Washoe - Orientation

Identification. The spelling "Washo" became standard in the ethnographic and linguistic literature of the twentieth century, but "Washoe" is the official spelling used by the People and has been firmly established as local usage in Nevada. The people refer to themselves as wá·šiw or waší·šwíw which appears to mean "people from here."

Location. In early historic times the Washoe inhabited a region of about four thousand square miles between Honey Lake to the north and the upper reaches of the West Walker River to the south. On the east, the Pinenut and Virginia ranges separated them from the Northern Paiute, and on the west the crest of the Sierra Nevada Mountains separated them from the Miwok and Maidu peoples. The state boundary between Nevada and California roughly bisects their ancient territory, running through Lake Tahoe at an approximate center. Their major year-round settlements were in the well-watered valleys along the eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains at an altitude of about forty-five hundred feet and where there was an abundance of vegetation and game. They also made extensive use of alpine areas up to elevations of six thousand or more feet for seasonal hunting, fishing, and gathering except during the severest winters. Regular treks were made to the acorn oak groves in the foothills over the crest of the mountains as well as to fishing sites shared with the Northern Paiute at Pyramid, Walker, and Mono lakes. Today, the remaining Washoe live in small colonies and scattered settlements at Reno, Carson City, and Dresslerville, Nevada, and around Woodfords, California. The headquarters of the modern tribal government is at Gardnerville, Nevada.

Demography. The estimates of an aboriginal population of fifteen hundred or so Washoe people are much lower than what might be expected from the size and resources of the area they inhabited. But they did suffer a sharp drop in numbers owing to disease and poverty in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when figures as low as three hundred were reported. After the 1950s, with increased federal support for education and improved economic conditions, there has been a rapid population recovery indicated by the registration of well over fifteen hundred persons on the tribal rolls.

Linguistic Affiliation. Linguists tentatively agree that Washoe (Washo) belongs to the Hokan stock of Amerind Languages. Evidence is uncertain for earlier conjectures that the Washoe migrated eastward from a prehistoric association with other Hokan-speaking peoples in what is now California to their present location, or that they represent the remnant of an ancient distribution of Hokan-speakers some one thousand or more years ago. The isolation of Washoe from related languages, together with linguistic and archaeological Evidence, suggests that it has been in place for many thousands of years. The language reveals little dialectic differentiation, but some borrowing has occurred with Numic and other neighboring languages. The number of fluent speakers of Washoe has declined drastically in recent times.

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