January 15, 2011
Nevada's Online State News Journal
[George Wharton James, The Indians of Lake Tahoe, from The lake of the sky, Lake Tahoe, in the high Sierras of California and Nevada (1915)]
THE INDIANS OF LAKE TAHOE
SINCE Lake Tahoe was the natural habitat of one of the most deliciously edible fishes found in the world, the Indians of the region were bound, very early in their history here, to settle upon its shores. These were the Paiutis and the Washoes. The former, however, ranging further east in Nevada, were always regarded as interlopers by the latter if they came too near to the Lake, and there are legends current of several great struggles in which many lives were lost, where the Washoes battled with the Paiutis to keep them from this favored locality.
Prior to the coming of the emigrant bands in the early 'forties of the last century, the only white men the Indians ever saw were occasional trappers who wandered into the new and strange land. Then, the beautiful Indian name, soft and limpid as an Indian maiden's eyes, was Wasiu —not the harsh, Anglicized, Washoe. Their range seemed to be from Washoe and Carson valleys on the east in winter, up to Tahoe and over the Sierras for fishing and hunting in the summer. They never ventured far westward, as the Monos and other mountain tribes claimed the mountain regions for their acorns and the game (deer, etc.), which abounded there.
While in the early days of the settlements of whites upon their lands the Washoes now and again rose in protest, and a few lives were lost, in the main they have been a
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peaceable and inoffensive tribe. The Paiutis were far more independent and warlike, placing their yoke upon the weaker tribe. Indeed, when I first talked with the older Washoes and Paiutis thirty years ago they were full of stories of big wars between themselves. They showed me rocks near to the present town of Verdi, on the line of the Southern Pacific, on which their ancestors had made certain inscriptions which they interpreted as warnings to the Paiutis not to dare trespass beyond that sign, and the Paiutis had similar notices inscribed upon bowlders near to their boundary lines. As a result of one of their fights the Washoes were forbidden the use of horses, and it is only since the whites have exercised control that the weaker tribe has dared to disregard this prohibition.
To-day they number in the region of six hundred men, women and children. On account of their nomadic habits it is impossible to secure a complete census.
In appearance they are heavy and fat, though now and again a man of fine, muscular form and good height is found. The women have broad, shapeless figures and clumsy, deliberate movements. The older they get the more repulsive and filthy they become. While young some of the women have pleasing, intelligent and alert faces, while children of both sexes are attractive and interesting. But with them as with all aboriginal people who have absorbed the vices and none of the virtues of the whites, the Washoes are fast losing power, vigor and strength by disease and dissipation. The smoke of the campoodie fire is also ruinous to their eyes and ophthalmia is prevalent among them. It is no uncommon thing to see a man or woman entirely blind.
The old-time methods of clothing have entirely disappeared. When I first knew them it was not unusual to find an old Indian wrapped in a blanket made of twisted rabbit-skins, but I doubt if one could be found to-day. The white
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man's overalls, blouse and ordinary coat and vest for the men, with calico in variegated colors for the women, seem to have completely taken the place of their own primitive dress. A pair of moccasins, however, now and again, may be found in use at a dance or on some special occasion.
They still paint and tattoo their faces, hands and wrists, in lines, triangles and circles. On their bodies also stripes of irregular design and varying colors are often used, all having a symbolic meaning originally, now lost, however, at least to all the younger members of the tribe. Painting the face has a definite and useful purpose. It softens the skin and prevents the frosts of winter from cracking it.
Their dwellings are of the rudest character, mere brush shacks in summer, and in winter, nondescript structures of brush, old boards, railroad ties, tin cans, barrel-staves, old carpet, canvas, anything that will sustain a roof and keep out wind, rain and as much of the cold as possible. Their name for this structure is campoodie. Of course there is no pretense of sanitation, cleanliness or domestic privacy. The whole family herds together around the smoking fire, thus early beginning the destruction of their eyesight by the never-ceasing and irritating smoke.
Their native food consists of fish, the products of the chase, which include deer, antelope, an occasional bear, rabbits, squirrels and even coyotes, mountain-lions and wildcats, with acorns, manzanita berries, currants and the seeds of wild peaches and the various grasses, together with a large assortment of roots. While they gather and eat pine nuts, they generally save them for purposes of barter or sale. Their carrying baskets contain a good wheelbarrow load and are called mo-ke-wit.
They are great gamblers, their chief game being a guessing contest, where sides are chosen, the fortune of each side depending on its ability to guess who holds a certain decor-
THE INDIANS OF LAKE TAHOE 29
ated stick. Men and women alike play the game, though generally the sexes separate and play by themselves. Quiet chanting or singing often accompanies the game. All alike smoke the cigarette.
Of their religious beliefs little can be said. The fact is their simple nature-worship and the superstitions connected with it have been abolished, practically, by their association with the whites, and we have given them nothing as substitutes. As Mrs. W. W. Price says in a letter to me:
In several talks with Susan and Jackson, after the death of Susan's sister, I endeavored to find out some of their religious beliefs. But these talks were not very satisfactory. Neither one knew what he did believe. Their old Indian religion — whatever it may have been — seemed to have passed, and the religion of the white man had not taken very deep hold.
While Susan felt that she must cut her hair short and burn all her sister's things and do just so much wailing each day to drive off the evil spirits (on the occasion of her sister's death), she took most comfort in doing as "white woman " do — putting on a black dress.
The most interesting result of my talks with Jackson was the following ghost story, which he told me to show that Indians sometimes did live again after death. His grandmother had told him the story and had heard it herself from the man to whom it had happened. It is as follows: " An Indian woman died, leaving a little child and her husband. The latter spent the accustomed four days and nights watching at her grave without food or drink. On the fourth night the grave suddenly opened and the woman stepped out before him. ' Give me my child,' said she. The man said not a word but went quickly and brought the little child. The woman did not speak but took the child and suckled it. Then holding it close in her arms, she began to walk slowly away. The man followed her, but he did not speak. On, on they went, through forest and meadow, up hill and down dale.
" By and by the man made a movement as though he would
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take hold of her to stop her. But the woman warded him off with a wave of her hand. Touch me not,' she said. ' If you touch me, you must die too! ' She stood and suckled the child once more, then laid him gently in her husband's arms. Go home,' she said, and faded from his sight.
" Home he went with the child, full of awe and fear.
" A few days afterwards the child died, though there was nothing the matter with it. The man, however, lived to be very old."
Jackson was not sure whether he believed this story or not. But his manner of telling it indicated that it was very real to him.
Now and again near Tallac one may see one of the dances of the Washoes. Though war is past with them they still occasionally indulge in their War Dance and its consequent Scalp Dance. There are not more than ten or a dozen of the old warriors still living who actually engaged in warfare in the old days, and these are too old and feeble to dance. But as the young men sing and throw their arms and limbs about in the growing frenzy of the arousing dance, and the tom-tom throbs its stimulating beat through the air, these old men's eyes flash, and their quavering voices become steady and strong in the excitement, and they live in the conflicts of the past.
Another of the dances that is still kept up is the Puberty Dance. Many white people have seen this, but not having any clew to its significance, it seemed absurd and frivolous. When a girl enters the door of young womanhood the Washoe idea is to make this an occasion for developing wiriness, strength, and vigor. Contrary to the method of the white race, she is made, for four consecutive days, to exert herself to the utmost. She must walk and climb mountains, ride and run, and when night comes on the fourth day, she and her mother, and as many of the tribe as are available,
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begin to dance at sunset and keep it up all night. The girl herself is designated by a long and slim pole which she carries in her hand, and which towers above her head. By her side stands her mother. The leader of the dance begins a song, a simple, rhythmic, weird chant, the words of which are archaic and have no significance to the Indians of to-day, but merely give syllables to hang the tune upon. As the leader sings he slowly moves his legs in a kind of oblique walk. The young men take his hand and follow. The women unite, and a rude circle is made, generally, however, open, at the place where the dance-leader stands. After once or twice around, the leader moves first one foot, then the other, sideways, at the same time jogging his body up and down in fairly rapid movement, in perfect time to his song. In a few moments all are bobbing up and down, with the onward side-shuffling movement, and the real dance is on. This continues according to the will of the leader. When his voice gives a sudden drawling drop that dance ends. There are a few minutes for relaxation and breath, and then he lines out a new song, with new syllables, and a new dance begins. This continues practically all night, the dance-leader showing his memory power or his composing genius by the number of new songs he introduces. I have counted as many as thirty to forty different tunes on one occasion.
Just at sunrise the mother of the girl fetches one or two buckets of cold water, while the maiden undresses. The water is suddenly dashed over her " to make her vigorous and strong," and the dance comes to an end.
This rude and rough treatment, in the early days, was made to have all the potency and sanctity of a religious rite. The reason for it was clear. The Washoes were surrounded by people with whom they were often at war. Indian warfare takes no cognizance of sex or its special disabilities. In
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order that their women should not be regarded as hors de combat, or enfeebled, at such times and thus hamper the movement of the tribe in case a sudden flight was needed, the shamans or medicine men taught that strength, activity and vigor were just as possible at that time as any other. " Those Above " commanded that it be so. Hence all the sanctity and seriousness of a religious rite was thrown around these dances, and though the Indians of to-day have lost many of their old customs, this is one that is still rigorously observed.
Another singular custom that still obtains is where, after the birth of a first child, the husband and father is required to fast and work arduously from the day of the birth until the child's navel shrivels off. This is to make him strong and vigorous, so that he may be able to give as much strength to his second and later children as he did to the first.
As soon as a girl matures she is marriageable. Several and simple are the ways in which a Washoe youth shows his preference and desire for marriage. Equally simple are the girl's signs of acceptance or rejection. There is no ceremony as the White Race understands that term, though to the Indian there is everything that is necessary to make the rite as binding as it is to his white brother and sister.
Though polygamy has always been practiced, the custom to-day limits the wives to two, and only a few men have more than one wife. Where plural wives are taken they are generally sisters. There is little intermarriage among other tribes. Though it occasionally occurs it is fiercely frowned upon and all parties are made to feel uncomfortable.
Prostitution with the whites and Chinese is not uncommon, and children born of such relationship have just as good a standing as those born in wedlock. The Indian sees no sense in punishing an innocent child for what it is in no way responsible for. He frankly argues that only a silly
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fool of a white man or woman would do so cruel and idiotic a thing,
Children are invariably welcomed and made much of at birth, though it is seldom a Washoe woman has more than four or five babies. They are always nursed by the mother, and not often weaned until they are four or five years old.
In the early days the labor of the sexes was clearly defined. The man was the hunter and the warrior, the guardian of the family. The woman was the gatherer of the seeds, the preparer of the food, the care-taker of the children. To-day there is not much difference in the division of labor. The breaking down of all the old customs by contact with the whites has made men and women alike indifferent to what work they do so that the family larder and purse are replenished thereby.
In the early days the Washoes were expert hunters of bear and deer. They used to cross over into the mountains of California for this purpose, and the women would accompany them. A camp would be established just below the snow line, and while the men and youths went out hunting the women gathered acorns. My informant, an old Indian, was a lad of eighteen at the time of which he spoke. In effect he said: " One day while I was out I found the tracks of a bear which I followed to a cave. Then I went to camp. But we Indians are not like you white men. You would have rushed in and shouted to everybody, ' I've found a bear's track! ' Instead I waited until night and when all the squaws had gone to bed I leisurely told the men who were chatting around the camp fire. They wished to know if I knew where the cave was, and of course I assured them I could go directly to it. The next morning early my uncle quietly aroused me, saying, Let's go and get that bear.' I was scared but had to go. When we arrived he took some pieces of pitch-pine from his pocket, and lighting them, gave
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me one, and told me to stand at the mouth of the cave ready to shoot the bear, while he went in and drove it out. I didn't like the idea, but I daren't confess my cowardice, for he at once went in. In a few moments I heard terrific growlings and roarings and then the bear rushed out. I banged away and he fell, and I was proud to tell my uncle, when he came out, that I had killed the bear. No, you didn't,' said he; ' your shots all went wild. Here's the shot that killed him,' and sure enough it was a shot of a different size from that of my gun."
" Another time when I found a bear in a cave he said, ' You must go in this time and drive out the bear.' I was sure I couldn't do it, but he insisted, and thrusting the lighted sticks into my hands bade me crawl in, keeping my eyes fixed the while, as soon as I saw them, upon those of the bear. I was to keep my back to the wall, and when I got well in, was to dash the light behind the bear and give a yell. I crawled in all right and soon got to where I could just about stand up, but when I saw the bear and he began to growl I was scared and backed out pretty quick and said I didn't have light enough. My uncle grabbed the sticks from me, called me a coward, rushed in, and as the bear dashed out shot and killed it."
It is generally thought that Indians are good shots, but the testimony of the hunters of the Tahoe region is that the Washoes are very poor shots. One hunter tells me he has seen an Indian take as fine a standing shot as one need desire, again and again, and miss every time. On one occasion he was hunting deer with an Indian. The latter had gone up a steep slope, when, suddenly, he began to fire, and kept it up until fourteen shots were fired. Said he: " I was sure he must have a bunch of deer and was making a big killing, and hurried up to his side. When I got there I found he had sent all those shot after one buck, and had
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succeeded only in breaking its leg. With one shot I killed the wounded animal, went up to it and was about to cut its throat, when he begged me not to do so, asserting that if I cut the deer's throat that way I should never get a standing shot again, the deer would always be able to smell me."
This is a quaint superstition. The Indians believe that though the particular deer be slain it has the power of communicating with living deer and informing them of the peculiar " smell " of the hunter. Hence, as in the olden days they had no guns, only bows and arrows, and were compelled to creep up much nearer to their prey than is needful with a gun, anything that seemed to add to the deer's power of scenting the hunter must studiously be avoided.
And, although the gun had rendered the old methods of hunting unnecessary, this particular precaution still persisted and had all the force of established custom.
My friend then continued: " Another superstition I found out as I cleaned this deer. I cut out the paunch, the heart and the liver and offered them to the Indian. He refused them, saying it was food fit only for women, children and old men. If he were to eat them he would never have luck in hunting again."
This superstition is common with many Indian tribes. It is based upon the idea that one becomes like that which he eats. If one eats the heart of a mountain-lion or bear he becomes daring and courageous. But to eat the heart of the timid deer is to make oneself timorous and cowardly.
As soon after puberty as possible a boy is taken out by his father or uncle on a hunt. Prior to that time he is not allowed to go. But before he can eat of the product of the chase he must himself kill a deer with large enough horns to allow him to crawl through them.
A friend of mine was out with a Washoe Indian whose boy was along on his first hunting expedition. They hunted
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a deer for nearly three days, but as soon as they found tracks the father, after studying them awhile, said: " This a little fellow. No good. He not big enough " — thus signifying to his son that his horns were not large enough to allow him to crawl through, hence it was no use following the animal further.
The Indian is quite sure that deer can smell him and know when he is on the hunt. He becomes skillful in detecting and following their tracks, and knows just how to circle around their hiding-place and suddenly walk in upon them. My friend, referred to above, who is a great hunter, was once out with a Washoe. They had had three " bad " days, when suddenly they found a deer's track. It was fresh, but when they came to the hole where he had lain down to rest, though the place was quite warm, the deer had gone. The Indian at once exclaimed: " That deer smell me. I must get rid of the Indian smell." Accordingly he scooped out a hole in the ground, heated a number of rocks in it, then, spreading fir boughs over them, lay down over the rocks and took a " fir-sweat " for fully ten to fifteen minutes. As he arose he exclaimed: " Deer no smell me to-morrow," and my friend said he did no longer smell like an Indian, but like burnt fir wood.
Turning to the Indian, however, he said: "You're all right, but how about me? " to which the reply instantly came: " You all right. Deer only smell Indian. He not smell white man."
Chief among the women's work is the making of baskets. The best Washoe basket makers are not surpassed by any weavers in the world. At Tallac, Fallen Leaf, Glen Alpine and several other resorts basket-makers may be found, preparing their splints, weaving or trying to sell their baskets.
Not far from Tahoe Tavern, about a quarter a mile away in the direction of Tahoe City, is the little curio store of
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A. Cohn, whose headquarters are in Carson City, the capital of the State of Nevada. Mr. and Mrs. Cohn hold a unique position in their particular field. Some twenty-five years ago they purchased a beautiful basket from a Washoe Indian woman, named Dat-so-la-le in Washoe, or Luisa Keyser in American, for she was the wife of Charley Keyser, a general roustabout Indian, well known to the citizens of Carson. Luisa was a large, heavy, more than buxom — literally a fat,— ungainly squaw. But her fingers were under the perfect control of a remarkably artistic brain. She was not merely an artist but a genius. She saw exquisite baskets in her dreams, and had the patience, persistence and determination to keep on weaving until she was able to reproduce them in actuality. She also was possessed by an indomitable resolution to be the maker of the finest baskets of the Washoe tribe. While she was still a young woman she gained the goal of her ambition, and it was just about this time that she offered one of her baskets to Mr. Cohn. He saw it was an excellent basket, that the shape was perfect, the color-harmony superior to any he had seen before, the stitch small, fine, and even, the weave generally perfect, the design original and worked out with artistic ability. He saw all this, yet, because it was Indian work, and the woman was a rude, coarse mountain of flesh, a feminine Falstaff, of a lower order of beings and without Falstaff's geniality and wit, he passed the basket by as merely worth a dollar or two extra, and placed it side by side with the work of other Washoe and Paiuti squaws. A Salt Lake dealer came into the store soon thereafter and saw this basket. " How much? " he asked. The price was given — rather high thought Mr. Cohn —. " Twenty-five dollars! " " I'll take it! " came the speedy response.
A month or two later Cohn received a photograph from the purchaser, accompanied by a letter. " You know the
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basket, herewith photographed, which I purchased from you. Have you any more by the same weaver, or of as good a weave? If so, how many, and at what price? Wire reply at my expense."
Then Mr. Cohn awoke, and he's been awake ever since. He wired his list of Dat-so-la-le's baskets, but he has had no reply, and that was twenty-five years ago. He then made arrangements with Dat-so-la-le and her husband. He provides them house, food, clothing and a certain amount of cash yearly, and he takes all the work Luisa makes. Every basket as soon as begun is noted as carefully as every breeding of a thoroughbred horse or dog. Also the date the basket is finished. It is then numbered and photographed and either offered for sale at a certain price, which is never changed, or is put in the safety-deposit vault of the bank, to await the time when such aboriginal masterpieces will be eagerly sought after by the growingly intelligent and appreciative of our citizens, for their museums or collections, as specimens of work of a people—the first American families — who will then, possibly, have passed away. The photographs, here reproduced, are of some of Dat-so-la-le's finest work.