The Piute Indian Sarah Winnemucca listened intently as one of the tribe’s elders told the story of how the army soldiers killed a party of their people on a fishing expedition. Relations between the Piutes and white settlers had been strained since the discovery of silver in northern Nevada in 1859.
An influx of prospectors and their families on tribal land threatened the Piute’s way of life. The 1865 massacre of a Piute fishing party by United States troops had further fueled problems. Among the dead that day was Sarah’s infant brother. Hearing details of the incident made the well-known Piute leader sad, but more determined than ever to travel to Washington and inform the powers there of the difficulties.
Sarah was born in 1844 in Washoe County, Nevada. Her grandfather was Chief Truckee, a former guide who assisted white explorers like John C. Fremont in finding their way over the Sierra Nevadas. The friendly Chief Truckee could not have foreseen the multitudes of white settlers that would descend upon the area and force he and his people out.
“I was a very small child when the first white people came into our country,” Sarah shared in her autobiography. “They came like a lion, yes, like a roaring lion and have continued ever since, and I have never forgotten their first coming.”
Sarah’s grandfather was a wise man and recognized the importance of making peace with the newcomers. Wanting his grandchildren to have every advantage in dealing with these new inhabitants, he arranged for Sarah and her sister to learn English and the white man’s way of life. A Virginia trader and his family who lived at a nearby settlement served as the girl’s teachers.
Sarah was a quick study and extremely bright. She was particularly gifted in language. By the time she was fourteen years old, she could speak five different languages, including English and Spanish. At her grandfather’s urging, Sarah continued her education at a convent school in San Jose, California.
During her long absence the situation between the Piute Indians and the white pioneers grew worse. The Piutes were being completely crowded out, and as their food source had been nearly depleted by the hordes of emigrants, they had been driven to work menial jobs to purchase supplies. The Piutes were then forced to move to a reservation near Pyramid Lake, Nevada. When white squatters moved in on the lake, the government again pushed the Piutes off the land, this time sending them to a reservation in Oregon.
Sarah was brokenhearted over what seemed like the inevitable demise of the great tribe and wanted to help preserve what little was left. In 1871 at the age of twenty-seven, she took a job with the Bureau of Indian Affairs at Fort McDermitt in Oregon. Sarah was able to serve her people at the Malheaur Indian Reservation by teaching school and issuing supplies. Sarah was married twice in the first four years she was employed at the reservation. Her first husband was a lieutenant in the army who drank a lot. Her second husband was an Indian whom she left because he was abusive.
A new Indian agent was selected to oversee the events at Malheaur reservation in 1878. Sarah has worked with the new agent prior to his appointment and new him to be corrupt and self-serving. When she conveyed her opinion to the authorities she was promptly fired as the reservation interpreter. The government’s decision to ignore her comments and relieve her of her position infuriated her and she decided to take the matter to the officials in Washington, D.C.. While en route she found herself in the middle of a war between the Bannock Indians of Idaho Territory and the U.S. government.
The Piutes were caught in a vise between the Bannock Indians, their northern neighbors in Idaho and Oregon, and the increasing number of settlers pushing them out of their tribal lands in Nevada. A Bannock was party had taken captive a band of Piute, including Sarah’s father, Winnemucca, now the chief of the Piute tribe. Sarah quickly volunteered her interpretive services to the army. They accepted her offer and sent her out with two Indian guides to locate the Bannock Indians holding her father and the others.
Sarah and her companions traveled more than 200 miles before finding Chief Winnemucca and the other Piutes. Disguised as a brave, Sarah managed to sneak into the Bannock camp and rescue her father and her people.
In 1880 Sarah finally reached the nation’s capital and was allowed to speak with the Secretary of the Interior and President Rutherford B. Hayes about the treatment of Native Americans. The government made promises for improvement, but ultimately did not keep them. The broken promises reflected back on Sarah and eroded away at the trust the Piute placed in her.
In spite of the U.S. government’s betrayal and the lack of confidence her people had in her efforts, she worked hard for them and dedicated her life to the cause. In 1881, Sarah married for a third time. That marriage, like the others, ended in divorce. She lectured across the nation, started a school for Indian children, and wrote the first book ever penned by a Native woman. Her book, Life Among the Piutes, Their Wrongs and Claims, was first published in 1883.
The original editor of the book, Mary Peabody Mann, noted that Sarah’s speeches were extraordinarily moving, but that it was Sarah’s goal to set down in writing the full story. “It is the first outbreak of the American Indian in human literature, and it has a single aim—to tell the truth as it lies in the heart of a true patriot, and one whose knowledge of the two races gives her an opportunity of comparing them justly.”
Years of marital hardship and personal loss took a toll on Sarah’s emotional and physical well being. At the age of 47, she developed a persistent cough and was suffering from extreme exhaustion. She felt dejected and isolated by her native people and the United States government, which further contributed to her declining health.
Sarah Winnemucca passed away on October 17, 1891 while visiting her sister in Bozeman, Montana. The cause of death was tuberculosis. Since her passing her work as an author has been recognized by the University of Nevada and she was inducted into the Nevada Writer’s Hall of Fame. An elementary school in Washoe County, Nevada was named in her honor and in 2005, a statue of the tireless crusader for Indian rights was erected at the U.S. Capitol.
Although Sarah made great strides to liberate the Nez Perce Indians from their “white enemies”, she died believing she was a failure. She is buried in an unmarked grave at Henry’s Flat in Nez Perce County, Idaho.