Paiute Princess: The Story of Sarah Winnemucca

Paiute Princess:  The Story of Sarah Winnemucca

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Farrar Straus Giroux May 2012

In 1859, when Sarah Winnemucca was fifteen -- a decade after the California Gold Rush began -- silver was discovered in Nevada: “They came like a lion, yes, like a roaring lion. “Within weeks, thousands arrived from the nearby California goldfields and from distant places. The boomtown of Virginia City sprang up.

In their quest for sudden wealth, miners overran the Paiute hunting lands and recklessly chopped down the piñon trees for mine supports. “Winter that year was unusually long and bitter. Many Paiute froze to death. Others starved. Desperate and angry, bands camped outside Virginia City, eating the white man’s garbage.

Talk of war against the invaders began. “Sarah's father and aged grandfather pleaded with their people to keep the peace. So did her cousin Numaga, known for his bravery. As the tribe’s designated war chief, he eloquently argued in council against going into battle. “’Your enemies are like the sands in the bed of your rivers; where taken away they only give place for more to come and settle there…They will come like the sand in a whirlwind and drive you from your homes. You will be forced among the barren rocks of the north, where your ponies will die; where you will see the women and old men starve, and listen to the cries of your children for food.’ “

Sadly, every word he said would come true. “The bloody battles of the Pyramid Lake War of 1860 ended in defeat for the Paiute. Before the year was over, the United States Army had built Fort Churchill on the Carson River, and many of the tribes had been moved onto a reservation at Pyramid Lake.” Lies, betrayals, greed, and politics would force the steadily diminishing population of Northern Paiute people to relocate again and again.

Amidst this tragedy there lived a native woman who, as a child, learned to read and write English (as well as Spanish), and then grew to employ it to speak her mind about the atrocities inflicted by the white men. Her birth name was Thocmetony, but one of her grandfather’s white friends called her by the name Sarah.

In PAIUTE PRINCESS: THE STORY OF SARAH WINNEMUCCA, author/illustrator Deborah Kogan Ray utilizes her subject’s letters and autobiography (the first autobiography written by a native woman), along with news articles and government records, to tell the story of this young woman with a gift for learning languages, who first saw white people at age six (during the Gold Rush), and grew up to be an activist, educator, and voice for her people.

This is one of those true stories that made me want to puke. I once again take comfort in knowing that all of my ancestors were still engaged in eking out an existence in Europe whilst these nineteenth century American soldiers, miners, and settlers in the West were busy destroying the Northern Paiute’s lands, slaughtering their people, and worse. As Sarah wrote: “After the soldiers had killed all but some little children and babies still tied up in their baskets, the soldiers took them also, and set the camp on fire and threw them into the flames to burn them alive. I had one baby brother killed there.”

This rich picture book biography for older readers – a story that reveals one of those not-so-honorable sides in the making of America story -- is made even more valuable thanks to the inclusion of additional information about Sarah’s work, an author’s note, timeline, and a bibliography.  48 pages  978-0-374-398972  Ages 8-11

Recommended by: Richie Partington, Librarian, California USA

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