East Central California (Plumas, Lassen, Sierra, Nevada, Placer, El Dorado
& Alpine Counties)
Language: Hokan family
1770 estimate: 500 (in California)
1910 Census: 300 (in California)
The Washoe (or Washo) were as much a people of the Great Basin area in Nevada as they were of California. Living on the east side of the Sierras, they are not considered part of the California culture area. However, about half of their traditional lands are in California, and their language is part of the same language family as the Pomo, Shasta, and other California groups. They may once have had lands on the western side of the mountains, and been driven east by hostile neighbors.
Permanent Washoe settlements were mostly in the Truckee and Carson River valleys on the eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, at elevations of about 4,000 to 5,000 feet. A group of 3-10 houses, usually located on a spot of high ground near the river, made up a village. Many of the people living in the village were related to each other, and called themselves by a word that meant the bunch, or many people living near one another.
Individuals and small groups left these winter villages at various times to hunt and gather food, but some of the old people and children stayed in the winter village all year. An older person in each family served as the leader of that small group. All the Washoe communities helped each other and good relations with others were valued, but each family made its own decisions about food gathering. At times when a big hunt was to take place, one man was selected to be the hunt leader and many families worked together.
The name Washoe comes from a word wasiw, used by the people themselves, meaning people from here.
Winter houses were round, about 12-15 feet across, and made with a framework of poles placed in a circle and leaning together at the top. On the outside, the frame was covered with pieces of bark tied to the poles with strips of willow wood or deerhide thongs. Sometimes bundles of grass or tule reeds were used in place of the bark. Inside, the floor was sometimes dug down slightly below ground level. A fire pit was placed in the center, with a smokehole above it. The door to the house always faced the east, and there was often a covered passageway leading to the door.
The Washo probably did not use sweathouses. Also, they did not have large assembly or dance houses.
There was a lot of food available in Washo territory. From Lake Tahoe and from the rivers they got trout, suckers, chub, and mountain whitefish. Deer, antelope, and mountain sheep were hunted in the Sierra Nevadas. Rabbits were an important part of the food supply. Thousands of rabbits could be taken at one time by groups of people who drove the rabbits into large nets. Other small animals used as food were porcupines, beavers, chipmunks, gophers, squirrels, woodchucks, badgers, mice, and moles.
Birds such as quail, grouse, geese, and swans were shot with bows and arrows or caught in nets. Grasshoppers and locusts were roasted, or dried and then ground up and mixed with other food.
Pine nuts were an important food for many of the Washoe, especially in the southern part of their territory where acorns were not found. Each family had rights to collect the nuts from a certain strip of land. The nuts were gathered in September and October, and stored in pits lined with pine branches, for use through the year.
In the spring, the women found many bulbs and roots such as wild onion, camas root, and bitterroot. Seeds from sunflowers, wild mustard, and wild rye were gathered. Tule reeds provided several types of food: the roots were roasted; young plants were eaten raw; seeds were cooked into a mush; tule pollen was used to sweeten other foods. The mountains and valleys also had many kinds of berries. The Washoe were fond of the chokecherry.
Even in cold weather, the Washoe did not wear many clothes. They may have used deerskins to make short aprons or leggings. They usually had bare feet, though sometimes wore moccasins made of deerhide and lined with sage grass. Blankets made of rabbit skins were used both for sleeping, and as robes worn over the shoulders. It took about 30 rabbit skins, cut into strips and woven together, to make a blanket.
Both men and women wore earrings and necklaces made of bone, wood, seeds, or shells. Men wore a headband made of deerskin, with a feather in it. Women rubbed grease and red clay on their skin to protect it from the wind and sun. They made designs on their bodies with paint and tattooing.
The Washoe used both twining and coiling methods to make baskets, which were finely done. Willow branches were the most common basket material used, with fern root and redbud used for designs. Their coiled baskets were made like the Miwok and Maidu of California. The twined baskets were made like the other Great Basin (Nevada) tribes.
For fishing, the Washoe used spears, hook and line, nets, traps, and weirs. For hunting, they had bows and arrows, and stone knives. Bows were made in several sizes, longer ones with curved ends used for hunting larger animals. The bowstring was a piece of deer sinew (tendon). Arrows were made of cane, sharpened on the end or tipped with a stone arrowhead. Nets and traps were used to catch small animals. Each family had a rabbit net, about 30 inches wide and as long as 300 feet, used to trap large numbers of rabbits at one time.
When hunting on the high mountains, the men wore snowshoes made from a flexible manzanita branch bent into a circle. Strips of deerhide were laced across the circle. The hunter used a long pole, like a ski pole, when wearing the snowshoes.
The Washoe shared fishing and hunting rights with the Northern Paiute and Maidu, to the north. They did not engage in much trade with their neighbors, partly because of language differences, and partly because the Washoe had everything they needed in their own territory. However, they did sometimes get acorns, skins, and sea shells from the Nisenan (their western neighbor). With the Northern Paiute they traded deer skins, acorns, shells, and obsidian in exchange for antelope skins and cui-ui fish from Pyramid Lake. The Washoe may have gone all the way to the Pacific Ocean to collect shells.
Feathers were considered valuable, and used as a part of trades. The tail feathers of the golden eagle were especially prized, as were the feathers of the magpie. These feathers were used in ceremonies and for decoration.
There was much visiting back and forth between communities of Washoe people. When one group was planning a festival, they would send a messenger to the other settlements to invite their friends to come for a feast. The messenger took a string with knots in it, one knot for each day before the feast, so the guests would know when to come.
Each family held a small ceremony before going to their oak or pine tree groves to gather nuts in the fall. Families came together for festivals at nut harvesting time, with teams competing in games.