What is the Washoe Tribe?

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  • Written By: Jason C. Chavis
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 10 September 2019
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The Washoe Tribe is a group of Native Americans that traditionally lived in the Great Basin, an area of land that features watershed rivers, mountains and an arid climate. It was situated mainly in present-day California and Nevada. Today, the Washoe Tribe is separated into three different bands: the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony of Reno, the Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California in Lake Tahoe and the Susanville Indian Rancheria in California.

According to archaeological evidence, the Washoe people arrived in the Great Basin region by at least 4000 BC. They lived semi-nomadic lives as hunters and gatherers, primarily due to the fact that agriculture was very difficult because of the arid climate. During the winter, however, it appears that they established villages. It is believed the Washoe Tribe may have been the first Native Americans in the region due to the fact that they did not speak a derivative of Numic like others in the region such as the Shoshone and Comanche.

The Washoe lived upon the harsh lands. They hunted bison, deer and rabbits, sometimes having to follow the herds into the Great Plains. The people were also sustained heavily by pine nuts, which could be collected in the dirt underneath trees. The tribe did not use pottery due to its nomadic lifestyle. Instead, the tribe made use of thick woven baskets that were capable of containing water and food.


In the larger structure of the society, the Washoe tribe was broken down into nuclear families. Small groups would sustain themselves rather than working as a large collective unit. As such, this opened them up to much of the destruction that impacted other tribes, but on a much faster scale.

The first contact with Europeans was made by Spanish explorers in the late 1700s. It wasn't until the California Gold Rush of 1848, however, that a threat to the Washoe Tribe's way of life became clear to the people. In 1857, the Potato War between European-Americans and the Native Americans resulted in heavy losses for the Washoe. Farms moved into the area, destroying the tribe's hunting grounds. This resulted in many of the surviving Washoe to seek employment on ranches.

For sheer necessity of survival, the Washoe Tribe joined with other Native American tribes of the Great Basin region in the early 20th century. The Indian Reorganization Act, established in 1934, provided federal assistance and recognition and helped construct colonies for the surviving Washoe and other tribes. Today, the Washoe Tribe is organized into different locations, living with the Paiute, Shoshoni, Maidu, Atsugewi and others.


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