Profile of the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony People
The Numa, Washeshu and Newe
The people that inhabited the Great Basin prior to the European invasion were the Numa or Numu (Northern Paiute), the Washeshu (Washoe), the Newe (Shoshone), and the Nuwuvi (Southern Paiute).
In each of these groups’ language, these names meant “The People.” Within these groups were bands of Indians who were often referred to with words that reflected where they lived or what they ate.
For example, the Agai Ticutta referred to the trout eaters near the Walker River or the Toi Ticutta referred to the tulle eaters near the Stillwater Marshes.
Today, The People continue to recognize their special place on Earth and all the life cycles. Traditionally, The People lived a well-planned, harmonious life which was predicated on their immediate surroundings and nature. Time could not be wasted. Knowing what the land would offer was a matter of survival, thus The People’s migration patterns were strategic and well-thought-out. The People followed the food and over thousands of years, each band evolved as an efficient, social and economic unit that could comfortably inhabit the land on which the People had been placed since time immemorial.
Living in cycles with the seasons, the Numu occupied the strip known as Western Nevada, Eastern Nevada, Eastern Oregon, and Southern Idaho. The Washeshu gathered annually at Lake Tahoe and dispersed for several hundred miles throughout the remainder of the year.
The Newe were found in what is today called Eastern Nevada, Utah, and Southern California.
The Nuwuvi inhabited the Colorado River Basin where they harvested corn, squash, wheat and beans.
To each group, the animals of the Great Basin gave insight to creation and wise guidance on how to live. Though each group spoke a different language; Washo, a Hokoan derivative; the other dialects of the Uto-Aztecan origin; they understood and respected the lifestyles of the other immediate groups and other tribes with whom they came in contact. In fact, much trade and commerce occurred among the original inhabitants of the entire continent. Conflicts occurred only when economic necessities forced a group to raid or confiscate the resources of another group.
Though The People consider that they have been here since time began, archeological evidence places the earliest residents of Nevada as living here about 10,000 years ago. In 1994, the Nevada State Museum carbon dated remains which were unearthed in 1940 near Fallon, Nev. According to modern science, the burial remains of “Spirit Cave Man” prove that he lived in the area over 9,400 years ago.
Because Indian land in the Great Basin was one of the last major frontiers to be explored and settled by European-Americans, The People sustained their way-of-life and ethnic identity much longer than most Tribes in other parts of the country.
In fact, at first contact in what would become Nevada, hundreds of other Tribes were enduring the fourth major shift in U.S. Government policy toward American Indians. From 1492-1828, or during the Colonial Period, Indians were dealt with as sovereign nations. May treaties and agreements were negotiated with France and England as these countries recognized that the Indians had their own form of government, their own leaders, and their own homelands.
Around 1830, the Spanish Trail opened in southern Nevada and explorers and trappers made their way into the arid landscape. In the beginning, many tribal groups were curious about these newcomers and The People attempted to establish relationships with them. Yet, as time went on it was difficult to maintain a friendly association as The People found it difficult to adapt to the disruption in their lives caused by these newcomers.
Although there is little written about Spaniards being in Washo territory, there are some stories by the Washo that suggest such an occurrence. The first written records of non-Indians in Washo lands took place in 1826.
The Shoshone and Northern Paiute also encountered non-Indians about this time. Unfortunately, the explorers and the settlers did not understand the lifestyle of The People.
The non-Indians thought that The People wandered aimlessly from place to place, but these assumptions were completely wrong. As a matter of survival, the tribes followed seasonal, migratory patterns for hunting and gathering food and other materials needed for life in the Great Basin. While settlers saw the desert as rigid and desolated land, The People enjoyed the land’s abundant resources.
However, everything drastically changed in 1848 with the discovery of gold in California. Major changes were in store for The People and these changes, still impact the way The People live today. From 1778-1871 or during the Treaty Period, the U.S. government developed 370 treaties in an attempt to legally negotiate with Indian Tribes. During this era of nearly 100 years, these treaties often benefited those who were moving westward and not the tribes.
The only treaty to impact Great Basin Indians was the Treaty with the Western Shoshoni [sic]. This agreement of “Peace and Friendship” was ratified in 1866. By the middle of the 1800s, so many settlers inhabited the People’s land the Indians struggled to find food.
Within five years, close to 250,000 people made their way across Nevada, hunting and fishing and infringing on The People’s traditional homelands. This encroachment extremely limited and in some areas exhausted the food supply. Even the introduction of the horse to the Great Basin served as competition for food for the Indians.
Cultural clashed soon developed, too.
There was a significant difference in perspective regarding land occupation versus land ownership. The settlers believed in land ownership, meaning that once they chose an area in which to live, they tended to stay in that one location. Meanwhile, The People utilized the land seasonally and only occupied the area for a short term. As The People struggled to adapt, the federal government shifted its policy towards Indians again. The Indian Removal Act of 1830 halted any future treaties with tribes and it gave Congress the authority to isolate the People in order to allow economic growth throughout the United States. This was done through the creation of reservations.
One of the main goals of reservations was to move The People to one central location and to provide them with a piece of land to cultivate.
Ultimately, the federal government believed that separating The People from the rest of its citizens would solve land disputes. The development and activation of reservations was a campaign promise of U.S. President Andrew Jackson and most of the land set aside was undesirable lands that the settlers did not want anyway. Some tribes and bands fought the process of removal and eventually, assimilation, but in doing so, the tribes were perceived as hostile and uncivilized. It was during the Reservation Period that the President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, allowed the Nevada territory to join the union. Nevada’s population did not meet the requirements for becoming a state, but on October 31, 1864, President Lincoln proclaimed Nevada as the 36th state.
Soon thereafter, the Moapa River Paiute Reservation and then the Walker River Paiute Indian Reservation were each established by executive order in 1873. Back in 1859, the Department of Interior had recommended that land be set aside for Indian use north of the Truckee River and including Pyramid Lake. Though an executive order was issued in 1874 to establish the Pyramid Lake Reservation, the legal year of establishment is 1859.
In 1871, the Indian Appropriations Act gave the U.S. Congress exclusive right and power to regulate trade and affairs with the Indian tribes and the U.S. Supreme Court legally designated Indians as domestic dependent nations and wards of the federal government. This jarring shift in policy toward Indians meant more federal control over The People.
From 1887-1934, the U.S. federal government began its Allotment and Assimilation plan for dealing with the Indians. These policies closely resembled the European model of land ownership with an ultimate goal on pushing The People to become part of white society. In doing so, not only did the government take additional land from tribes, but it attempted to erase reservation boundaries and force Indians into society at large.
The Dawes Act divided tribal land into individual parcels and halted communal land use which paralleled traditional native life styles. The vast majority of Indians lands taken through the Dawes Act were not just used for new settlements, but for railroads, mining and forestry industries.
In addition, the Allotment and Assimilation Period called for Indians to be educated in boarding schools operated by the government. Indian children were often taken from their families and made to attending these military-like institutions, hundreds of miles away from their families.
As a result of the allotment system, nationwide, Indian territory was reduced from 138 million acres to only 48 million acres. Along with the devastating loss of their land, The People’s fundamental structure for tribal life was destroyed, too. Another major shift in federal policy happened after a U.S. government commissioned study evaluated the conditions of Indian communities.
In stunning details, the Meriam Report outlined the ineffectiveness of the Dawes Act as it found that the overwhelming majority of Indian people were extremely poor, in bad health, living in primitive dwellings, and without adequate employment.
The Meriam Report blamed the hardships that the Indians faced on the encroachment of white civilization. The report stated that the Indians’ social system did not and would not work with the conditions forced onto them. These finding were the basis for the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934. The IRA permitted tribes to organize their own governments and incorporate their trust land. This is how the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony was established.
At the turn of the century, many Numa and Washo lived in the Reno-Sparks area, not only because this was the aboriginal lands for The People, but more and more Indians moved to the area to find jobs. The transition to colonies actually represented another adaptive strategy for the Indians. Often, The People not living on a reservation were considered “scattered or homeless.”
These Indians tried to maintain some of their old ways by building traditional homes, sometimes with modern materials, in camps in urban areas, often near the Truckee River.
In 1917, the federal government purchased 20 acres for $6,000 for non-reservation Indians of Nevada and for homeless Indians. This land is the core of the present-day Colony. Most of the land was not cultivatable, however the Indian Bureau dug irrigation ditches to provide some drinking water, but most of the Indians collected drinking water from a spring about a quarter of a mile away.
Initially, the Numa lived on the north side of the Colony, while the Washo lived on the south side of Colony. The Reno-Sparks Indian Colony and all colonies received some governmental services and were most often considered by the Bureau of Indian Affairs to be under their jurisdiction. For example, the purchase of additional land in 1926 was part of an effort to improve the water supply for the Colony.
Plus, from 1920-1930, a nurse and a police officer, paid from federal government funds, were stationed at the Colony. Further, in 1938 the United States Supreme Court ruled that there was no distinction between a colony and a reservation which meant that the superintendence of the Colony fell to the federal government.
To that end, an additional 8.38 acres was added to the Colony in 1926. Purchased for about $4,000, this strip of land allowed for a day school. For many years, residents of the Colony sent their children to this local government operated school instead of a boarding school about 40 miles away.
However, the Colony school was closed in the early 1940s because the building was in such disrepair. The Indian children’s only option was to attend public school, but discrimination was rampant.
Mercifully, in 1945, Grace Warner, the principal of Orvis Ring School, invited the Indian student to attend her school. This arrangement which included bussing the Colony students to Orvis Ring, lasted until 1975 when the public school system required the Indian students to attend the school closest in proximity to the Colony.
As permissible under the IRA, the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony established its first formal council in 1934.
On February 9, 1934 the elected council included three Paiutes—Cleveland Cypher, Thomas Ochiho, and George Hooten, and three Washos—Willie Tondy, Jack Mahoney, and George McGinnis. Harry Sampson was selected Chairman of the Council.
In a letter to Nevada Senator Key Pitman, the new council supported the IRA, writing that the bill would be of lasting benefit to the progress of all Indians in the United States. Additionally, the new Colony leadership with input from Acting Bureau of Indian Affairs Superintendent John H. Holst, conducted a vote in which the IRA was overwhelmingly supported by the Colony residents.
Furthermore, five men— Sampson, Cypher, Mahoney, Tondy, and George Hunter worked on a constitution for the Colony. Additional assistance crafting the constitution came from George LaVatta, a Northern Shoshone from the Fort Hall Reservation who worked as a federal government field agent. The Colony’s constitution was adopted on December 16, 1935 and was approved by a vote of 51-1.
In 1936, the Colony tried to adopt a charter, but the BIA’s field superintendent, Alida Bowler, delayed submitting the paperwork to the federal government. Bowler did not believe all the signatures were authentic as many Colony members who could not write, had someone else sign his or her name. Bowler returned the petition with instructions to have person who could not write, make a cross or a thumbprint, but that action had to be witnesses by two other persons.
Adding to the confusion, most often charters enabled tribes to get credit which would assist the Indians with economic development. Bowler did not think the RSIC could get credit because it had no agricultural resources.
However, the Colony’s charter, which was approved on January 7, 1939, included plans for the tribe to establish a cooperating laundry, a store, a meat market, a gas station, arrangements for the raising poultry, and a harness repair shop for individual Indian members who wanted to do business for themselves.
Also under Sampson’s leadership, the RSIC tried to take advantage of a provision in the IRA to purchase more land for the Colony. With input from E. M. Johnstone, a BIA land field agent, LaVatta, and Bowler, a proposal for the purchase of 1,080 acres between Highway 40 and the Southern Pacific Railroad tracks in the Truckee Canyon was submitted to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs on January 25, 1937.
Unfortunately, this land purchase never came to fruition as the federal government’s field agent, active agent, and superintendent, could not agree on how to proceed. While, the RSIC continued to make build it sovereignty and explore economic opportunities for its members, U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower changed the federal government’s policy toward American Indians and began the Termination Era.
To deal with the Indians nationwide, Eisenhower sought complete elimination of the U.S. government’s trust responsibility to the tribes. This meant that scores of tribes lost their federal benefits and support services, along with tribal jurisdiction over their lands.
All told, the Termination Era, which lasted from 1945 to 1968, eliminated 109 tribal governments and reservations. Fortunately, no tribes in Nevada were terminated.
Finally, in 1970, U.S. President Gerald Nixon developed the latest national policy toward Indians, Tribal Self-Determination. Self-Determination gave autonomy to tribes by allowing the Indians to control their own affairs and be independent of federal oversight without being cut off from federal support.
Today, the RSIC has expanded its original land base to just over 15,400 acres. The Colony employees over 350 employees and more than half are The People.
The tribe also maintains a tribal court system, a police force and a health clinic, and it provides full government services to its membership. The tribe’s other governmental departments include administration, education, public works, social services, utility district, planning, prevention coalition, enrollment, human resources, economic development, and the chairman’s department.