| The Heath Anthology of
American Literature, Fifth Edition
Sarah Winnemucca (Thocmetony; Paiute)
Born about 1844 near Humboldt Lake in what is now northwestern Nevada, the daughter of a respected Paiute leader, Sarah Winnemucca (Thocmetony, or Shell Flower) would become one of the principal voices for Indian rights in the late nineteenth century. Although she spent part of her youth in the company of whites as well as Indians, Winnemucca was largely self-educated, fluent in three Indian languages as well as English and Spanish. In a period of extreme upheaval during white incursions on traditional Northern Paiute lands in present-day western Nevada, northern California, and southeastern Oregon, she consistently sought to advance the well-being of her people in the face of daunting personal hardship.
Her major publication, Life Among the Piutes: Their Wrongs and Claims, encompasses the first encounters of Paiutes with whites, described in the selection in the book; the Bannock Indian War of 1878; and the accomplishment of her father's dream, the establishment of a reservation on some of the Paiutes' ancestral lands, in 1889. Winnemucca's remarkable story is complex in both content and form, combining elements of history, autobiography, myth, sentimental appeal, humor, adventure, political tract, and oratory. Reflecting her experiences as a translator for the U.S. Army, an advocate for the Paiutes in Washington, a popular stage performer, and an innovative teacher and school reformer, the volume seeks to educate white readers about her people. Winnemucca depicts a civilized tribe that deserves whites' sympathy and support. Willing to risk her livelihood and even her life, she gives outspoken testimony against the wrongs committed by reservation agents, whose corruption outraged not only Sarah but many sympathetic observers. She also reveals the efforts of governmental representatives and elected officials to prevent her from lecturing and garnering support for her cause.
One surprise to many contemporary readers may be her praise of the U.S. Army, whose commanding officers often proved to be much more honest and compassionate than government-appointed reservation agents who were sometimes only nominal Christians. Winnemucca reserves some of her most intense attacks of the latter, who not only profited from government supplies meant for the Indians but also regularly permitted their charges to freeze and starve to death. Her fiery stance inspired her to tell one agent to his face that "hell is full of just such Christians as you are."
Negotiating between two worlds was never easy, and Sarah was often placed in a precarious position with her own people by the false promises of white officials as well as by her own goal of assimilation. Her difficulties were also intensified by gender. A favorite claim of her detractors—and one leveled at many women reformers of the time—was that she was promiscuous. This charge is ironic in view of the sexual abuse of Indian women by white men that Winnemucca describes in the section in the book, abuse so prevalent and unrelenting that she affirms, "the mothers are afraid to have more children, for fear they shall have daughters, who are not safe even in their mother's presence." At least two of the wars that Sarah describes in her book were initiated by such abuse.
After suffering many frustrations and bitter disappointments at the hands of the government and its agents, Winnemucca finally decided that she could best serve her people by opening an Indian-run school. With the financial and emotional support of formidable Boston reformer Elizabeth Palmer Peabody and her sister Mary Mann (also the editor of Life Among the Piutes), Sarah founded, managed, and taught at the Peabody Indian School for nearly four years. In contrast to government-run schools, her school not only practiced bilingualism, it also affirmed Paiute values and traditions. During these last few years before her early death, Winnemucca suffered from ill health brought on by long-term physical hardship, as well as form the emotional stresses due to her last marriage to the improvident Lewis Hopkins, who frequently gambled away her hard-won earnings. Winnemucca amply deserves the renewed recognition she is beginning to receive, and we can place her securely in Native American literary and activist traditions begun by William Apess and continued in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by Zitkala-Sa, Alice Callahan, and Mourning Dove.
University of North Carolina at Greensboro
In the Heath Anthology
from Life Among the Piutes
Chapter I: "First Meeting of Piutes and Whites"
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Internet Public Library: Native American Authors Project
Links and the complete text of Life Among the Piutes.
Sarah Winnemucca: [Post]Indian Princess and Voice of the Paiutes
A critical examination of Winnemucca and her writings, from MELUS Summer, 1999.
Gae Whitney Canfield, Sarah Winnemucca of the Northern Piutes, 1983
Brigitte Georgi-Findlay, "The Frontiers of Native American Women's Writing: Sarah Winnemucca's Life Among the Piutes," in New Voices in Native American Literary Criticism (1993)
Noreen Grover Lape, "'I would rather be with my people, bot not to live with them as they live,'" American Indian Quarterly 22.3 (1998):259-79
Andrew S. McClure," (Post) Indian Princess and the Voice of the Piutes," MELUS 24.2 (1999):29-51
A. LaVonne Brown Ruoff, "Early Native American Women Authors: Jane Johnston Schoolcraft, Sarah Winnemucca, S. Alice Callahan, E. Pauline Johnson, and Zitkala-Sa," in Nineteenth-Century American Women Writers: A Critical Reader, ed. Karen Kilcup (1998)
Kathleen Mullen Sands, "Indian Women's Personal Narrative: Voices Past and Presnt," in American Women's Autobiography: Fea(s)ts of Memory, ed. Margot Culley, 1992
William C. Strange, "Story, Take Me Home: Instances of Resonance in Sarah Winnemucca Hopkins' Life Among the Piutes," in Entering the 90s: The North American Experience Proceeding from the Native American Studies Conference at Lake Superior University, October 27-28, 1989, ed. Thomas E. Schirer, 1991