Washoe youth follow ancestors’ footsteps in Hope Valley (video)
On a brisk January morning, bundled up and fitted with snowshoes, a group of Washoe Tribe youth trekked on the outskirts of Hope Valley, following in the footsteps of their ancestors.
Every winter for thousands of years, members of the Washoe Tribe would trek in their distinctively round snowshoes for several days through Hope Valley and across the Sierra Nevada to the American River along a trail called Pewećeli Yeweš (peh-weh-tseh-lee yeh-wesh).
They went to collect salmon from the American River to smoke for preservation and bring back to the rest of the tribe.
“Snowshoeing is something that was a traditional activity for us during the wintertime and really a big part of our ability to survive and cross the Sierra and trade,” explained Herman Fillmore, culture/language resources director for the Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California, during the Jan. 2 snowshoe trek in Markleeville. “Today what we try to do a lot of is get our youth out on the land identifying different places and place names using the language, learning about the philosophy and the lay of the land, how Washiw people used to interact with this place, and see it from a Washiw perspective, our perspective.”
Summers for the Washoe were spent at Da’aw (Lake Tahoe) — the center of the tribe’s world, both spiritually and geographically — while the rest of the year was spent moving around the basin and surrounding valleys to collect or hunt food like pine nuts, acorns, rabbits and other game.
The California gold rush and the subsequent Nevada silver rush, however, would eventually change this way of life for the Washoe people forever.
The Jan. 2 snowshoe outing was part of a winter break program put on by the tribe’s culture department to engage youth in activities rooted in the Washoe’s history.
Prior to heading out, the students learned about and crafted their own snowshoes as their ancestors would have.
“When we do things like this, it just touches my heart because I know that we are still doing the things that our ancestors intended us to do — the things that helped us survive for all those thousands of years,” said Lisa Enos, an after-school language teacher, while snowshoeing with her three children and nephew. “I get emotional, but it feels good. It gives me a sense of empowerment.”
The tribe’s language immersion school, Washiw Wagayay Mangal — the first of its kind in the nation — closed in 2002 due to a lack of funding, making it even more important to find other ways to pass on tradition and language to the younger generations, tribe members say. The school was located in the Washoe Tribe’s Dresslerville Colony in Gardnerville.
“I think getting back out to the land starts to prevent suicide, starts to overcome a lot of the health issues that plague even our children,” said Elizabeth Elliot, administrative assistant for the cultural department. “The programs and the work that the tribe as a whole does is keeping it going but we need more. We lose more kids to the criminal justice system, and we need to have more prevention.”
While many of the children choose to partake in the activities, some are mandated through the juvenile probation program.
Paula Smith, juvenile probation officer for the Washoe Tribe, said the outdoor programming put on by her department in collaboration with other parts of the tribe has made a huge difference in the lives of the youth she works with. And early intervention is key.
“We are one of the only tribes in the state that has it,” said Smith. “We are also an exemplary program for other tribes throughout the nation to learn from what we do, the activities we do and the collaboration for activities among recreation, education, truancy and probation departments.
“When I started four years ago, I had 24 kids. Now I have three because we’re doing stuff like this and learning about culture, tradition, and staying busy with positive activities.”
The snowshoe trek through Hope Valley was guided by another partner — this one outside of the tribe — that also sees the importance of empowering the original inhabitants of the region: Hope Valley Outdoors.
John Dayberry, co-owner of the rental and guiding company, has aspirations to train Washoe youth to work as guides so they can share the history and native place names for the peaks and valleys of the region with visitors from around the world.
“What I want to do here is build a model for Indian tourism across the country so the framework that we have starts out with maps and reclaiming place names. So we talk to elders, we examine history books and archaeological records,” explained Dayberry, who operates the outdoor outfitter from a yurt by Picketts Junction. “We bring people together like this and try to find these old place names that have been neglected and forgotten and replaced with other names like Red Lake Peak and Steven’s Peak and Red Lake and Carson Pass.
“We need to let the Washoe people tell their story through their language.”
Claire Cudahy is a reporter with the Tahoe Daily Tribune, a news organization within the Sierra Nevada Media Group, which publishes First Nation’s Focus.