Ancient Voices

A Museum to honor the least known people in North America, the Original Tribal Women

Sarah Winnemucca ( Thocmetony)
Northern Paiute
1844 - 1891
The first American Indian woman to write a book in English

"I was born somewhere near 1844, but am not sure of the precise time. I was a very small child when the first white people came into our country. They came like a lion, yes, like a roaring lion, and have continued so ever since, and I have never forgotten their first coming. My people were scattered at that time over nearly all the territory now known as Nevada. My grandfather was chief of the entire Piute nation, and was camped near Humboldt Lake, with a small portion of his tribe, when a party travelling eastward from California was seen coming. When the news was brought to my grandfather, he asked what they looked like? When told that they had hair on their faces, and were white, he jumped up and clasped his hands together and cried aloud--"My white brothers--my long-looked for white brothers have come at last!""
(Sarah Winnemucca, Life Among the Piutes).

(Please note: Paiute is also spelled Piute depending on the source used )


Born in 1844 the daughter of Poito (Chief Winnemucca or Old Winnemucca) and Tuboitonie at Humboldt Sink, Nevada (then claimed by México as part of Territorio de Alta, California). Her maternal grandfather was Captain Truckee “Good,” a Winnemucca Northern Paiute chief who fought with John C. Frémont during the Mexican-American war. Although Sarah claimed that her father was chief of all the Northern Paiute (and she was therefore often called the "Paiute Princess" by the press), the Paiute had no centralized leadership and her father, though influential, was the leader of a small band. At the time of Sarah's birth, Northern Paiutes and Washos were the sole inhabitants of the land that is now western Nevada. Her birth coincided with the beginning of an era of dramatic historical changes for her people, changes in which she would, as an adult, play an important and often thankless role.

Her grandfather, Chief Truckee, welcomed the arrival of his "white brothers" and helped General John C. Fremont in the Bear War against Mexican control of California. However, her father, Chief Winnemucca, did not trust the white people and cautioned his own people to keep their distance. Perhaps hearing these opposite viewpoints became a portent of her life, which was spent attempting to interpret the two cultures to each other. She worked throughout her life to communicate between her people and the white people, to defend Paiute rights, and to create understanding.

Sarah was first introduced to white people at age six when her grandfather insisted she go with him to California. She was initially frightened, but did like such luxuries as beds, chairs, brightly colored dishes and the food she was served. For a time, Winnemucca lived a peaceful life, but then ranchers tried to assault her older sister. Winnemucca's family decided to move back to Nevada hoping for a peaceful life, but their territory had been invaded by more and more white settlers. Winnemucca's father took her and other relatives to Virginia City to seek help. He went onstage to ask people for their help in understanding how Indians live and how they were being pushed off their land by thoughtless settlers. Winnemucca translated her father's words into English. From that time on, she became a spokesperson and activist for Indian rights. When she was thirteen, her grandfather had arranged for Sarah and her sister to become members of Major Ormsby's household at Mormon Station, now Genoa, Nevada. By the time she was fourteen, she had acquired five languages, three Indian dialects, English and Spanish. Both times that she left her tribe, Sarah returned following an incident of white people treating her tribe poorly.

Sarah's final visit in the white culture at age sixteen fulfilled her grandfather's deathbed request that she and her sister Elma be educated in a convent school at San Jose, California. The two girls were never officially admitted to the school, but during their few weeks there, she continued to acquire more knowledge and experience in the new culture.

As a child she was given the northern Paiute name Thocmetony, which means "shell flower" and wrote the following about that name:
"Many years ago, when my people were happier than they are now, they used to celebrate the Festival of Flowers in the spring . . . Oh, with what eagerness we girls used to watch every spring for the time when we could meet with our hearts' delight, the young men, whom in civilized life you call beaux. We would all go in company to see if the flowers we were named for were yet in bloom, for almost all the girls were named for flowers ... All the girls who have flower-names dance along together, and those who have not go together also.

"I will repeat what we say of ourselves. 'I, Sarah Winnemucca, am a shell-flower, such as I wear on my dress. My name is Thocmetony. I am so beautiful! Who will come and dance with me while I am so beautiful? Oh, come and be happy with me! I shall be beautiful while the earth lasts. Somebody will always admire me; and who will come and be happy with me in the Spirit-land? I shall be beautiful forever there. Yes, I shall be more beautiful than my shell-flower, my Thocmetony! Then, come, oh come, and dance and be happy with me!' The young men sing with us as they dance beside us"
(Life Among the Piutes).

As Sarah reached maturity, the white emigration west continued to encroach on Paiute territory, and eventually, whites insisted on moving all Indians onto reservations, first the Pyramid Lake Reservation in Nevada, then the Malheur Indian Reservation in Oregon, and finally to Yakima, Washington. The days of hunting and gathering freely had ended for her tribe. In 1872, Sarah was with her people on the Malheur Reservation in Oregon where Indian Agent Samuel Parrish was treating everyone fairly. However, he was replaced with a less reliable agent, and as problems mounted on the reservations, Sarah prepared to travel to Washington, D.C. to speak out on behalf of her people, a trip that was interrupted while she aided U.S. troops in the Bannock war of 1878. Here she offered her services to the Army as an interpreter and scout. She volunteered to enter Bannock territory when she learned that her father's lodge had been surrounded by hostile Indians, and other tribesmen had been taken hostage by the Bannocks.

She travelled without sleep over 200 miles in 48 hours over treacherous Idaho terrain. She freed her father and other captives and served as an army scout in the war against the Bannocks. She then spoke out, describing the plight of her people, exiled from their homelands, and the treachery of dishonest Indian agents.

She drew much attention, and was able to speak with President Rutherford Hayes and Interior Secretary Carl Schurz; Sarah did receive promises of improvements for her people, which were later broken by the government, promises to return her tribe to the Malheur Reservation were never honored. Despite passage of Congressional legislation enabling the return of the Paiute land, the legislation was never enacted.

Even though she worked tirelessly for her people, the broken promises caused them to distrust her. Still, she dedicated the remainder of her life to her work, giving more than 400 speeches to gain support for the Paiutes. Many of her speeches were given on the East Coast through the support of Elizabeth Peabody and Mary Peabody Mann. Her lectures helped increase awareness and sympathy for the plight of Native Americans.

With encouragement of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Massachusetts senator Henry Dawes, and Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, she wrote an autobiography, 'Life Among the Piutes[sic]: Their Wrongs and Claims'. It was the first book written in English by a Native American woman. Although Sarah was a better public speaker than writer, the words are still forceful and are more readable than the stilted prose then popular in the Victorian era.

While lecturing in San Francisco, California, Sarah met and married Lewis H. Hopkins, an Indian Department employee. It is said that she was also married to Lt. E. C. Bartlett but left him within a year because of his intemperance. She later married an Indian husband, but left him for his gross abuse of her.

Sarah was dedicated to teaching school to Paiute children and opened a non-government school for Indian children which was to promote the Indian lifestyle and language, called "Peabody's Institute" near Lovelock, Nevada. She used her royalties from her book and donations. However, she ran out of money and was never able to get Federal funding. The school operated briefly, until the Dawes Severalty Act of 1887 required Indian children to attend English-speaking boarding schools. Despite a bequest from Mary Peabody Mann and efforts to turn the school into a technical training center, Sarah's funds were depleted by the time her husband died of tuberculosis. His disease and gambling left her with little money and so the school was closed.

Sick herself, Sarah moved to live with her sister Elma and she spent the last four years of her life retired from public activity. Sarah died in October 1891 at her sister’s home near Henry’s Lake, Idaho.

"Sarah Winnemucca will always be remembered as a dedicated Native American woman who belonged to two cultures. With one foot in the Indian Nation and the other in the white man's world, she sped across the plains like a blazing arrow only to fall short of her target. Although the Princess was recognized throughout the land as the passionate voice of the Paiute Indians, she was treated with indifference by the United States Government. Disillusioned and betrayed, Sarah died before she completed her, mission, believing herself to be a failure"
(Seagraves, High Spirited Women of the West).

The Sarah Winnemucca Statue

Sarah Winnemucca brings descendant and artist together for sculpture and Nevada Day parade
by Maggie O'Neill
October 25, 2004

Victor's statue shows Winnemucca with a shell-flower, from which her Indian name comes, in her outstretched right hand and a book tucked against her hip with her left hand.


One hundred-thirteen years after her death, Paiute activist Sarah Winnemucca recently crossed the paths of two people laboring to portray her.

Last week, Adrienne Wahnetah, a 15-year-old student at Carson High School, met Benjamin Victor, a 25-year-old sculptor from South Dakota. Wahnetah, dressed in American Indian clothing, stared up at a 6-foot-4 sculpture Victor has worked on for four months in a corner of the Nevada State Library and Archives. Wahnetah will wear the same native clothing as the statue in Saturday's Nevada Day parade when she portrays her great-great-great aunt Winnemucca. "It's beautiful," she said as she peered with intent curiosity at the statue.

The likeness between Wahnetah and the image before the sculptor was stunning. And when the girl spoke, her knowledge of Winnemucca flowed. "What I admire about her the most probably was the way she stood up for her people and had to fight for them," Wahnetah said. She recently re-established the Native American Club at Carson High and is co-host of a talk-show 9 a.m. Saturday mornings on KPTL AM 1300 that works to bring ethnic groups together.

Victor, who said he has experienced moments of complete agony and total ecstasy while working on the Winnemucca sculpture, has four months of work to go, including bronzing, until it becomes part of the Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. He will be the youngest sculptor to have his work permanently displayed there. "It's such a huge honor," he said. "I don't think anything I ever do will replace the specialness of this piece."

Victor's statue shows Winnemucca with a shell-flower, from which her Indian name comes, in her outstretched right hand and a book tucked against her hip with her left hand. After reading a book on Winnemucca's life, Victor decided she should be in motion and used wind as a symbol.

Wahnetah and Victor found much to talk about when they met. Victor asked her about the fringes of her dress, and if she thought they were similar to those Winnemucca wore in a photo.

Wahnetah gave Victor a bag of pine nuts, a traditional Paiute food. She asked him about the statue, how difficult the details on the bottom of the dress were to do, and how tall it was.

"How tall are you?" Victor asked her. "Five-two," she said. "Sarah Winnemucca was just a little under 5-2," Victor said.

Most of the other Statuary Hall pieces, like the statue of Sen. Patrick McCarran, a Nevada attorney and state Supreme Court judge, are 8 or 9 feet tall.

Victor, who has American Indian blood, told Wahnetah and her mother, Lisa Grayshield, that Wahnetah's great-grandmother, Louise Tannheimer, also a descendant of Winnemucca, visited him recently.

Wahnetah and Victor will share a convertible in Saturday's parade with Reno Justice of the Peace Barbara Finley, a member of the Nevada Women's History Project, which promoted the making of the statue.

"I'm really pleased Adrienne will portray (Sarah Winnemucca)," her mother said. "She's a leader. She's a strong young woman. I think she definitely has some of Sarah Winnemucca's spirit."

High School student Adrienne Wahnetah, 15, poses in traditional American Indian dress at the Nevada State Library and Archives.

Wahnetah is the great-great-great niece of Sarah Winnemucca and will portray the Paiute activist in the Nevada Day parade.

photo copyright Nevada appeal

Contact reporter Maggie O'Neill at mo'

In 2005 Sarah Winnemucca was honored with a statue in the U.S Capitol. Each state sends two statues to the Capitol, and Nevada choose her to represent their state in 2005.

Dorothy Ely says she is afraid of the airplane ride to Washington, D.C., but still could not miss seeing the statue of her great-aunt, Sarah Winnemucca, placed in National Statuary Hall. “I think it’s great and I want to be there,” said Ely, 69. “It’s very moving.”

She is not alone.

Many, including 26-year-old sculptor Benjamin Victor, are excited that the effort to make Winnemucca the second statue from Nevada to sit in the Capitol is almost accomplished. Today, there will be a dedication of a statue depicting Sarah, the daughter of Chief Winnemucca, who fought for equal rights for her people. “I can’t wait,” said Victor, of Aberdeen, S.D. “I’ve never even been to D.C. and to go for something like this — I’m a bit starstruck.”

A year out of college, Victor’s first commission will be alongside works by the master sculptors he studied. He says he feels like the kid who dreams of meeting basketball great Michael Jordan and finally gets to look up at him in awe. “It’s your greatest feeling,” he said. “The piece itself is more deserving than I am.”

Carrie Townley Porter, who proposed the idea to the Nevada Women’s History Project five years ago and was part of the selection committee, said Nevadans will be proud when they travel east and see Winnemucca. “Putting Sarah back in Washington to be a light for Americans will be the greatest history accomplishment of my life,” she said. The endeavor, from drafting the bill and getting it passed by the state Legislature to raising the necessary funds, was not easy, she said “We worked hard to get the bill passed and we did,” Porter said.

Former Assemblywoman Marcia de Braga sponsored the bill, which was signed by Gov. Kenny Guinn on May 29, 2001. Initially, $100,000 was attached to the bill to pay for the statue. “However, that year there was a tight budget,” de Braga said. “So I removed the money. I just wanted the bill regardless and hoped we could find a way to raise the money.” There were some who questioned why Winnemucca was chosen, instead of another political figure. “It was hard to argue the fact that Sarah Winnemucca accomplished so much,” de Braga said. “She was picked not as a Native American but because she was Nevada’s first public woman.”

Winnemucca lectured to whites at home and across the country seeking justice for the Paiute people. In 1880, she met with President Rutherford B. Hayes and other officials in Washington, D.C., about the poor conditions of her people. “Sarah’s weapon was her eloquent tongue,” said Sally Zanjani in her biography “Sarah Winnemucca.”

With the bill passed, the next challenge was to raise money. There never should have been opposition to the statue but there was, De Braga said. “There was some controversy among Native Americans,” she said. The book says some people did not like the fact that Winnemucca married white men and called her an “assimilationist.” “Some see her as a “traitor” who sold out her people during the Bannock War and even cost Paiute lives,” Zanjani said in her book. However, Zanjani said that conclusion did not hold up. And the controversy did not stop the Nevada Women’s History Project from going around the state to raise money. “We envisioned that this should be a citizens’ project, ” Porter said. “We wanted people to have a sense of ownership in that statue that represents Nevada. That they helped put that statue there.”

One of the first donations came from an elementary school in Schurz, which Porter said held a read-a-thon and raised $26. The Sarah Winnemucca Elementary School in Reno collected $700, Porter said. “And we were told the smallest donation was one cent,” she said.

Then Nevada first lady Dema Guinn, who was part of the selection committee, stepped in and helped raised money not only for the statue in Washington but enough to have a full-size statue in Carson City. “I did go after some people that I encouraged to give some money,” Guinn said. “This is such an important thing. This is about history. This is about what Nevada is all about.”

Winnemucca is the fourth woman to be placed in the hall, which Guinn said makes this an extra-special honor for Nevada. “We had strong women and she was one of them,” Guinn said. “Her drive and dedication to me, I just marvel at that.” She said she also marveled at Victor’s ability to capture the essence of Winnemucca. “I think people will walk in and their eye will go straight to Sarah,” Guinn said. Victor agrees.

The proclaimed perfectionist, who spent almost four months at a foundry in Colorado with his statue making sure every step of the process went flawlessly, proudly says Winnemucca will stand out from every other statue in the hall. He was there bending the fringes on the bottom of her dress to look windswept. Even the warm-brown patina finish had to hit the light just so. Victor, who will be the hall’s youngest sculptor, says the other statues are static. “Sarah is in motion. And that will set her apart from every sculpture in the hall,” he said. “I think everyone when they see it is going to be surprised and happy with it.”

The statue of Winnemucca had to be in motion to depict her life as an activist and the enthusiasm she had, Victor said.

The irony is that Winnemucca now will stand permanently where she begged for, but was denied, help for her Pyramid Lake tribe. “She believed she was a failure when she died,” Victor said. “She died believing she had failed in her causes. Here we are 100 years later realizing she is their equal.” Although it will be sad to say goodbye to the woman he has spent the past year with, Victor says he wouldn’t want to keep her.

“She needs to be out there in D.C. where she always traveled,” he said. “She was there in her lifetime trying to make a difference. And she will be making a difference forever in the Capitol. That’s pretty cool.”

Sarah Winnemucca statue
by Benjamin Victor, 2005



Life Among the Piutes[sic]: Their Wrongs and Claims, published in 1883.

Life Among the Piutes is Sarah Winnemucca's powerful legacy to both cultures, the Native Americans and the whites. It appeared in 1883, the first book ever published that was written by a Native American woman. Following the oral tradition of her people, she reaches out to readers with a deeply personal appeal for understanding, recording a portion of the history of the far west from the Native American perspective.

The book was a monumental achievement, recording the Native American viewpoint of whites settling the west, told in a language that was not her own and written and published by a woman during the time when even white women were not allowed to vote, second only to the work she performed every day to promote understanding across cultures.

Posthumously, she was awarded the Nevada Writers Hall of Fame Award for her book from the Friends of the Library, University of Nevada, Reno.

In 1994 an elementary school in Washoe County School District was named in her honor, Sarah Winnemucca Elementary.

Sarah Winnemucca,
by Sally Zanjani.
University of Nebraska Press: Lincoln and London, 2001.

Chief Sarah : Sarah Winnemucca's Fight for Indian Rights
by Dorothy Nafus Morrison

Sarah Winnemucca of the Northern Paiutes
by Gae Canfield, (1983).
Probably the best writtten biography of her life.
Sarah Winnemucca: Northern Paiute Writer and Diplomat
by Ellen Scordato (1992)
Three Amercian Indian Women: Pocahontas, Sacajawea, Sarah Winnemucca of the Northern Paiutes
by Grace Steele Woodward, Harold P. Howard, Gae Whitney Canfield (1995)

"The women sit behind [the men] in another circle, and if the children wish to hear they can be there too. The women know as much as the men do, and their advice is often asked. We have a republic as well as you. The council-tent is our Congress and anybody can speak who has anything to say, women and all. If women could go into your Congress I think justice would soon be done to the Indians." Sarah Winnemucca


The Governor of Nevada proclaimed April 6th, 2005 as Sarah Winnemucca Day. Please click HERE to see the proclamation


Thanks to the following people for their input
Natalie M. Rosinsky.

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