Winona James celebrates 100 years of life
It was a special event at Carson City’s Indian Colony Saturday afternoon as 100-year-old Winona James, a Washoe, danced at her birthday party with her friend, Bob Adams.
Adams has been serving Winona at a local grocery store for 20 years. The two have been fast friends for 10.
“She has a real joy, for life. She is a delight and an inspiration and I told her, when she reached 100, I’d go dancing with her,” he said. “It’s wonderful that the Lord has allowed her to bless everyone’s life with her presence this long.”
A soft, slow ’50s tune drifted easily over the crowd as a group of about 60 gathered around them at the Indian Colony’s youth center. A special potluck dinner, complete with turkey and all the extras, was spread out on one side of the room and the children played in the bleachers.
Gayle Johnson sang a special Paiute traveling song. Tribal leader Brian Wallace read a special proclamation from the Washoe and Lynn Fehr, representing Gov. Kenny Guinn, brought a special proclamation in honor of the day.
“To me, she’s a special kind of lady,” said Glenna Thompson, one of her caretakers. “She’s very smart and has a marvelous wit. She remembers her youth and tells wonderful stories, does her own cooking and makes wonderful pies.”
“I used to be her companion. We’d sit and visit and I’d get paid for it,” said care giver Lavina Roach with a smile. “It was an honor to spend time with her.”
A tiny woman with fine features, James saw two children and two husbands pass away, yet her spirit shows in the twinkle in her eye and the dry wit she uses as she exchanges one-liners with her grandson, Edwin James.
“I enjoy this life and I have no serious regrets,” she said. “I never drank or smoked. I led a clean life and I’ve never been sick a day in my life. I can’t understand why I’m feeling this way now, but my legs are giving out. I guess I’ve been on them too long.”
Born in Genoa around the turn of the century, Winona James was orphaned at a very young age and raised by her grandparents, Maggie Merrill and Charlie Kyser.
The small family followed the seasons, a tradition of the Washoe, who spent their summers encamped at Lake Tahoe and wintered in the valleys.
The women often worked as maids in local resorts, and James remembers her grandmother making baskets, which she spread out under the trees near the docks for tourists to buy.
“I spent years at South Lake Tahoe, near Emerald Bay, from the time I was a baby in basket,” she said. “Lake Tahoe was known as Washoe Lake and I loved it there, before everyone took it away from us. I don’t like it now. Too many people.”
Winters were spent in a tiny home at the VanSickle Ranch along the eastern slope of the Sierra, where her grandfather worked.
“We’d go back to the lake around the first of June and come back in September, to pick pine nuts,” she said. “We’d pick until we had enough for winter and for me, it was like a vacation. After being at the lake, it was so different in the valley, among the rocks, snakes and lizards.”
Educated for a time at the Mottsville School and the Stewart Indian School, James was soon on her own. At 14, she worked at a photo shop at Lake Tahoe, selling cards on the dock to passengers who came by boat. She worked for a couple named Jack and Irene Mines and recalls them fondly.
When she was about 21, she married Carson Valley rancher Oscar VanSickle.
“I loved ranch life. There was always something to do and I loved cooking for people,” she said. “But we sold the ranch and we moved to Reno, where my husband became a carpenter. He built us a house, in south Reno. I couldn’t find it now.”
VanSickle died in 1940 and the young widow married Don James, a Washoe.
“We were very happy. My husband had riding stables at the lake on South Shore and we’d be out there all summer,” she said. “In the winter we’d travel. He sheared sheep in the spring, often in the Carson Valley. We moved wherever the work was. He died in 1985. We were married for 50 years.”
An avid horsewoman, Winona James rode until she was 89 and remembers riding over the mountains, carrying fingerling fish used to stock streams, in milk cartons.
According to Adams, some of the Washoe elders believe she is older than 100, but because records are not complete, no one is sure.
Winona James maintains her own home at the Carson Indian Colony and is known for her cooking, especially her pies. One daughter, Irene James Ryan, lives in Las Vegas. She also has three grandchildren, three great-grandchildren and one great-great-granddaughter.