Washoe - Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Washoe society was egalitarian in orientation with no fixed distinctions of wealth or status groups. Leadership and roles of special skill were acquired through demonstrated ability and legitimized by local group recognition. Women frequently attained positions of authority and expert specialization. Personal attributes of generosity, modesty, and wise counsel were expected if the Community were not to withdraw its support by turning to another. Today, differences in education and income do obtain, but the traditional social values are effective in minimizing the development of class divisions.

Political Organization. Aboriginal Washoe communities were autonomous, each represented by local headmen or headwomen whose role was essentially that of admired adviser or spokesperson. Ties between local communities were voluntary and could be activated for cooperative enterprises such as festivals, game drives, and defense. Renowned shamans, hunters, or warriors sometimes were solicited as temporary leaders for these purposes. Communication was maintained with distant Washoe sections for periodic communal gatherings and, though rarely, during emergencies where additional warriors might be needed. During historic times, the forced concentration of the Washoe in the small areas allocated by Whites disrupted this pattern of organization. Certain spokesmen, either familiar with English or amenable to negotiation with Whites, were designated as "Captains" under the erroneous assumption that they represented most of the people. A few of these men, such as the renowned "Captain Jim" in the late nineteenth century, emerged as vigorous pleaders for the Washoe cause. Attempts at tribal reorganization in the early twentieth century were ineffective Because of the strong sense of family autonomy and resistance to centralized representation. In more recent times, however, an elected Washoe Tribal Council representing each of the colonies as well as off-reservation persons has developed a successful tribal government under federal supervision. It administers collective Washoe affairs and relations with state and federal agencies.

Social Control. Internal cohesion was maintained by intensive socialization for group solidarity. Aggressive behavior, except for defense of the group, was rigidly proscribed. Infractions were dealt with by collective avoidance or the threat of supernatural reprisal. Recalcitrant individuals might be driven from the group or even assassinated. Modern Washoe communities have the services of a tribal police force and courts. Law enforcement agencies of local towns and counties exert a degree of jurisdiction.

Conflict. Warfare among aboriginal Washoe subgroups appears to have been absent, though occasional feuds Between individuals or families erupted briefly into open violence. These were resolved when a wrong was deemed to have been avenged or through the intervention of elder negotiators on each side. As the first people in the western Great Basin to experience the full brunt of White invasion, the Washoe were quickly reduced to helplessness in defense of their interests. A deep sense of hopelessness and betrayal permeated their lives during most of the postcontact period and conditioned Washoe-White relations. Homicide, factionalism, gambling, suicide, and accusations of witchcraft increased throughout the small Washoe settlements in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Some individuals and families managed to escape the worst effects of these circumstances, but all endured the stigma of oppression and degradation. Today, the ravages of the recent past are being obliterated by a remarkable economic and social recovery. Internal conflict has greatly diminished and a positive cultural heritage is being reasserted.

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