Advocacy for Her People

Sarah Winnemucca was born in 1844 in Western Nevada. When she was six, she went to California to be with her grandfather. It was her grandfather who introduced her to white people he had worked with. When Sarah was 13, she lived and worked in the home of a prominent leader in Nevada. It was at this time that she perfected her English language skills and learned to read and write English.

When silver was discovered in Sarah’s home area, tensions worsened between the Paiutes and those moving into the area. U.S. forces wanted to establish themselves as the dominant force in the area. Using false accusations of Paiute invasions, U.S. forces raided Sarah’s family camp, killing all but one member of the family. Eventually, the federal government moved the Paiutes territory in Eastern Oregon.

Initially the Paiutes thrived in their new territory under a compassionate Indian Agent. When a new agent was appointed, the relations between Paiutes and the federal government quickly deteriorated and war broke out. The conflict led to a change in oversight of Indian reservations from political agents to Quakers.

Again, the Paiutes were moved, this time to the State of Washington, in what was essentially a concentration camp. Sarah became an activist for her people, bringing awareness of the injustices of the federal government. When the Paiutes requested permission to leave the concentration camp, they were refused.

Sarah began a speaking tour in the East. It was at this time when she wrote her story, becoming the first Native American woman to publish a book. She also created a school to promote the Paiute culture and language. The school only lasted for a few years when the federal government promoted the use of boarding schools to encourage assimilation.

At the time, Sarah’s life accomplishments seemed to be more of a bringing awareness than seeing real change in federal policies toward Native Americans. When she died at the age of 47, little had changed.

Hidden heroes may not always see their efforts accomplishing much in their time. That was clearly the case with Sarah Winnemucca. Her book, however, has given us a lasting sense of the atrocities of the federal government toward Native Americans.

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“For Shame! For Shame! You dare to cry out Liberty, when you hold us in places against our will, driving us from place to place as if we were beasts.”  – Sarah Winnemucca

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