The Wild West of Yester-Year

Sara Winnemucca
By Rachel Kovaciny

The National Statuary Hall Collection in Washington, DC, is home to the statues of one hundred important Americans, two donated by each state. One statue from Nevada depicts an American Indian woman, her fringed dress swaying as if she has been dancing. One hand cradles a book to her. She raises the other, inviting the viewer to see what she holds. It’s a “shell flower,” or Tocmetoni in the Paiute language. That was her original name. History remembers her better by as Sarah Winnemucca. Just as the flower she holds symbolizes her birth name, the book she carries is an important part of her identity. Sarah Winnemucca was the first American Indian to publish a book in English. In 1884, her book Life Among the Paiutes: Their Wrongs and Claims introduced her people’s history and plight to the world. It showed native peoples could be intelligent, learned, and articulate, which contradicted contemporary stereotypes and helped change public perception of American Indians.

Sarah Winnemucca was born in the mid-1840s to an influential and respected Northern Paiute family. Her grandfather, Chief Truckee, helped John C. Fremont explore parts of Nevada and California. Her father, Chief Winnemucca, was more cautious about helping and befriending the white people trickling through their land. He quickly decided whites would not leave. It would be best to learn about them and their ways. Sarah’s family arranged for her and a sister to learn English by living with a white family in a nearby settlement. She adopted the white name Sarah. Her gift was learning languages. By fourteen, she could speak English, Spanish, and the Paiute, Shoshone, and Bannock languages. Her family sent Sarah to a convent school in San Jose, California, but when white families learned about her presence there, they objected so strongly she was sent home again.

Her gift led Sarah Winnemucca to become an interpreter for her people. She translated between tribal leaders and representatives of the American government on innumerable occasions. For a while, she even served as an official employee of the US Government, translating, teaching a reservation school, and advocating for better food and medicine. When an agent pocketed the money meant for winter supplies for the Paiutes, Sarah rode to an Army post and convinced the commander there to provide what her tribe had been promised. Eventually, Sarah wearied of crooked agents who broke promises and stole from the Paiutes. She travelled to Washington, DC with her father to bring awareness of her tribe’s mistreatment to the politicians there. They met President Rutherford B. Hayes and the Secretary of the Interior, and convinced them of the mistreatment and malfeasance plaguing the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The President and Secretary promised to fix the broken system. They put some effort into reforming it, and sent aid to the Paiute tribe on its reservation. This helped for a time, but the reservations were too far away for people in the nation’s capitol to care about, and their help and attention dwindled.

Sarah took a different approach to gaining help. She made public appearances in California, appearing on the stage dressed in regal Paiute finery and calling herself a princess. These outward flourishes fascinated white people, who paid good money to hear her describe life as a Paiute, the treatment of her tribe on the reservation, and the injustices they suffered. This raised support, but she wanted to reach more people than she could with public appearances. That’s when she wrote her book, Life Among the Paiutes: Their Wrongs and Claims. It caught the attention of many reformers on the East Coast who had advocated for abolition twenty years earlier and were ready now to take up the cause of helping American Indians. Two women in particular, Elizabeth Peabody and Mary Peabody Mann, made it possible for Sarah Winnemucca to travel east and lecture in cities up and down the coast. Over the course of her lifetime, Sarah gave over four hundred speeches on behalf of her tribe.

The endless advocating, plus three marriages that all ended in divorce, made for a hard and lonely life. Sarah contracted tuberculosis and died at her sister Elma’s home in 1881, only in her late forties. She left behind her a legacy of determination and tireless work for others. Her statue in Washington, DC, shows that her contributions to American history and Paiute welfare aren’t forgotten.