Tahoe, the fall in the ranges to the east, and the winter and spring in the valleys between them.
With this nomadic lifestyle a number of traditions were created around the harvest of food, and for the last eight years it has been Cruz’s job to find ways to keep these customs alive and pass them along to the next generation.
According to Cruz, the biggest ceremony for the Washoe is the Pine Nut Ceremony, which takes place ahead of winter, usually around September or October.
“The pine nuts — or tagum — were a very important food source that could sustain us throughout the winter months,” said Cruz.
In the spring, someone would go out and bury a pinecone in the forest. As fall approached, they would monitor the trees to see when the pine nuts were ready to harvest.
“When they were ready to harvest, a runner would go to all four directions and carry with them a buckskin tied with four knots, symbolizing four days before the ceremony. It was a notification,” explained Cruz.
“On that fourth day, everyone would come together and bring their own food. It would start with games during the day, like archery and foot races. In the evening that’s when they would do their all-night dancing and prayer to celebrate the pine nut harvest and give thanks.”
After the ceremony, the Washoe would go out and harvest hundreds of pounds of pine nuts to sustain them in the snowy months when food was scarce.
Cruz said one of the milestones in reviving the Washoe culture was bringing back the Pine Nut Ceremony to modern times.
“I had to evaluate what we were doing to keep our traditions alive. At the time it was just basket weaving.”
Cruz has also made strides in educating the younger generation on another important fall custom — fishing with traditional hand-woven nets.
“In the fall, that’s when the whitefish came up the streams and they migrated by the thousands,” said Cruz. “They would be dried for the winter months as well.”
Five years ago the Washoe worked out a deal with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife that allowed them to bring back traditional fishing methods.
“We have a place where we can fish using spears, harpoons and nets in early to mid October. There’s a big ceremony for that with a dance and preparation,” explained Cruz.
The younger generation of the Washoe Tribe has the opportunity to learn how to make their own nets using tree branches they harvested themselves, just as their ancestors did, prior to the annual fishing trip.
“I also work with the other land managers to make sure our people can get to the places to harvest the plants they need to continue these activities,” expressed Cruz.
Establishing Traditional Cultural Properties, which allow for exclusive use for tribal ceremonies, is one way Cruz tries to preserve areas that help keep these traditions alive.
“For example, we work with CalTrans to stop spraying on certain roadways where plants are that we harvest,” said Cruz.
Traditional knowledge — like which berries you can eat, how to craft a shelter from branches, which trees are good for basket weaving and how to hunt with a bow and arrow — are all lessons that the Washoe Tribe is working to pass on to the next generation.
“Most of these traditions were done up until the 1950s. The valley was not overpopulated. There were still wild places,” said Cruz.
“Once the population started to explode and people started moving in, we could no longer go to those places and part of our culture had died because of that.”
But that has not stopped Cruz and the rest of the tribe from working tirelessly to maintain a connection to their ancestors.
At this time of year as the snow begins to fall, the Washoe Tribe would begin to make their way down to the valley on foot, using snowshoes they crafted by hand, to their winter shelters. This winter, the present-day tribe will pay homage to the original Tahoe “locals” by taking treks through the snow in a similar manner.
“Anything we can do to carry on with our cultural traditional activities. It’s important.”