Sarah Winnemucca Hopkins
Sarah Winnemucca was born near Humboldt Lake, Nevada, into an influential Paiute family who led their community in pursuing friendly relations with the arriving groups of Anglo-American settlers. She was sent to study in a Catholic school in Santa Clara, California. When the Paiute War erupted between the Pyramid Lake Paiute and the settlers, including some who were friends of the Winnemucca family, Sarah and some of her family traveled to San Francisco and Virginia City to escape the fighting. They made a living performing onstage as “A Paiute Royal Family.” In 1865, while the Winnemucca family was away, their band was attacked by the US cavalry, who killed 29 Paiutes, including Sarah’s mother and several members of her extended family.
Subsequently, Winnemucca became an advocate for the rights of Native Americans, traveling across the US to tell Anglo-Americans about the plight of her people. When the Paiute were interned in a concentration camp at Yakima, Washington after the Bannock War, she traveled to Washington, D.C. to lobby Congress and the executive branch for their release. She also served US forces as a messenger, interpreter, and guide, and as a teacher for imprisoned Native Americans.
Winnemucca published Life Among the Paiutes: Their Wrongs and Claims (1884), a book that is both a memoir and history of her people during their first 40 years of contact with European Americans. It is considered the “first known autobiography written by a Native American woman.” Anthropologist Omer Stewart described it as “one of the first and one of the most enduring ethnohistorical books written by an American Indian,” frequently cited by scholars. Following the publication of the book, Winnemucca toured the Eastern United States, giving lectures about her people in New England, Pennsylvania, and Washington, D.C. She returned to the West, founding a private school for Native American children in Lovelock, Nevada.
Since the late 20th century, scholars have paid renewed attention to Winnemucca for her accomplishments. In 1993, she was inducted posthumously into the Nevada Writers Hall of Fame. In 2005, the state of Nevada contributed a statue of her by sculptor Benjamin Victor to the National Statuary Hall Collection in the U.S. Capitol.
Winnemucca’s legacy has been controversial. Some biographers have wished to remember her primarily for her activism and social work to better the conditions for her people, while others have criticized her for her tendency to exaggerate her social status among the Paiute. Among the Paiute, her assistance to the US military at a time when they were at war with the Paiute has been criticized, as has her advocacy for assimilation of Natives to Anglo-American culture. But the Paiute have also recognized her social work and activism for indigenous rights.