Washoe Tribe returns to roots with land transfer
GLENBROOK — For the first time since 1850, the Washoe last week walked land at Lake Tahoe that they own: 24 acres along the shore north of Glenbrook.
The land was transferred to the tribe through a trust with the federal government when President Bush signed a bill Aug. 1. The trust ensures the land will remain in its natural state under Washoe rule.
In the Washoe language “Da ow a ga” means “edge of the lake.” When they speak of “the lake,” it is Tahoe, considered the center of the Washoe world.
“This is not the end point; this is just the beginning of our journey back home,” said Brian Wallace, chairman of the Washoe Tribe. “We will use the land as a tool to show people the Washoe story, which is the human story as well.”
At the Presidential Summit in 1997, state and national leaders agreed the Washoe needed a permanent home at the lake. The tribe has worked with the U.S. Forest Service since then to find a spot where they can practice their methods land conservation, conduct ceremonies, and embrace their culture.
“It was hard to find an area with the attributes we were looking for,” Wallace said. “We needed to find privacy and peace. Water is a sacred environment to us.”
The plan to bring the Washoe back to the lake became legislation after the first summit. But the tribe says it has been fighting its way back to Tahoe for a much longer time.
“Since they put a gun to our head in 1850,” said Wallace. “This is one of the heroic moments of the republic to be able to do this.”
The U.S. Forest Service road that leads to the Washoe property will remain open to hikers, mountain bikers and horseback riders. The 24 acres will be set aside for the exclusive use of the Washoes, Wallace said, but there will be fences or barriers put up around the property. People will find signs written in Washoe with English translations and cedar bark huts similar to ones used thousands of years ago.
“People will have to respect the laws of the tribe,” Wallace said. “We’re not going to put up a barbed-wire fence. We’ve had enough of that in our lives.”
President Bill Clinton attempted to sign land over to the Washoe with an executive order, but land transfers no longer happen that way, said George Waters, a lobbyist who represents the Washoe in Washington, D.C.
Further delay occurred when a bill drafted to execute the land transfer fell to the way side as part of a package of land-related legislation.
“In each instance, it had complete bipartisan support,” Waters said. “Bizarrely, in each instance, having nothing to do with the bill itself, the bill died on the very last day of each Congress. It was just bad luck.”
In the 108th Congress, which resumes next month, the Washoe bill was some of the first legislation introduced by Rep. Jim Gibbon, R-Reno, and Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev.
“Gibbons was sending a signal this shouldn’t die the last day, like it did in the 107th Congress,” Waters said.
Wallace,46, said the years of work to secure land at the lake were done for the ancestors, elders and youth of the tribe.
“It chokes you up thinking about it,” said Wallace. “Many tears. We’re quiet for everybody who can’t be here with us. We come down here to look at each other’s eyes to see what we can be, what we should be as people.”
In 1998, under a USFS special lease, the tribe began operating Meeks Bay Resort and Marina, a 50-acre property on the West Shore.
The tribe is also involved in management of 350 acres known as Meeks Meadow. The Washoe work with the Forest Service on water quality projects for 150 acres near Taylor Creek.