Sarah Winnemucca

Full length portrait of Native American woman in non-traditional "Indian Princess" beaded costume
Sarah Winnemucca, 1883

National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution (NPG.82.137)

Quick Facts
Interpreter and negotiator between American Indian tribes and the U.S. Army
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Article Written by Nicole Martin

Sarah Winnemucca, born in 1844 and called Thocmetony (Shell Flower) by her family, was a member of the Paiute tribe in present-day Nevada. Winnemucca worked as both an interpreter and negotiator between American Indian tribes and the U.S. Army during the “Indian wars” that occured throughout the American West in the decades after the Civil War. As a skilled writer and activist, she demanded that Americans live up to their own political ideals, exposing the violence and hypocrisy that accompanied western expansion in her quest to secure her people “a permanent home on their own native soil.”1

Early Life

During Winnemucca’s youth, the life her people had enjoyed in the Great Basin changed dramatically. Occasional interactions with Spanish officials and American traders were replaced with a tidal wave of migration in the wake of the discovery of gold in California and silver on the Comstock Lode in Nevada. “They [white people] came like a lion, yes, like a roaring lion, and have continued so ever since,” Winnemucca wrote in the opening lines of her autobiography, the first book published by an American Indian woman.2 This invasion of the Paiute homeland destroyed her tribe’s ability to continue their long-established patterns of hunting and gathering.

Winnemucca’s grandfather and father served as guides to early white settlers, including the explorer John C. Fremont. While these friendly relationships resulted in Winnemucca living in white households for several years, she also witnessed a number of violent acts at the hands of white settlers, including the murder of two uncles, the attempted rape of her sister, the Pyramid Lake War and Bannock War, and the burning of Paiute food supplies.

In the 1870s, Winnemucca became an interpreter for the Indian Office. She persuaded reluctant bands to relocate to reservations and negotiated with military commanders to increase supplies and protect reservation boundaries. However, she watched with dismay the corruption of Indian agents, many of them bureaucrats from Christian denominations, which often left her people starving. In 1878, the forced removal of many Paiutes who remained peaceful during the Bannock War from the Malheur Reservation, which lay within their traditional homeland, to the Yakama Reservation hundreds of miles north, incited her to action.3

Vancouver Barracks During the Indian Wars

The experiences of Winnemucca’s own band were not unique. As the population of American settlers increased in the 1850s, and as the US government assigned Native Americans to reservations created for their “education,” many tribes resisted the transition and the hardships that came from relocation and life under corrupt agents. After the Civil War, Congress announced it would no longer negotiate treaties with American Indian tribes. Instead, Native communities would simply be subject to federal power, including “civilizing” programs that envisioned incorporating Native communities into a homogeneous nation-state. Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Francis Walker, believed this new policy reflected America’s “imperial greatness” and fairly compensated Native Americans for dispossession of their lands.4

Vancouver Barracks contributed to this imperial program by serving as a place of incarceration for Native Americans captured in the region, many of whom were resisting efforts to place them on reservations. General Oliver Otis Howard, the commanding officer of the Barracks from 1874-1880 and former Commissioner of the Freedmen’s Bureau, viewed imprisonment in the post Guard House as a significant form of leverage in his councils with local tribes. He used the threat of imprisonment to pressure a council of Nez Perce leaders who followed a popular non-Christian Dreamer prophet religion he deemed uncivilized. "I showed them that Skimiah, a 'Dreamer,' leader of a small band near Celilo, was already in the guardhouse at Fort Vancouver," Howard recounted, "and that this would, doubtless, be the fortune of any other 'Dreamer' leader for non-compliance with Government instructions."5

By 1880, fifty-three American Indian prisoners – men, women, and children as young as three years old of the Shoshone and Bannock tribes, including Tukudika, Weiser, and Boisé bands–were held at Vancouver Barracks. Male prisoners were made to do road work, while female prisoners sewed, as part of the larger U.S. policy to “uplift” Native peoples through “Anglo Saxon civilization,” including gendered understandings of work. In his book, My Life and Experiences Among Our Hostile Indians, Howard wrote about this group, saying that at Vancouver Barracks “we had the opportunity of applying processes of civilization, namely, systematic work and persistent instruction to Indian children and youth.”6

Sarah Winnemucca’s Advocacy for Native Prisoners of War

After the Native prisoners arrived, Winnemucca visited Vancouver Barracks and began work as an interpreter and teacher for the prisoners. In letters, several officers stationed at Vancouver Barracks spoke very highly of her, especially of her compassion towards the women and children brought to the post. Howard wrote that Winnemucca was his interpreter, and “bore a prominent and efficient part” in aiding the incarcerated people.7

Since the forced removal of her people, Sarah Winnemucca had devoted herself to social activism. In the early 1880s, she became a prolific public speaker, giving over 300 speeches in support of reservation Indians. Winnemucca understood the conventions of her largely white and female audience, including the importance of embodying the “Indian princess” trope in order to be heard.8 When she spoke, she reversed the normal narrative that depicted Indians as “savages” threatening white settler homes. Instead, she portrayed these same settlers as violent threats to Indian homes, including the perpetuation of sexual violence against Native women.9

At odds with most Indian reformers of the day, Winnemucca trusted US soldiers, whom she worked with, but did not hesitate to point out the hypocrisy of reformers and agents of the Indian Office who used Christian benevolence to justify terror and Indian dispossession. She explained:

“Oh, for shame!...Yes, you, who call yourselves the great civilization; you who have knelt upon Plymouth Rock, covenanting with God to make this land the home of the free and the brave. Ah, then you rise from your bended knees and seizing the welcoming hands of those who are the owners of this land, which you are not, your carbines rise upon the bleak shore, and your so-called civilization sweeps in land from the ocean wave; but, oh, my God! leaving its pathway marked by crimson lines of blood, and strewed by the bones of two races, the inheritor and the invader; and I am crying out to you for justice.”10

 In 1880, Winnemucca met with President Rutherford B. Hayes, the first sitting president to visit the Far West. She advocated for the humane treatment of her tribe, asking that they be allowed to return from where they were being held on the Yakama Reservation to their native homelands. While her words reduced First Lady Lucy Hayes to tears, the president did not change his mind.11

In March, 1881, Winnemucca wrote a plea for the fifty-three prisoners being held at Fort Vancouver. She asked that they be allowed to stay, writing that the men wished to continue to work for the military. She explained,

“If they could have a place, or a bit of land given them to use for themselves, yes, a place for their own benefit, and where they could work for themselves, I would teach them habits of industry, and it would help much in supporting them; and it is necessary that there should be, at least for the present, some appropriation made for them, in order to provide clothing for the women and children, and a proper place to live in.”

Being under military authority would be better, she argued, than turning them loose “to wander in idleness or learn evil, or go back to bad habits again” or be “cheated” by corrupt agents.12

Winnemucca’s model Native community took the form of an idealized reservation, where a virtuous white agent or military support would keep other white Americans away, allowing Native autonomy and domestic values to thrive. This vision informed a petition she made to Congress, in which she asked the honorable members to restore the Paiutes to the Malheur Reservation so that they could “afford homes….without losing their tribal relations, so essential to their happiness and good character” and which would “defend them from the encroachments of white settlers, so detrimental to their interests and their virtues.”13 The virtues she referred to, as seen in her plea for the Fort Vancouver prisoners–such as traditional gender roles, modesty, and industriousness–resonated with mainstream American understandings of domesticity and civilization. Winnemucca’s vision thus melded conservative elements with a radical central tenet: Native distance from violent white American settlers.14

Despite Winnemucca’s plea for the Shoshone and Bannock prisoners held at Vancouver Barracks, the group was released and escorted to the Fort Hall Reservation in Idaho that same year. Winnemucca’s inability to convince officials, along with repeated failures to help her people gain the assistance they needed and her collaboration with white sponsors, all contributed to reducing her standing in her own community by 1882.15

Winnemucca went on to write her autobiography, Life Among the Piutes [sic]: Their Wrongs and Claims. Published in 1883 with the help of the sisters Elizabeth Peabody and Mary Peabody Mann, prominent woman reformers, the book boldly testified not only to the mistreatment of Paiutes living on the Yakama Reservation but also American expansion more generally. Her desire for permanent homes for her people remained constant. “I beseech of you,” she wrote, “sweep away the [Indian] agency system; give us homes to live in, for God's sake and for humanity's sake.”16 White Americans, including former supporters, roundly attacked the book for exposing the violence of American settlement.

In her final years, Winnemucca shifted her attention from lecturing on the plight of Indigenous peoples at the hands of American expansion to education. She began a school for Paiute children, where she taught in their native language and in English. Unlike most government boarding schools, her independent school did not require students to leave their families. While well-attended, it shut down from insufficient funds and outside support after three years. She died in 1891.17

Click here to watch a video about Sarah Winnemucca at Vancouver Barracks on Fort Vancouver National Historic Site's YouTube channel.

1 “Letter from Sarah Winnemucca, April 4, 1870,” reprinted in Helen Hunt Jackson, A Century of Dishonor: A Sketch of the United States Government's Dealings with Some of the Indian Tribes (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1881), 396, access online here.

2 Sarah Winnemucca Hopkins, Life Among the Piutes: Their Wrongs and Claims (Boston: Cupples, Upham and Co., 1883), 5, access online here.

3 Frederick Hoxie, This Indian Country: American Indian Activists and the Place They Made (New York: Penguin Books, 2012), 143-152; For more on Winnemucca’s biography, see Sally Zanjani, Sarah Winnemucca (Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 2001).

4 Hoxie, This Indian Country, 157-161; Francis Walker, Annual Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs (1872), 398, access online here.

5 Oliver Otis Howard, Annual Report of the Secretary of War (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1877), 590, access online here.

6 Oliver Otis Howard, My Life and Experiences Among Our Hostile Indians (Hartford, Conn.: A.D. Worthington and Company, 1907), 11, access online here.

 7 Howard, My Life and Experiences, 11; For more on gendered divisions of labor, see Jane Simonsen, Making Home Work: Domesticity and Native American Assimilation in the American West, 1860-1919 (Chapell Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2006).

8 Joanna Cohan Scherer, “The Public Faces of Sarah Winnemucca,” Cultural Anthropology, 3, no. 2 (May 1988): 178-204.

9 Richard White, The Republic for Which It Stands - The United States during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 434.

10 Hopkins, Life Among the Piutes, 207.

11 Ibid., 246.

12 Ibid., 244-45.

13 Ibid., 247.

14 Hoxie, This Indian Country, 154-56.

15 Ibid., 165-66.

16 Hopkins, Life Among the Piutes, 243.

17 Hoxie, This Indian Country, 169-70.

Fort Vancouver National Historic Site

Last updated: August 2, 2022