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Common Core: RH.6-8.1, RH.6-8.2, RH.6-8.4, RH.6-8.7, RH.6-8.9, WHST.6-8.2, WHST.6-8.9, RI.6-8.1, RI.6-8.2, RI.6-8.4, RI.6-8.7, RI.6-8.9, W.6-8.2, W.6-8.9, SL.6-8.1

NCSS: Culture • Time, Continuity, and Change • People, Places, and Environments • Individual Development and Identity

FLASHBACK

True Teens of History

The Girl Who Gave Voice to Her People

As the United States expanded west in the 19th century, overrunning Native American lands, a young Paiute girl mastered the English language—and became a champion for her people and the rights they deserved. 

As You Read, Think About: What challenges did the Numa people face as newcomers arrived on their land?

Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images

Sarah Winnemucca inspired audiences with her lectures as the “Paiute Princess.”

It was among her first memories: a time of utter terror. Thocmetony (thok-MEH-toh-nee) was about 3 years old. It was 1847, and she lived with her family’s band of Northern Paiute people near Pyramid Lake, in what is now Nevada. She and her cousin were with her mother and aunt as the women gathered pinyon nuts. 

Word came that taibos, white men, were near. The women picked up their girls and ran. When they could no longer carry the children, they buried them up to their necks in the sand, covering their faces with sage bushes. The mothers would come back for their daughters after dark, when it was safe.

“With my heart throbbing . . . we lay there all day,” Thocmetony would later write. “It seemed that the night would never come.”

Ever since white men had arrived in the area a few years before, there had been trouble. Many Paiute people—or Numa, as they called themselves—had been killed by taibos who seemed to view them as hardly human. 

Soon the newcomers would overwhelm the lands of the Numa. Like other Native groups of North America, they would be forced onto reservations and lose many of their traditional ways. 

But the girl would survive. Taking an English first name as well as her father’s, Sarah Winnemucca would go on to master the taibos’ language, work as a translator, and become the first Indigenous woman to write a book in English. In so doing, she became an essential witness to her time—one who would use her voice on behalf of her people. 

A time of utter terror was among her first memories. Thocmetony (thok-MEH-toh-nee) was about 3 years old. It was 1847. She lived with her family’s band of Northern Paiute people near Pyramid Lake, in what is now Nevada. She and her cousin were with her mother and aunt. The women were gathering pinyon nuts.

Word came that taibos, white men, were near. The women picked up their girls and ran. When they could no longer carry the children, they buried them up to their necks in the sand. They covered their faces with sage bushes. The mothers would return for their daughters after dark, when it was safe.

“With my heart throbbing . . . we lay there all day,” Thocmetony would later write. “It seemed that the night would never come.”

There had been trouble ever since white men arrived in the area, a few years before. Many Paiute people, who called themselves Numa, had been killed by taibos. The taibos seemed to view them as hardly human.

Soon the newcomers would take over the lands of the Numa. Like other Native groups of North America, the Numa would be forced onto reservations and lose many of their traditional ways.

But the girl would survive. She took an English first name as well as her father’s. Sarah Winnemucca would go on to master the taibos’ language and work as a translator. She became the first Indigenous woman to write a book in English. In so doing, she became an essential witness to her time. Winnemucca would use her voice on behalf of her people.

What You Need to Know

The Granger Collection

The Bitterroot Salish people on a Montana reservation in 1937

Manifest Destiny: Soon after the United States was created on the east coast of North America in 1776, many Americans began to believe that they had a manifest (obvious) destiny (fate) to spread west. As the nation grew in the 19th century, U.S. leaders used the concept of manifest destiny to justify Indian removal—the forced relocation of Native peoples and the taking of their lands. Most Indigenous people had to move onto reservations and give up their traditional ways.

Manifest Destiny: Soon after the United States was created on the east coast of North America in 1776, many Americans began to believe that they had a manifest (obvious) destiny (fate) to spread west. As the nation grew in the 19th century, U.S. leaders used the concept of manifest destiny to justify Indian removal—the forced relocation of Native peoples and the taking of their lands. Most Indigenous people had to move onto reservations and give up their traditional ways.

Gifted in Languages

Thocmetony was born around 1844. Her father and grandfather, Truckee, were both chiefs of their Northern Paiute band. 

At the time, Mexico controlled much of the western part of the continent. But many Americans believed the area was destined to become part of the United States (see “What You Need to Know,” above). Already, white settlers were pushing across Native lands and aggressively claiming parts of them.

From the start, Truckee greeted some of the taibos as his “white brothers.” He even fought alongside the U.S. Army in the Mexican-American War (1846-48). After winning the war, the U.S. purchased much of the American West from Mexico (see map, below).

Truckee believed that his people needed to learn the ways of the taibos in order to survive. In 1857, he sent Thocmetony, then 13, to live with a white family near Pyramid Lake. There, she was given the name Sarah and discovered she possessed a gift for languages. Still just a girl, Sarah Winnemucca became one of the few Paiute people who could speak and write English. It was a profound turning point in her life. 

Thocmetony was born around 1844. Her father and her grandfather, Truckee, were both chiefs of their Northern Paiute band.

At the time, Mexico controlled much of the western part of the continent. But many Americans believed the area was destined to become part of the United States. (See “What You Need to Know,” above.) White settlers were already pushing across Native lands and aggressively claiming parts of them.

From the start, Truckee greeted some of the taibos as his “white brothers.” He even fought alongside the U.S. Army in the Mexican-American War (1846-48). The U.S. purchased much of the American West from Mexico after winning the war (see map, below).

Truckee believed that his people needed to learn the ways of the taibos in order to survive. In 1857, he sent Thocmetony, then 13, to live with a white family near Pyramid Lake. There, she was given the name Sarah and discovered she had a gift for languages. While still just a girl, Sarah Winnemucca became one of the few Paiute people who could speak and write English. It was a major turning point in her life.

The U.S. West, 1879

By 1879, settlers had expanded all the way west—including in the lands won from Mexico in 1848.

Jim McMahon/Mapman®

An Inevitable War

When Winnemucca returned home just a year later, she found it changed in alarming ways. Many people had died of an epidemic disease brought by white people. Taibos had cut down pinyon trees and overhunted the animals the Numa depended on for food. When word got out in 1859 that silver had been discovered nearby, thousands more white people descended on the area, further spiking tensions. 

By 1860, as Winnemucca turned 16, war seemed inevitable. Her cousin Numaga, also a tribal leader, pleaded for peace among the chiefs. If you attack the taibos, he warned, they “will come like sand in a whirlwind and drive you from your homes.” But after white men kidnapped two Numa girls, the region exploded in violence. The U.S. Army sent more than 700 troops to back the settlers, bringing the conflict to a quick end. 

After the war, the U.S. forced the Numa onto reservations, including one created at Pyramid Lake. With many trees cut down and few animals left to hunt, many Paiute people died of starvation.

Winnemucca returned home just a year later. It had changed in alarming ways. Many people had died of an epidemic disease brought by white people. Taibos had cut down pinyon trees and overhunted the animals the Numa depended on for food. In 1859, word got out that silver had been discovered nearby. That brought thousands more white people to the area, further spiking tensions.

By 1860, as Winnemucca turned 16, war seemed certain. Her cousin Numaga was a tribal leader. He pleaded for peace among the chiefs. If you attack the taibos, he warned, they “will come like sand in a whirlwind and drive you from your homes.” But after white men kidnapped two Numa girls, the region exploded in violence. The U.S. Army sent more than 700 troops to support the settlers. That brought the conflict to a quick end.

After the war, the U.S. forced the Numa onto reservations. That included one created at Pyramid Lake. With many trees cut down and few animals left to hunt, many Paiute people died of starvation.

Finding Her Voice

As more white people arrived, conflicts became common. According to a government report, more than half of the Numa died from famine, disease, and violence between 1859 and 1865. Their land, Winnemucca would write, was “marked by the blood of my people from hill to hill and from valley to valley.” 

At Pyramid Lake, Winnemucca began to speak out for the Numa. As at other reservations, life there was controlled to a large degree by a white agent of the U.S. government. In 1868, fighting broke out there after one of the agent’s men shot a Native man. The U.S. Army commander at Fort McDermitt, near the Oregon border, sent for Winnemucca, demanding an explanation. He was so impressed by her that he invited the Numa to set up camp at the fort. There, they were treated well for the first time. And with her ability to speak English, Spanish, and a few Indigenous languages, Winnemucca began working as a paid interpreter.

As more white people arrived, conflicts became common. According to a government report, more than half of the Numa died from famine, disease, and violence between 1859 and 1865. Winnemucca would write that their land was “marked by the blood of my people from hill to hill and from valley to valley.”

At Pyramid Lake, Winnemucca began to speak out for the Numa. As at other reservations, life there was mainly controlled by a white agent of the U.S. government. In 1868, fighting broke out there after one of the agent’s men shot a Native man. The U.S. Army commander at Fort McDermitt, near the Oregon border, sent for Winnemucca. He demanded an explanation. He was so impressed by her that he invited the Numa to set up camp at the fort. There, they were treated well for the first time. Winnemucca could speak English, Spanish, and a few Indigenous languages. So she began working as a paid interpreter.

The Numa land, Winnemucca would write, was “marked by the blood of my people from hill to hill and from valley to valley.”

It was at Fort McDermitt that she also began to find her voice as a writer. In 1870, Winnemucca wrote a letter to a government official detailing the mistreatment her people had experienced at the hands of settlers and reservation agents. The official passed the letter on to his superiors in Washington, D.C. It was also printed in newspapers and a national magazine. Many readers doubted that any Native person, much less a woman, could have written so well. 

Soon, the Army was employing Winnemucca as a scout and messenger. This let her travel freely between reservations, and increased her ability to advocate for the Numa.

At Fort McDermitt, she also began to find her voice as a writer. In 1870, Winnemucca wrote a letter to a government official. She described the ways settlers and reservation agents had mistreated her people. The official passed the letter on to his superiors in Washington, D.C. It was also printed in newspapers and a national magazine. Many readers doubted that any Native person, much less a woman, could have written so well.

Soon, the Army was employing Winnemucca as a scout and messenger. This let her travel freely between reservations. It also increased her ability to advocate for the Numa.

Illustration by The Red Dress

During the 350-mile march to the Yakama Reservation, men were forced to march in shackles through the snow.

A Long, Cruel Journey

Yet the lives of the Numa grew ever harder. In the early 1870s, the government herded many of them onto a reservation in Oregon. In 1879, they were again forced to relocate 350 miles farther north to the Yakama Reservation in Washington Territory.  

The journey lasted about a month in the bitter winter cold. Many of the men were forced to walk, some in shackles, through the snow. Winnemucca saw several children and adults die from exposure. Their bodies were left by the roadside because the ground was too frozen to bury them. 

From Yakama, Winnemucca wrote to authorities protesting her people’s treatment. When no relief came, she decided to appeal directly to white Americans for support in a series of lectures in California.

The audience of wealthy white people may not have known what to expect when they gathered in San Francisco’s Platte Hall in November 1879. They’d been promised a presentation by a “Paiute Princess.” But as soon as Winnemucca began to speak, they were mesmerized. 

“I am crying out to you for justice,” she declared. Even as Winnemucca detailed the wrongs her people had suffered, she won the audience over with stories and humor. The Numa could be educated and again thrive if they were allowed to live on their own land, she insisted. Her repeated cry of “It can be done!” received round after round of applause.

Yet the lives of the Numa grew ever harder. In the early 1870s, the government herded many of them onto a reservation in Oregon. In 1879, they were again forced to move. They were moved 350 miles farther north to the Yakama Reservation in Washington Territory.

The journey lasted about a month in the bitter winter cold. Many of the men were forced to walk through the snow. Some were in shackles. Winnemucca saw several children and adults die from exposure. Their bodies were left by the roadside because the ground was too frozen to bury them.

From Yakama, Winnemucca wrote to authorities protesting her people’s treatment. No relief came. She decided to appeal directly to white Americans for support by giving a series of lectures in California.

In November 1879, an audience of wealthy white people gathered in San Francisco’s Platte Hall. They had been promised a presentation by a “Paiute Princess,” but they may not have known what to expect. As soon as Winnemucca began to speak, they were dazzled.

“I am crying out to you for justice,” she declared. Even as Winnemucca detailed the wrongs her people had suffered, she won the audience over with stories and humor. She insisted that the Numa could be educated and again thrive if they were allowed to live on their own land. Her repeated cry of “It can be done!” received round after round of applause.

Arthur Allen/Library of Congress

A Paiute family in front of a traditional thatched hut in Nevada 

Between Two Worlds

Those lectures won Winnemucca  an invitation from the government to visit Washington, D.C. There, she met with an official who promised to aid the Numa at Yakama. 

But as with so many government promises before and after that, nothing became of it. Some of Winnemucca’s own people began to doubt her as a result. Frustrated, she found that going back and forth between two worlds, Native and white, left her feeling she wasn’t truly at home in either.

And yet Winnemucca never stopped fighting for the Numa. In 1883, she gave more than 300 lectures throughout the Northeast on her people’s mistreatment. She also wrote the first book by a Native American woman: Life Among the Paiutes, Their Wrongs and Claims

Those lectures won Winnemucca an invitation from the government to visit Washington, D.C. There, she met with an official who promised to help the Numa at Yakama.

But as with so many government promises before and after that, nothing was done. As a result, some of Winnemucca’s own people began to doubt her. She was frustrated. Going back and forth between two worlds, Native and white, left her feeling not truly at home in either.

Yet Winnemucca never stopped fighting for the Numa. In 1883, she gave more than 300 lectures throughout the Northeast on her people’s mistreatment. She also wrote the first book by a Native American woman, Life Among the Paiutes, Their Wrongs and Claims.

“Fit your little ones for the battle of life, so that they can attend to their own affairs instead of having to call in a white man.”

The next year, she testified before Congress, arguing for better treatment for her people. Impressing the congressmen with her boldness, Winnemucca was able to win assurances from them that Pyramid Lake would continue to be a home for the Numa who were still there or wished to return.

In future years, Winnemucca dedicated herself to a school for Paiute children in Nevada. At that time, many Indigenous youths were forced to attend government-run boarding schools where their cultures were deliberately erased. In her school, Winnemucca taught students to keep their traditions while also learning English. 

Her objective, she wrote to Paiute parents, was to “fit your little ones for the battle of life, so that they can attend to their own affairs instead of having to call in a white man.” In the short term, however, her efforts had limited success. Poor funding and government opposition eventually forced her to close her school. 

The Numa would never again live as they had before the coming of the taibos. Yet ultimately, Winnemucca’s influence as a writer and champion of her people would have a lasting impact. Today, Native American schools embrace her vision, teaching Indigenous languages and customs while equipping students to succeed in the wider world. 

And surely the girl who was once hidden in the sand but then grew up to testify boldly before Congress would appreciate the fact that there is now a statue of her at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. An official statement from Congress dedicating the statue in 2005 sums up her legacy. It reads: “Sarah, in fighting for justice, peace, and equality for all persons, represented the highest ideals of America.” 

The next year, she testified before Congress. She argued for better treatment for her people. The congressmen were impressed with her boldness. Winnemucca got them to promise that Pyramid Lake would continue to be a home for the Numa who were still there or wished to return.

In future years, Winnemucca dedicated herself to a school for Paiute children in Nevada. At that time, many Indigenous youths were forced to attend government-run boarding schools where their cultures were purposely erased. In her school, Winnemucca taught students to keep their traditions while also learning English.

Her goal, she wrote to Paiute parents, was to “fit your little ones for the battle of life, so that they can attend to their own affairs instead of having to call in a white man.” In the short term, however, her efforts had limited success. Poor funding and government opposition eventually forced her to close her school.

The Numa would never again live the way they had before the taibos came. In time, however, Winnemucca’s influence as a writer and champion of her people would have a lasting impact. Today, Native American schools embrace her vision. They teach Indigenous languages and customs while equipping students to succeed in the wider world.

And surely the girl who was once hidden in the sand but then grew up to testify boldly before Congress would appreciate the fact that there is now a statue of her at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. An official statement from Congress dedicated the statue in 2005. It sums up her legacy: “Sarah, in fighting for justice, peace, and equality for all persons, represented the highest ideals of America.”