Linking Present to Past

Sarah Winnemucca - (1844-1891)

An American Pauite Woman Testifies


Sarah Winnemucca was a member of the nomadic Pauite tribe who inhabited the deserts of northern Nevada. Nearly half her family died while her tribe was herded from one reservation to another. After receiving some education, she became recognized throughout the country as a spokesperson for her people, describing Paiute customs and arguing for peace between them and the encroaching white settlers.

Sarah’s grandfather was chief of the entire Paiute nation; her father became chief at his death. Her grandfather’s first interactions with the white emigrants were friendly, and he encouraged the Paiutes to help rather than hurt them. Over time things changed. Stories of the whites killing and eating Indians were prevalent. Some arrived at her encampment when Sarah was little. Her family hid in the mountains and later found their winter supplies and houses destroyed. Sarah’s fears were lessened when, at an older age, a white woman helped cure Sarah’s severe case of poison oak. She again was treated kindly by white teachers at the mission school her grandfather insisted she attend. Even though the non-Indian parents complained and eventually forced her to leave, Sarah received enough knowledge to read and write in English.

After her schooling, Sarah found herself divided between the Indian and white worlds. As Native Americans were increasingly pushed off their land, the once independent Paiutes were sent to the Truckee River Reservation. There they didn’t get enough to eat, were physically abused, and were cheated on supplies and money they earned. Sarah went from reservation to reservation listening to her peoples’ grievances and witnessing the injustices to them. She decided to become a bridge between the races, using words as weapons in the hope of maintaining a peaceful coexistence between them. While praising those whites who treated the Indians well, she attempted to communicate with angry whites intent on doing her people harm.

Realizing that the Paiutes would have to learn the ways of whites to survive, Sarah encouraged them to learn new skills. She wrote letters to the government and to military officials pleading their case. In an 1870 letter to Major Douglas, U.S. Army from Camp McDermitt, Nevada, she said:

“If proper pains were taken, they [the Paiutes] would willingly make the effort to maintain themselves by their own labor, providing they could be made to believe that the products were their own, for their own use and comfort....If the Indians can secure a permanent home on their own native soil, and that our white neighbors can be kept from encroaching on our rights, after having a reasonable share of ground allotted to us as our own...I warrant that the savage (as he is called today) will be a thrifty and law-abiding member of the community.” She added: “What is the object of the Government in regard to Indians? Is it enough that we are at peace?”

With her command of English, Sarah became a translator for the U.S. Army. In 1878 she helped end an uprising by the Bannock tribe during which she served as interpreter and guide for the Army; For this she often was condemned as a traitor by her own people.

To try to win white sympathy for her people, Winnemucca began giving public lectures. She traveled east where wealthy sponsors promoted her and her cause. One, Mrs. Horace Mann, helped Sarah write her autobiographical account, Life Among the Piutes - Their Wrongs and Claims. In 1880 Winnemucca met with Secretary of the Interior Carl Schulz who made her promises which were not kept. In 1884, Congress officially granted the Paiutes land. This act too was never implemented. The Paiutes sometimes blamed Sarah for the government’s deceptions. About the lack of government action, she said: “[My brother] told me they [the government] would grant all I asked of them for my people, which they did; yes, in their minds. I mean in writing promises which, like the wind, were heard no more.”

With her efforts to influence the government deemed as failures, Sarah in disgust retreated from public life and established an Indian school. In time this too failed. What remains is her valiant role as testifier about the injustices of her people.

“With the help of Him who notes the sparrow’s fall, I mean to fight for my down-trodden race while life lasts.” - Sarah Winnemucca

  • Women of the West, Cathy Luchetti, Antelope Island Press, 1982
  • Daughters of the Land, Margaret Felt, Editor, 1988
  • Life Among the Piutes, Sarah Winnemucca

The learn about a Noble Prize woman who testified about injustices to her Native People   click here

To find out about the first woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize  click here

For a list of other Women Nobel Prize winners  click here

To read the essay “Peace as an Early Woman’s Issue”  click here

Lyn Reese is the author of all the information on this website
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