Washoe - Economy

Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Washoe aboriginal economy was based on hunting, fishing, and gathering. The environment provided an abundance of large and small game, fish in the lakes and streams, and seeds and other plant products requiring a highly skilled pattern of seasonal exploitation over the year. Although the local pinenut and the acorn from over the mountains were much desired foods (and continue to be in modern times when available), other food resources provided a major part of the diet. The destruction of the subsistence base in early historic times resulted in a rapid transformation of diet to one of starches, fats, and sweets prevalent among rural western White settlers. During the frontier period many Washoe lived and worked on ranches—the men as laborers and cowhands, and the women as laundresses and cooks. Other men were employed in the mines or the construction of roads and dams. Some brought wood, fish, and game into the towns for sale until they were restricted by local laws. A few women supplemented income by selling baskets and pinenuts or hiring out to domestic Service. Most, however, were destitute. Today, many younger Washoe men and women participate in the general economy and are employed in an expanded tribal government or in a number of tribally operated businesses. In precontact times, the dog was the only domesticated animal. A few Washoe had acquired ponies from the Spanish in California and, later, from American settlers. But conditions did not permit the development of an equestrian mode such as that appearing among their Northern Paiute neighbors in the early nineteenth Century. Sporadic attempts to raise cattle and sheep on tribal lands have been unsuccessful.

Industrial Arts. The aboriginal Washoe produced a range of manufactures in stone, wood, fiber, bone, or skins, and utilized a repertoire of technologies typical of the hunting and gathering economies of the western Great Basin. American implements, utensils, clothing, and ornament quickly replaced the traditional forms. The basketry produced by the women was admired by all surrounding peoples and continued to be developed as an art of renown well into the twentieth century.

Trade. Aboriginal trade seems not to have been extensive in the region, though the Washoe did exchange by barter and gift giving some salt, pinenuts, and deer and rabbit skins to westward peoples, such as the Miwok and Maidu, for shells, obsidian, certain medicinal plants, and other items which, in turn, were traded eastward to the Northern Paiute for antelope skins, kutsavi and cui-ui fish. In the early postcontact period, they engaged in a small exchange involving firewood, pinenuts, game, and fish to White settlers.

Division of Labor. Traditionally, the gathering of plant products was almost exclusively a woman's activity, as were preparation of food and other household tasks. Women might also participate in major fish runs, rabbit drives, and surrounds of large games such as deer or antelope. Hunting and combat, however, were men's activities, as well as the making of weapons and stone implements. Yet considerable cooperation obtained for major tasks requiring group effort. Among the modern Washoe, even when both men and women are wage earners, traditional gender roles tend to be maintained.

Land Tenure. Except for traditional habitation or hunting and gathering sites in regular use, Washoe territory was an open range accessible to any but hostile or uncooperative trespassers. Individual families claimed rights to certain plots in the Pinenut Range, but these were generally shared in times of abundance. There was no concept of sectional or Tribal land ownership but, rather, flexible and traditionally recognized domains of privilege with regard to natural resources. Notions of land ownership imposed by Whites during early contact, and in the arbitrary assignment of land allotments in the late nineteenth century, were alien and continue to engender stress in social relations. Many Washoe now own land individually, and certain new acquisitions are owned by the tribe in federal trust.

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