Washoe Tribe before the Indian Claims Commission

In 1974, after more than twenty years of litigation, the Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California received a settlement from the federal government in the form of $5 million as compensation for the incursion of white settlers into their ancestral homelands beginning in the mid-nineteenth century.  This decision represented a culmination of the torturous route followed by the Washoe people of the Sierra and Great Basin toward reorganization into a tribal entity and recognition of their traditional homelands.

With the conclusion of World War II, the U.S. Congress showed interest in settling all outstanding Indian claims against the United States including contractual, non-contractual, legal, and non-legal claims.  To help achieve this, Congress created the Indians Claims Commission (ICC) in 1946.  For the first time, it became more accessible for federally recognized Indian tribes (under the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934) to claim monetary compensation for lands and resources ceded to the expanding American nation.  By the late 1930s, Nevada’s recognized tribes included the Northern and Southern Paiute, Western Shoshone, Goshute, and the much smaller Washoe. 

Unlike the other tribes in Nevada, the Washoe had never entered into any formal or informal treaties. The discovery of valuable minerals, first in California and later in Utah territory (which would become Nevada), caused an influx of population from the outside world.  The lives and cultures of indigenous peoples in the Far West were forever altered by these events.  The swiftness with which white settlers rushed into California and Northern Nevada left little time for treaty making, and subsequently scattered and decimated indigenous populations.  In the absence of treaty recognition, the Washoe were left without any land and consequently no permanent homes, subsisting on the fringe of the newly arrived white society for decades to come.

In 1948, under the guidance of attorney George F. Wright of Elko, the Washoe asserted their claim for lands lost in Nevada and California.  Three years later, in 1951, the Washoe’s legal team filed their suit for an estimated 6,318,080 acres of land across two states.  Washoe land claims included areas of Lake Tahoe and lands up to and including the Comstock.

In the case of the Washoe, also known as “Docket 288,” the legal process brought into focus the power of expert testimony, specifically from anthropologists, in determining the outcome of the ICC decision. Dr. Julian H. Steward was employed by the federal government (the defendant), while his lesser-known antagonist Dr. Omer Call Stewart was employed by the Washoe Tribe (the plaintiff).  Both men had been students of Alfred Kroeber at the University of California, Berkeley, but their views of Indian culture and social development took different trajectories. 

The contrasting arguments of these two anthropological viewpoints not only affected the status of the Washoe in their case before the ICC, but also marked a milestone in the development of American anthropology in the twentieth century.  The ICC process represented one of the first instances in which anthropologists dealt extensively with contemporary issues surrounding indigenous peoples.  The role of anthropologists and the development of “applied anthropology” in ICC cases marked a pivotal change in the practice and methodology of the discipline.

In Docket 288, as in other previous and parallel cases involving western tribes, two prominent and well-respected anthropologists of their time—each employing different methodology to study the Indians of the Great Basin—challenged one another in front of the ICC.  Each offered contrasting expert opinions regarding the territorial claims of the Washoe.  Julian Steward’s approach to studying Indians of the Great Basin, which became known as “cultural ecology,” relied heavily on theories, laws, and typologies that he established between 1918 and 1943 while completing fieldwork among the Northern Paiute and Western Shoshone.  On behalf of the federal government Steward argued that the Washoe, like other indigenous peoples of the Great Basin, possessed the “most natural” cultures.  As a result, their level of social and cultural progressive was stunted, and they lacked organized governmental structure and property ownership outside of the family unit.  Steward’s approach resembled the methodology employed by earlier ethnographers including John Wesley Powell and Lewis Henry Morgan.

Steward’s theories received criticism from scholars and other anthropologists, especially Omer Stewart.  Steward has been accused of practicing “bloodless ethnology,” which left him disconnected from the everyday struggles of his subjects.  Despite the lack of popularity of his theories, Steward continued to dominate the “ethnographic universe of the Great Basin.”  Between 1935 and 1946, Steward even served as director of the Bureau of American Ethnology at the Smithsonian Institution. 

Steward’s former student from the University of Utah, Omer Stewart, representing the Washoe, focused more on the humanistic and applied aspects of fieldwork to make his case.  Stewart was a thoroughgoing cultural relativist, following in the footsteps of Kroeber, Franz Boas, and Alexander von Humboldt.  He believed Great Basin Indians were not static or strictly products of their environment; rather, they were active and capable participants constantly working to manipulate their environment.  Unlike Steward, Stewart spent substantial time completing fieldwork among the Washoe near Gardnerville, Nevada.

Stewart maintained that Steward had a certain distaste for Indians.  Stewart even accused Steward of using his models to demonstrate that “Indian people never used the land in the highest and best way, so they deserved to relinquish the land to Euro-Americans who represented a socially more advanced stage of evolution.”  Later in his career, Stewart was always quick to condemn Steward’s ethnocentric attitude toward American Indians.  Stewart’s work embraced the methodology and spirit of “applied anthropology” rather than adherence to theoretical systems.  His concrete arguments and examples ultimately supported effective testimony in the courtroom in the Washoe case.  He suggested that the added research “effectively conveyed a very real sense of the lives of members of a tribe as well as reinforcing the assertion of pre-contact occupation of a definable area.”

With the assistance of Omer Stewart and testimony provided by Washoe elder Richard Barrington of Sierraville, California, who had lived in Washoe territory since 1880, the Washoe case held its merit in the title phrase of the claim.  In January 1958, after more than two years of deliberation, the ICC ruled that the Washoe Tribe was a distinct unit, separate from the Indians of California.  In 1959, a compromise over a boundary line agreed upon by Stewart and Kroeber was struck over disputed lands in Sierra Valley, California.  Under the agreement, the Washoe’s claim shrank to 1,555,000 acres of land lost.  The claim still included valuable real estate at Lake Tahoe and on the Comstock.  The agreed upon territorial boundaries and acreage proved to be the most accurate description of Washoe territorial boundaries still recognized today.

Despite all odds, the ICC recognized the Washoe’s claim to lost territory and internal sovereignty over said territory.  Without the research and testimony of expert witnesses, especially the anthropologists who testified in the preliminary round of hearings, it is doubtful that the Washoe claim would have survived to receive recovery funds.  Overall, the long and tedious process resulted in a partial victory for the Washoe people.  Detracting from “the victory” was the lengthy duration of the hearings and most disappointingly, with no ancestral lands to be returned, the reward was lower than expected.  The settlement did allow the Washoe Tribe to invest seventy percent into tribal operations and programs and provide the remainder as per capita payments to older members of the tribe.  Other objectives outlined in the general plan for use of the claims funds were further consolidation of the tribe, improvement of tribal lands including housing and public services, raising the standard of living through education, and creation of jobs.

Whether or not the final settlement of $5 million offered to the Washoe represented justice or insult will be a continuing question, but it was a reality the tribe made the best of. The ICC was beneficial in affording the opportunity for a relatively small tribe such as the Washoe to be recognized, state their case, sue for compensation, and receive an award.  Anthropologists of the Omer Stewart persuasion were key in legitimizing Indian land claims, especially for the Washoe.  It is doubtful that their claim could have proceeded beyond the preliminary hearing without the testimony and cooperation of Stewart and his colleagues in the Anthropology Department at the University of California, Berkeley.

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