Tocmetone (Sarah Winnemucca) - Paiute

By Julia White
Sarah was born into a family of great leaders with both her father and her grandfather having been Chiefs of this Nevada Nation. It was her grandfather who led Capt.John Fremont and his group across the Great Basin to safety in California. This willingness to befriend the whites was never forgotten, and word of these deeds quickly spread across California. When Sarah's father decided to take his family for a visit to the San Joaquin Valley in California, his news was received with great fears for Sarah was terrified of the whites. However, her fears disappeared as the Winnemucca party was assisted along the way by kind and generous whites.

Sarah was fascinated by these strange people and their strange ways, and set out to learn all she could about them. While on her 3 week visit in California, she quickly learned the basics of English. Upon her return to Nevada, she had the opportunity to live for a year with the Ormsby family where she mastered the language. Sarah became 1 of 2 Paiutes in the entire state to read, write and speak English. In addition, she mastered Spanish, and 3 other Native dialects. In her thirst for knowledge, she enrolled in St.Mary's Convent, but was forced to leave after only one month because of white anger at a Native being allowed into the school.

Great tensions arose between the Paiute and the growing river of whites pouring into Nevada. As a result of the Paiute War, the Paiute Reservation was established at Pyramid Lake, outside of what is now Reno. Even this did not halt the unwarranted aggression against the Natives who were killed at random and their homes destroyed by raiding soldiers. In an effort to stop the bloodshed, Sara became an interpreter and spokesperson between the Paiutes and whites but, in retaliation against her, her mother, sister and brother were murdered by whites. Impressed by her command of English, Sarah was hired by the Army to serve as official interpreter between the U.S. and several Native tribes of the area. She was barely in her teens.

In her official capacity with the Army, Sarah was able to watch politics at work from the inside out. It did not take her long to understand that the persecution of the Paiutes lay at the feet of the government Indian Agents. Despite orders from Washington, and even an Act of Congress, the violence against the Paiutes continued. Sarah's hatred of the government Indian Agents is legendary, and became a cause that dominated her life. She traveled to the West Coast, meeting with official after official to present her case for justice. She was ignored.

When the neighboring Bannocks of Idaho rose up against white encroachment, the Northern Paiute joined their war. Sarah distinguished herself as a mighty warrior in battle. Sickened at the bloodshed, Sarah once again took on the role of interpreter and peacemaker, traveled into the heart of Bannock country, and convinced her father, Chief Winnemucca, to return home to Nevada with his warriors.

During the Bannock War, the reservation Paiutes had been forcibly taken from their land and moved to a reservation in the State of Washington. There, they continued to suffer at the hands of still more unscrupulous Indian Agents. For Sarah, this was the final blow, and she took her cause to Washington, D.C. She spoke before Congress, and in other major cities on the East Coast where she could get an audience. In Boston, she became the protegee of Elizabeth Palmer Peabody and Mary Mann, wife of influential Horace Mann. With their encouragement and help, Sarah wrote her autobiography, "Life Among The Paiutes: Their Wrongs and Claims", as a way to spread the word of the injustice and corruption among government agents to even more people. She was a master political activist and lobbyist in the classical sense.

During her long absences, the Paiute had begun to escape their confinement in Washington State, and were gradually returning to their homeland. Sarah had kicked up such a storm across the country that her people were more or less left alone and were not forcibly removed again. She returned to Nevada where she opened a series of Native schools across the state.

However, a lifetime of crusading had taken its toll on Sarah's physical and emotional state. She gave up her fight, and moved to a sister's home in Monida, Montana where she died of tuberculosis at age 47. Sarah Winnemucca was called "The Princess" by whites; "Mother" by the Paiutes, and "The most famous Indian woman on the Pacific Coast" by historians. The City of Winnemucca, Nevada carries her family name, and Sarah's memory.


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