Washoe elder recounts tribe history

Tim Stevenson, left, and Henry French examine a rabbit pelt blanket at a presentation on Washoe history and culture.

Tim Stevenson, left, and Henry French examine a rabbit pelt blanket at a presentation on Washoe history and culture.

With so much of their old way of life gone, the Washoe Indians are committing to preserving their traditions, explained Jean McNicoll.

“The culture is our heritage,” she said.

McNicoll, whose grandfather was the first to settle the Carson Indian Colony, spoke to about 50 people Monday evening at Jacks Valley Elementary School about the history of the Washoe Tribe. The presentation was organized by longtime Jacks Valley residents Mary and Mike Kuckenmeister.

“When we tried to find a history of the area, particularly questions about Jacks Valley, we couldn’t find it,” Mary said. “None of it is written down. You have to talk to a tribal elder.”

McNicoll, also known as Yetta, who has spent 30 years sharing stories and crafts with thousands of school children in the area, was the obvious choice.

“You guys are lucky because I’m just about ready to hang up my duds,” she said.

She started off by showing a map of the roughly 12,000 square miles the Washoe Tribe once called home, traveling from place to place to maintain their hunting and gathering lifestyle.

“As hunters and gatherers, our people were guided by the seasons of the year,” she said. “During the winter, it was a hard time to find food. The springtime was a rebirth.”

Summers were spent at Lake Tahoe.

“Food was plentiful up there,” McNicoll, 78, said. “We had lots of water, fish and plants. It was a good time up there. The kids loved it because they didn’t have to work so hard.”

Fall, she said, was a busy time of year, getting food and shelter ready for the impending cold months.

Rabbits needed to be hunted for food and pelts to make blankets, pine nuts collected and willows gathered for making baskets and cradle boards.

“They had to collect a lot of pine nuts to make it through the winter,” she said “Some people still starved to death.”

To hunt rabbits, she said, each family would make a net. The community would then connect the nets to make a trap.

“They would drive the rabbits into the nets,” McNicoll said. “There were more people on the other side bonking the rabbits on the head. None of the rabbits we caught went to waste. We ate the meat when it was fresh. We dried what we couldn’t eat and saved it for wintertime.”

McNicoll displayed an array of traditional wares, including a rabbit blanket made by her grandfather and baskets she made, as well as some passed down by family members.

“I’m always amazed at the beauty of our basketry,” she said. “You look at the willows down by the river and you wonder how something so beautiful came from that.”

She said she is sometimes in awe at the ingenuity of her ancestors and how they figured out what materials to use, but her grandfather had an explanation.

“He said people talked to the plants and animals and they told the people how they were to be used,” she said.

She concluded her presentation with a song, which she said had been gifted to her by a “visioner” at a Native American gathering.

“It’s about taking care of each other and Mother Earth,” she said. “It’s time for us to look are her and thank her for all she’s given us. It’s a lot of love.”


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