At Tahoe forum, a tribe wins a deal

  • Brian Wallace at Taylor Creek beside Lake Tahoe

    Jon Christensen

LAKE TAHOE, Nev. - Washoe tribal chairman Brian Wallace says he feels "bittersweet" when he looks at what has happened to Lake Tahoe. The tribe's name for itself - "Wa Shi Shiw" - means "the people from here."

But the Washoe haven't felt at home at Lake Tahoe for a long time. During the California Gold Rush and the Comstock silver boom in Nevada in the late 1800s, the Tahoe basin "was clear-cut and cleared of Washoes at the same time," says Wallace.

"Now we're coming home," he says. At the Presidential Forum on Lake Tahoe in late July, Wallace negotiated a deal with the U.S. Forest Service that allows the tribe to use 440 acres of land beside the lake. That's the sweet part. The bitter part is driving by the T-shirt stands, jet ski rentals and casinos to get to the other side of the lake.

"We still believe we're some of the luckiest people on earth to call this home," says Wallace. "But it's hurtful to see the congestion." A bumper sticker on his van says, "Keep Tahoe Washoe," a takeoff on the popular "Keep Tahoe Blue" bumper sticker of the League to Save Lake Tahoe.

A few days earlier, President Clinton had acknowledged the tribe's rightful place at the lake before a hand-picked gathering of the local powers-that-be. "The first stewards of the lake were Washoe," Clinton said. "Lake Tahoe is a product of the good steward's hand and they treated it that way. When the Washoe came to the lake they blessed its waters and hardly left a track behind."

Clinton promised to double federal funding for projects to help restore Lake Tahoe, which is suffering from a precipitous decline in its famed clarity because of development and pollution (HCN, 5/12/97). But it was his emotional promise to help restore the Washoe to Lake Tahoe that got the most applause.

The agreement with the Forest Service provides for a special-use permit for the tribe to manage the 350-acre Meeks Bay meadows to grow traditional plants, Clinton said, as well as another 90 acres beside nearby Taylor Creek for a cultural center and tribal access to the water's edge for the first time in a century.

The tribe also will apply for a marina concession at Meeks Bay, and the Forest Service agreed to give their application in January special consideration. The deal also acknowledges the tribe's goal to acquire land by the lake.

'Friends are approaching'

"We were told we were going to be extinct," Wallace responded to the president. "We decided to hold onto a dream. The steps you have taken are magnificent. We have the feeling that friends are approaching."

"It's the dream of the Washoe," says Russell James, a Washoe tribal member and U.S. Forest Service employee who works in the area the tribe will soon control. James remembers camping and fishing, playing in the woods, and picking berries as a boy here. "It's all pretty much gone now," he says. "There's a lot of development in areas where we picked berries."

Before miners, loggers and tourists squeezed them out of the heart of their territory, the Washoe summered at the lake, fishing and harvesting food and medicine for winter. In the fall, they would move into the piûon-covered mountains east of here to gather pine nuts and hunt game. The tribe spent winters in the milder valleys east of Lake Tahoe, which is where most now live on postage-stamp reservations or private allotments.

From a population of 4,000 to 5,000, their number dwindled to 300 people, says Wallace. Today the tribe counts 1,680 enrolled members who have at least one Washoe grandparent. The tribe is enjoying a renaissance, with a relatively young population and a strong language renewal program.

Wallace's mother was Washoe. His father was Maidu, a neighboring tribe on the California side of the Sierra Nevada. Wallace grew up in Auburn, Calif., but his family kept ties to his mother's tribe, making yearly pilgrimages to Sand Harbor, a Nevada state park at Lake Tahoe, and Hobo Hot Springs, a popular tribal refuge in Carson Valley, Nev.

Wallace began working for the tribal housing program in his early 20s. He was appointed to the tribal council, and won election to several terms on the council, and then one term as vice chairman, and two terms so far as tribal chairman. He weathered a stinging scandal before his last re-election, when it was revealed he had charged $1,200 at a topless bar in Las Vegas to his tribal expense account, and he was ordered to pay back more than $7,000 in travel expenses.

Wallace spends a lot of time on what he calls "external relations' with the dozen counties, two states, and the federal government agencies that have some jurisdiction over the tribe. Wallace made sure that the tribe was involved in every aspect of the recent presidential visit, from the public prayers that started each session with a Washoe blessing, to the back-room meetings where final deals were hammered out.

"Brian was successful because he was a player," says Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., who persuaded the president to visit Lake Tahoe and provided "coverage and support" for the tribe, according to Wallace.

Now the Washoe Tribe may also gain a seat on the bi-state agency that governs planning at the lake. Peter Chase Neumann, President Clinton's appointee to the governing board of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, recently said that his seat should be given to the Washoe Tribe. Wallace says the tribe has long wanted a representative on the board.

At 40, Wallace has fashioned a role for himself at the center his tribe's history.-Although we didn't always have a direct relationship with the lake, we were not allowed to forget," he says. "There really is a genetic relationship. It's in our instructions. It goes back to our origin. This always has been and is today and always will be our home."

Jon Christensen reports from Carson City, Nevada.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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