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Steadfast sovereignty 'Longtime Washoe chairman reflects on tribe’s return to power through culture, enterprise'

CARSON CITY, Nev. – With the Dec. 1 departure from his official duties leading the Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California, 16-year Chairman A. Brian Wallace leaves a legacy marked by the Washoe Nation’s resurgence in cultural, economic and political power, through a steadfast commitment to tradition, elders and enterprise.

Moreover, Washoe visibility in national and international arenas was elevated to another level under Wallace’s direction – efforts and endeavors that effectively pitted Washoe elders against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and persuaded the federal government to formally return Indian land.

Highlighted by the 1997 ceremony in which President Bill Clinton returned 24 acres of sacred traditional land – and priceless Lake Tahoe real estate – to be forever under Washoe stewardship, the Wallace era came to a close just as the Democratic Party pulled off an Election Day coup of its own.

“We put it all finally into place, into motion for us,” Wallace said of their comprehensive progress across political lines. “All of this we were building for a long time, and had to resupply our effort from nothing. We were eating thorns, early on. This is almost a $50 [million] – $60 million effort now. It has a lot of influence. There’s a big congressional delegation that carries the Washoe flag now; about 20 members in the House and both senatorial delegations in Nevada and California.”

Wallace’s ability to navigate through Washington’s elite circles is deep-rooted in the circle of Washoe culture. His political upbringing began with “a broader view,” he noted. “Fundamentally, it broke down to the way I was instructed when I started: our obligation and responsibility is to honor the land and protect the people. You’re fighting for your most important teachers, the elders and the land. That’s where our base sovereign wellness comes from, and our cultural well-being as well. Those were always critical to the long-term cultural development and prosperity of the Washoe people and the tribe. The idea was to maintain that connection to this vision given to us by our fathers – basically pursuing their unfinished dreams.”

While naturally reflecting on the past, yet envisioning the future, the Washoe Tribe re-established its annual “Honoring Our Elders Day,” an event inspired by the life of the late Winona James, a 102-year-old Washoe elder who was a force to be reckoned with as the tribe continued to combat a spectrum of substantial environmental threats to its land in and around the rampantly developed Sierra Nevada. The Leviathan Mine is a 1950s-era open-pit sulfur mine leaching what Wallace called “a plethora of dangerous heavy metals” into Washoe land and the Carson River. The tribe took a defiant stand, forcing the federal government and oil giant ARCO to stem the damage done by the toxic Superfund site, an endeavor Wallace said is “holding industry in the state of California’s feet to the fire, to be accountable to what they did there. It’s still unfinished business. The scope of the remediation and cleanup effort is going to be generational.”

Those generations give the tribe the perspective and power to have a voice in its own land. From securing a climbing ban on Tahoe’s Cave Rock – a sacred symbol to the Washoe – to netting a $33,185 rebate check from the Sierra Pacific Power Co. for a solar energy initiative, to its immersion school, Washoe Book Project and user-friendly Web site, Wallace helmed the Washoe Tribe during an era of sweeping change. He did so with a staunch commitment to standing up and saying that there are some things he believed should remain unchanged.

Now that his work in tribal government has come to an end, Wallace, 49, is proud of all that the Washoe, as a nation, has put in place.

“In working on these challenges, we were migrating into this direction of a national division of well-being, restoration and recovery in every dimension – politically, culturally, physiologically,” he explained. “A part of that was the reconstruction of our traditional, pre-contact diet; a subsistence-based model, the map for our biological and physiological recovery, because we have attributes of the lifeways still available: harvesting of pine nuts, rabbit drives, fish, tubers and plants. We were going in a traditional-medicine direction again, restoring our own pharmacology and sovereign remedies, from a Washoe perspective. The restoration of land was critical to that.”

Washoe elder Lance Astor, who Wallace called “a significant mentor,” said that from the beginning, Wallace walked his talk when it came to following his teachings of honoring Washoe land and its people.

“I always felt that Brian one day would be a good leader. It turned out that he was a great leader. He had a lot of respect for the seniors, always made time to come visit them and was very respectful of them, and I think they respected him for that,” Astor said. “We made good contacts with other tribes and looked at what they’re doing, without getting into gaming. We got some of the lands back, set aside for tribal activities.

“[At] Hobo Hot Springs over the years, there was a lot of misuse and people abused it,” Astor said of one site Wallace worked to secure and restore. “The elders feel like it’s spiritual, and they pray to it. Those with arthritis get the mud and put it on their bodies; the chemicals in the water help ease the pain and have spiritual powers. We tried to restore it and keep it a natural setting. It’s a sensitive area, so we built two more ponds and diverted some of the water into them, and fixed it up a little different. People still use it.”

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“The direction of the tribe is pretty rewarding,” Wallace said optimistically, packing up his office after 26 years in tribal politics. “The challenges before the current leadership – not only of this country, but of our tribe and the people – are significant. I really think the future holds a lot of promise for the tribe, because we’ve been developing the preconditions and taking advantage of these opportunities for a long time, and now that day is here.”

<b>A. Brian Wallace talks about reclaiming, relying on Washoe culture</b>

From opening a Washoe language immersion school to signing international treaties, the Washoe Tribe has strengthened its roots in many ways while connecting globally, according to former Chairman Brian Wallace:

* Language – “Language restoration is essential to our long-term well-being, to our long-term recovery of lands. That’s where our language came from: it was given to us by those lands, and for this to really happen, we need to get more closely associated with those traditional lands. All of that ecological wisdom of Washoe indigenous ecology and science can only be translated in Washoe, so if we ever lose our voice, we lose our sense of being as a race of people. We become culturally mute.

“It’s critical, for all of us, that Washoes maintain their fluency. This is even recognized by this government, despite its changes in leadership. Through those languages and this land, Native people have shown what kind of nation can be made, to the world.”

* Health – “The pharmacology still exists, and that’s why recovering land is so important to our national, long-term well-being. So now we have the tools, and the map, to deal with chronic disease, diabetes and heart disease.”

* The people – “We really talked about trying to raise children in a world of responsibility, rather than a world of rights, and sometimes that just doesn’t play very well. There’s a lot we’re still dealing with – long-term cultural trauma, the byproducts of economic and cultural dispossession, abuse and the uglier things that go on in some communities. It’s always a challenge, it’s still there and you continually want to work on it. Because now, it’s characterized in the face of crystal meth[amphetamine] and all of the things that go along with that, the things that frighten us.”

* Political power – “What we have as Indian people, and the tools that we have and our survival skills, are going to save this planet; and it’s time we get to business, to work. That’s what I’m signing up for. These skills that I have I’m going to apply in that direction. [Tribal] leadership today involves knowing how to read a balance sheet, how to make a snowshoe, survival skills, speak and have a traditional foundation … using the land and the elders to build strong people.”

* Economic prosperity – “The businesses that we were going to get into – green housing, farmer’s markets, Washoe protoagronomy – was good for high-paying classifications of jobs, and we would have dominated the niche market here. We’re going to turn the corner on heart disease and diabetes, and restoring our physiology through that pre-contact, traditional and social organization.”

* Storytelling – “Seeing children come together during the American Indian Film Institute’s Tribal Touring Program is extremely positive and rewarding. The people are coming out to support the youth, and the voice that they’re beginning to have.”

* Getting the land back – “It was just a prideful moment that a lot of people had waited for. More than anything I had mixed emotions, because of all the people that had waited so long that couldn’t be there, who had done a lot of work to see that happen. So you felt a tremendous responsibility that you were speaking for many people. It really helped break the dam loose for the tribe.

“The historic symmetry and justice of that period and moment was overwhelming. That a country could recognize its mistakes and begin to reconcile them speaks well, and made everybody proud to be an American that day. It was a tremendously emotional moment.”