CHAPTER III. THE INDIANS OF LAKE TAHOE
Since Lake Tahoe was the natural habitat of one of the most deliciously edible fishes found in the world, the Indians of the region were bound, very early in their history here, to settle upon its shores. These were the Paiutis and the Washoes. The former, however, ranging further east in Nevada, were always regarded as interlopers by the latter if they came too near to the Lake, and there are legends current of several great struggles in which many lives were lost, where the Washoes battled with the Paiutis to keep them from this favored locality.
Prior to the coming of the emigrant bands in the early 'forties of the last century, the only white men the Indians ever saw were occasional trappers who wandered into the new and strange land. Then, the beautiful Indian name, soft and limpid as an Indian maiden's eyes, was Wasiu - not the harsh, Anglicized, Washoe. Their range seemed to be from Washoe and Carson valleys on the east in winter, up to Tahoe and over the Sierras for fishing and hunting in the summer. They never ventured far westward, as the Monos and other mountain tribes claimed the mountain regions for their acorns and the game (deer, etc.), which abounded there.
While in the early days of the settlements of whites upon their lands the Washoes now and again rose in protest, and a few lives were lost, in the main they have been a peaceable and inoffensive tribe. The Paiutis were far more independent and warlike, placing their yoke upon the weaker tribe. Indeed, when I first talked with the older Washoes and Paiutis thirty years ago they were full of stories of big wars between themselves. They showed me rocks near to the present town of Verdi, on the line of the Southern Pacific, on which their ancestors had made certain inscriptions which they interpreted as warnings to the Paiutis not to dare trespass beyond that sign, and the Paiutis had similar notices inscribed upon bowlders near to their boundary lines. As a result of one of their fights the Washoes were forbidden the use of horses, and it is only since the whites have exercised control that the weaker tribe has dared to disregard this prohibition.
To-day they number in the region of six hundred men, women and children. On account of their nomadic habits it is impossible to secure a complete census.
In appearance they are heavy and fat, though now and again a man of fine, muscular form and good height is found. The women have broad, shapeless figures and clumsy, deliberate movements. The older they get the more repulsive and filthy they become. While young some of the women have pleasing, intelligent and alert faces, while children of both sexes are attractive and interesting. But with them as with all aboriginal people who have absorbed the vices and none of the virtues of the whites, the Washoes are fast losing power, vigor and strength by disease and dissipation. The smoke of the campoodie fire is also ruinous to their eyes and ophthalmia is prevalent among them. It is no uncommon thing to see a man or woman entirely blind.
The old-time methods of clothing have entirely disappeared. When I first knew them it was not unusual to find an old Indian wrapped in a blanket made of twisted rabbit-skins, but I doubt if one could be found to-day. The white man's overalls, blouse and ordinary coat and vest for the men, with calico in variegated colors for the women, seem to have completely taken the place of their own primitive dress. A pair of moccasins, however, now and again, may be found in use at a dance or on some special occasion.
They still paint and tattoo their faces, hands and wrists, in lines, triangles and circles. On their bodies also stripes of irregular design and varying colors are often used, all having a symbolic meaning originally, now lost, however, at least to all the younger members of the tribe. Painting the face has a definite and useful purpose. It softens the skin and prevents the frosts of winter from cracking it.
Their dwellings are of the rudest character, mere brush shacks in summer, and in winter, nondescript structures of brush, old boards, railroad ties, tin cans, barrel-staves, old carpet, canvas, anything that will sustain a roof and keep out wind, rain and as much of the cold as possible. Their name for this structure is campoodie. Of course there is no pretense of sanitation, cleanliness or domestic privacy. The whole family herds together around the smoking fire, thus early beginning the destruction of their eyesight by the never-ceasing and irritating smoke.
Their native food consists of fish, the products of the chase, which include deer, antelope, an occasional bear, rabbits, squirrels and even coyotes, mountain-lions and wildcats, with acorns, manzanita berries, currants and the seeds of wild peaches and the various grasses, together with a large assortment of roots. While they gather and eat pine nuts, they generally save them for purposes of barter or sale. Their carrying baskets contain a good wheelbarrow load and are called mo-ke-wit.
They are great gamblers, their chief game being a guessing contest, where sides are chosen, the fortune of each side depending on its ability to guess who holds a certain decorated stick. Men and women alike play the game, though generally the sexes separate and play by themselves. Quiet chanting or singing often accompanies the game. All alike smoke the cigarette.