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Who are the Washoe Indians?

By Angie Johnson-Schmit
Updated May 17, 2024
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The Washoe Indians are a Native American tribe located in the United States. They were officially recognized as a tribe by the US federal government in 1934. Originally their territory stretched from the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range in California to the Lake Tahoe basin region of Nevada. The Washoe consider themselves the original inhabitants of the Lake Tahoe area.

Before the arrival of U.S. settlers, this Native American tribe’s lifestyle was seasonally nomadic. The Washoe Indians lived in the Lake Tahoe region during the summer, where they spent their time fishing, hunting, and gathering medicinal plants and other foodstuffs in preparation for the winter months. During the fall, the Washoe people traveled to the Pine Nut Mountain region, where they harvested pine nuts. Winter and spring were usually spent in the valleys of the Eastern Sierras.

The Washoe Indians view all aspects of the environment as sentient, and hold that all things are sacred. This respect and reverence for the environment they live in is an integral part of their culture. Their nomadic way of life and the frequently inhospitable environment they lived in required a certain amount of stewardship. Washoe hunters did not hunt for sport and were careful to leave adequate populations of animals to reproduce and replenish different species' numbers.

Lake Tahoe is considered a sacred place by the Washoe Indians, and is at the heart of many of the tribe’s myths. They believe Cave Rock, located on Lake Tahoe, to be sacred to powerful entities they call Water Babies. A tunnel was built by blasting through Cave Rock in 1931, and a second tunnel was created in 1951. The Washoe considered this to be a desecration, and blamed subsequent flooding that occurred in nearby Carson Valley on the anger of the Water Babies. Partly in response to protests from the Washoe, the U.S. Forest Service upheld a ban on rock climbing at Cave Rock in 2008.

There are three Washoe Indian communities in the state of Nevada, one located in California, and another within the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony. A tribal council meets monthly to address the ongoing governance concerns of the Washoe Indians. This council is comprised of 12 representatives and a chairman. The Washoe Indian communities of Dresslerville, Woodfords, and Stewart, as well as those from Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, Carson Colony, and any designated as Off-Reservation, each send two representatives to the Washoe council. This governing body also works to preserve the history and culture of the Washoe Indians.

America Explained is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Discussion Comments
By anon304924 — On Nov 23, 2012

I have just moved into Markleeville CA and have made friends with some of the Washoe People. There are some of the nicest people I have ever met. They would give the shirt off their back if they thought it would help. My question to our government is why do they live in such poverty? The Tribe in California live on a dirt mound. Why can't the government let them have homes in the trees where it is so beautiful? At least there they would have wind breaks and the dust wouldn't penetrate into everything. This was their land and we took the best parts and they were set aside for non-Indians.

I myself would like to say I am sorry for what was done to your people. I am from Irish stock and I am proud of it! The people I have met from the California Tribe are proud! Maybe if we worked together, we can come up with a way to make your lives easier.

By Azuza — On Oct 24, 2011

I'm always kind of fascinated by nomadic societies. I can't imagine moving around every other season. I enjoy being home and I just hate moving.

However, I understand that for the Washoe, moving around was necessary for survival. I think a lot of us forget that getting food wasn't always as easy as heading five minutes down the road to the grocery store. People literally used to spend a huge part of their lives gathering and storing food!

By SZapper — On Oct 23, 2011

Wow, the Washoe Indians sound very environmentally responsible. I always find it interesting that the Europeans considered the Native Americans to be savages, but a lot of them lived in fairly peaceful societies.

I'm sure their environmentally responsible behavior has a lot to do with their religion, though. I suppose if you hold the environment to be sacred, it's nearly impossible not to be environmentally responsible. It's a very different viewpoint than the Christian view that that natural world is ours to "subdue."

Anyway, I think it's nice that U.S. Forest Service banned rock climbing in that cave. I really think we should be respectful of all religions in this country, not just the dominant beliefs.

By MaPa — On Oct 23, 2011

I have a couple of Washoe Indian baskets, and they are absolutely beautiful. They are hand woven using traditional methods, and they will last forever if you take care of them. I use them pretty much for decoration, but you could put pretty much anything in them if you wanted.

Some of the handmade craft items are really on the pricey side, but if I see something I like I try to buy it to help out the locals. So many Native Americans are living in poverty, every little bit helps. If a few people can make a decent living making their traditional crafts, maybe they can branch out and provide jobs for more of their people.

By parkthekarma — On Oct 22, 2011

I remember the Cave Rock climbing ban. People were really mad, but you can't blame the Indian tribe for being upset. They have so little left after everything that was taken from them in the 19th and 20th centuries, they are trying to protect what they have left.

I love the Reno-Tahoe area. It is one of the most beautiful parts of the United States as far as I'm concerned. I didn't know that the Washoe Native Americans were the original settlers of that part of the country. I'll have to see what I can find out the next time I'm out that way.

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