Washoe Tribe of Nevada & California
Washoe tribal flag
Total population
1,500 (2007)[1]
Regions with significant populations
 United States
( California and  Nevada)
English, Washo[1]
LanguageWá:šiw ʔítlu
CountryWaší:šiw Ɂítdeh

The Washoe or Wašišiw ("people from here", or transliterated in older literature as Wa She Shu) are a Great Basin tribe of Native Americans, living near Lake Tahoe at the border between California and Nevada.[1] The name "Washoe" or "Washo" (as preferred by themselves) is derived from the autonym Waashiw (wa·šiw or wá:šiw) in the Washo language or from Wašišiw (waší:šiw), the plural form of wašiw.


Washoe people have lived in the Great Basin and the eastern Sierra Nevada mountains for at least the last 6,000 years,[2] some say up to 9,000 years[3] or more. Prior to contact with Europeans, the territory of the Washoe people centered around Lake Tahoe (/ˈtɑːh/; Washo: dáʔaw / daʔaw / Da ow – "the lake"; or dewʔá:gaʔa /dawʔa:gaʔa / Da ow aga – "edge of the lake") and was roughly bounded by the southern shore of Honey Lake in the north, the West Walker River, Topaz Lake, and Sonora Pass in the south, the Sierra Nevada crest in the west, and the Pine Nut Mountains and Virginia Range in the east. Beside Lake Tahoe the Washoe utilized the upper ranges of the Carson (dá:bal k'iláʔam), Truckee (dabayóduweʔ), and West Walker rivers to the east as well the Sierra Valley (a site of extensive freshwater marshes filled with cattails, bulrushes and alkaline flats that drain into the Middle Fork Feather River) to the north. The Washoe would generally spend the summer in the Sierra Nevada, especially at Lake Tahoe; the fall in the ranges to the east; and the winter and spring in the valleys between them. Washoe Lake (c'óʔyaʔ dáʔaw) was named after them.

The Washoe/Washo were loosely organized into three (in some sources four) regional groups speaking slightly different dialects, which in turn were divided in groups (cooperating extending families for the seasonal hunt and living together in winter camps) and in nuclear families. The regional group was determined by where people had a winter camp:

Since the western part of the Washo territory was in the mountains and subject to heavy snows, few people wintered there so very few were organized into the western group.[4]


Washoe woman

Washoe people are the only Great Basin tribe whose language is not Numic, so they are believed to have inhabited the region prior to neighboring tribes. The Kings Beach Complex that emerged about 500 CE around Lake Tahoe and the northern Sierra Nevada are regarded as early Washoe culture. The Martis complex may have overlapped with the Kings Beach culture, and Martis pit houses gave way to conical bark slab houses of historic Washoe culture.[5]

Washoe people may have made contact with Spanish explorers in the early 19th century, but the Washoe did not sustain contact with people of European culture until the 1848 California Gold Rush.[2] Washoe resistance to incursions on their lands proved futile, and the last armed conflict with the Washoes and non-Indians was the Potato War of 1857, when starving Washoes were killed for gathering potatoes from a European-American farm near Honey Lake in California.[6]

Loss of the valley hunting grounds to farms and the piñon pine groves to feed Virginia City's demand for lumber and charcoal drove most Washoe to dependency on jobs on white ranches and farms and in cities. The areas where they settled became known as Indian colonies.


Louisa Keyser (Dat So La Lee), Washoe basketweaver

Piñon pine nuts gathered in the fall provided much of the food eaten in the winter. Roots, seeds, berries and game provided much of the food eaten during the rest of the year. The Washoe people were also deeply knowledgeable about their land and where resources were plentiful. This included an understanding of the seasonal cycles of both plants and animals. Wašiw people were also dependent on fishing at Lake Tahoe and the surrounding streams. Fishing was a huge part of Wašiw life; and each family had its own fishing grounds, until contact with Western civilization led to commercial fishing in the area, destroying another important resource for the Wašiw.[7]

The Pine Nut Dance and girls' puberty rites remain very important ceremonies.[8] The Wašiw people once relied on medicine men and their knowledge of medicinal plants and ceremonies. Much of this knowledge and activity has been lost due to contact with the Western world.

Washoe culture was based mostly on the legends that carried the explanation of different areas of life. The legends were handed over from one generation to another by storytelling and were told to younger generations to teach them basic things about Washoe's way of living. Children could get to know about gathering techniques, medicine preparation, and the legends were meant to teach them how to appreciate the land they were living in and give them a better understanding of Washoe's lifestyle.[9] Children were raised in the environment which recognized family as the most valued thing. The whole Washoe life was concentrated on cooperation and unity, and older tribe members needed to convey their knowledge to the younger so the tribe culture would survive. Everyone in the family had his own role in everyday activities like fishing, gathering or hunting which helped Washoe people with doing everyday life tasks more efficiently.[9]

Life cycle

The area of residence of Washoe people let them obtain food from three different ways: fishing, gathering, and hunting. Since each way required having special skills and knowledge people were usually trained in one field to reduce the possibility of failing the tasks they were responsible for. Therefore, the Washoe tribe's life was dependent on the actual environment possibilities. Also, scarcity of sources would not let the tribe perform every way at once, therefore the Washoe lifestyle was divided into three periods: "the fishing year", "the gathering year" and "the hunting year".

Fall was the richest in food season of the year as all ways of obtaining the food could have been performed. The winter period was the time of starvation as the stocks of food run out quickly and almost no food could have been obtained over the coldest months of the year. However, Washoe people learned how to survive the hardest time of the year by learning how to use the resources the land had given them. They knew they needed to keep the balance as each way of obtaining food was equally crucial for these people to survive.[10]

Anthropologist Ernestine Friedl has noted that men and women's cooperation in gathering food lead to "no individual distributions of food and relatively little difference in male and female rights," contributing to gender equality amongst the pre-colonial Washoe.[11]


Main article: Washoe language

The Washoe / Wašiw language or Wá:šiw ʔítlu (today: Wašiw Wagayay) has been regarded as a language isolate,[1][12] However, it is sometimes tentatively regarded as part of the controversial Hokan language family.[13] The language is written in the Latin script.[1]

The Wašiw language is now considered a moribund language as only a handful of fluent elder speakers use the language. There has been a recent revival of the language and culture within the Tribe. "Wašiw Wagayay Maŋal" (the "house where Wašiw is spoken") was the first attempt by the Wašiw people to renew their language for the future generations. The tribe currently relies on the tribal Cultural Resource Department to provide language classes to the community. However, there has recently been a pedagogical shift within the tribe, and the youth have become the focal point of language and culture programs.

Washoe Tribe and Lake Tahoe

The Washoe people are considered to be the indigenous inhabitants of Lake Tahoe area, occupying the lake and surround lands for thousands of years.[14] As the native inhabitants, they believe that they have the best knowledge of how the land should be maintained, and consider themselves to be the proper caretakers of the Lake Tahoe area, which has been a center Washoe tribes yearly cultural gatherings, where most traditional events took place.[15] In 2002, The Committee on Energy and Natural Resources officially granted custody to the Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California over the land around the Lake Tahoe area for cultural purposes.[16]

Washoe tribes

Under the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, the colonies in the Carson Valley area of Nevada and California gained federal recognition as the Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California. The colony in Reno, Nevada, which also has a substantial Paiute, Washoe and Shoshoni population, gained separate recognition as the Reno–Sparks Indian Colony. There is evidence that some Washoe settled in the southwest region of Montana. The Susanville Rancheria includes Washoe members, as well as Northern Paiute, Northeastern Maidu, Achomawi, and Atsugewi members.[18]


  1. ^ a b c d e "Washo." Ethnologue. Accessed 9 May 2014.
  2. ^ a b Pritzker 246
  3. ^ Makley, Matthew (2018). The Small Shall Be Strong. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press. p. 19. ISBN 9781625343475.
  4. ^ a b Downs, James (1966). The Two Worlds of the Washo: An Indian Tribe of California and Nevada. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston. p. 49. ISBN 9780030566103.
  5. ^ D'Azevedo 466
  6. ^ D'Azevedo 494
  7. ^ Dangberg 1968, d'Azevedo 1986, Nevers 1976
  8. ^ Pritzker, 246, 248
  9. ^ a b Inter-Tribal Council of Nevada (c. 1988) [1976]. Wa she shu, a Washo tribal history. Inter-Tribal Council of Nevada. pp. 21–23. OCLC 21328894.
  10. ^ Downs, James F. (2001). The two worlds of the Washo : an Indian tribe of California and Nevada. Wadsworth/Thomson Learning. pp. chapter 4. OCLC 55589767.
  11. ^ Friedl, Ernestine (1987). "Article 25: Society and Sex Roles". In Angeloni, E. (ed.). Anthropology 87/88. Guliford, CT: Dushkin. pp. 150–155.
  12. ^ "Washoe Indian Tribe History." Access Genealogy. Retrieved 11 May 2010.
  13. ^ Pritzker 220
  14. ^ The Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California. "WA SHE SHU: "The Washoe People" Past and Present" (PDF).
  15. ^ "Washoe "The Lake of the Sky"" (PDF).
  16. ^ United States. Congress. Senate. Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. (2002). Washoe Indian Tribe land conveyance : report (to accompany S. 691). [U.S. G.P.O.] OCLC 50880144.
  17. ^ Pritzker 248
  18. ^ "California Indians and Their Reservations." SDSU Library and Information Access. (retrieved 11 May 2010)


Further reading