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The Washoe: The First People of Lake Tahoe

There’s something magical about Lake Tahoe. The moment you lay eyes on its impossibly blue, crystal-clear waters, you will be forever captive to its beauty. It simply pulls you in…literally.

Nobody knows more about the sacred allure of Lake Tahoe than the Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California. The Washoe were the first inhabitants of the Lake Tahoe region. They called the jewel of the Sierras, “Da ow ga,” the Washoe word for “lake.”

“This is the aboriginal homeland of our Washoe people, and the lake is the center of our being” says Wanda Batchelor, the first elected female chairperson of the Washoe tribe, which boasts 1,532 enrolled members and was federally recognized as a tribe in agreement with the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934.

While a number of Washoe live off the reservation in various parts of the country, including Hawaii – and even in Ireland -- many Washoe live on tribal lands in the Reno, Carson Valley and Gardnerville areas of Nevada; and in Woodfords, California. Tribal headquarters are in Gardnerville.

“Many, many years ago, our people used to come to the lake’s shores in late spring and summer, and spend their time here at the waters hunting, fishing and gathering,” recounts the tribal leader. “These are our healing waters. I always heard from my elders that if you have problems, you need to go to the lake and wash your face, and let everything go.”

Between 1848 and 1863, miners and settlers pushed into the Lake Tahoe region in staggering numbers. They were encouraged to colonize in this resource-rich area by the United States government through a process called “encroachment.” By the end of 1862, the Washoe tribe had lost all of its precious homelands.

Over time, the Washoe and its claim to the Lake Tahoe region had been nearly forgotten.

A presidential summit renews recognition to the tribe.

The first Lake Tahoe Presidential Summit was held in 1997, hosted by President Bill Clinton. The goal of the summit was to create a collaborative effort between various groups to keep Lake Tahoe and its surrounding communities environmentally healthy and economically thriving.

When Brian Wallace, the Washoe tribal leader at the time, learned about the plans for the summit, he seized upon this golden opportunity for his tribe to gain the recognition it so richly deserved after the Washoe had been so quickly run out of their homelands during the colonization period. As Wallace said, “You can’t talk about Tahoe without talking about the unfinished business with the Washoe Tribe.”

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After countless meetings between Wallace and government officials, the Washoe became a key participant and organizer of the Tahoe Summit, providing a platform for Chairman Wallace to press Washoe rights and stewardship of the Tahoe region.

At the summit, President Clinton asked Washoe elders what they wanted, and they replied very simply, “Lake Tahoe.” President Clinton was the seventh president since 1862 who had heard these passionate appeals of the Washoe people. While President Clinton was not in a position to return Lake Tahoe back to the Washoe, he understood the need to integrate their tribal values, culture, and invaluable ecological knowledge into the Tahoe region. Under his direction, a 20-year special-use permit was granted to the tribe to co-manage hundreds of acres of the Tahoe region with the U.S Forest Service.

It was a huge win for the Washoe tribe, as it acknowledged their presence as the original stewards of Lake Tahoe, and established their rights to continue tribal practices and traditions in the Tahoe Basin.

Meeks Bay Resort and Marina

In May of 1999, the Washoe also acquired a 20-year special-use permit from the U.S. Forest Service to run Meeks Bay Resort and Marina, located on the west shore of Lake Tahoe. “Having this special-use permit for Meeks Bay provides us with a unique opportunity for a couple of months out of the year to be back on our land,” says Tribal Chairwoman Batchelor.

In lieu of paying rent to the Forest Service, says Batchelor, the tribe reinvests the money back into the resort by performing upgrades. “Maybe we’ll redo the showers or pave the parking lot or re-roof the cabins.” Whatever improvements need to be made at Meeks Bay, the Washoe and the Forest Service are happy to get it done cooperatively.

Meeks Bay Resort and Marina is open to the public from the middle of May to the second week of October. “We have a small window of opportunity to generate revenue, employ our tribal members and build capacity,” explains Batchelor, who says the popular resort books out two years in advance.

Besides the secluded stretch of the white-sand beach, the resort features picnic tables, barbecues, a general store, 14 campsites, 23 RV sites, 11 cabins right on the water, eight cabins within walking distance to the lake and the seven-bedroom Kehlet Mansion, a popular wedding venue whose crowning touch is a huge dock built on granite boulders that hangs over the water for one of the most spectacular views of the lake.

Most employees at Meeks Bay are Washoe and other Native Americans, as it lends authenticity to the resort, says Batchelor, and offers tribal members an opportunity to be trained and educated in the hospitality business. “We don’t discriminate,” she says. “But it’s nice when guests are greeted by someone who can say, ‘Welcome. I’m with the Washoe tribe.’”

Batchelor says that managing Meeks Bay Resort has given the Washoe people a chance to come home. “When we look at the water, we know that this is place where our people came from. There’s still a strong connection to the water,” says the tribe’s first elected woman leader. “Some things you can’t put into words. You just know it in your heart.”

Lynn Armitage is an enrolled member of the Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin. She writes a weekly single-parent column for Indian Country Today.