Sarah Winnemucca was a Paiute educator, translator, author, and activist, and is known for being the first Native American woman to obtain a copyright and publish in the English language. Born circa 1844 to a Paiute chief, Winnemucca the Younger, she had little contact with white settlers as a little girl, but her maternal grandfather, Old Winnemucca, took her with him on a trip to Sacremento and then placed her with a family of white settlers for a time where she learned to read and write English. While she was away, Nevada volunteer cavalrymen raided her family’s camp and her father’s wife (not sure if this was Sarah’s mother) a daughter and infant son were killed and he eventually was forced to surrender.
In 1872, the Malheur Reservation was established in Oregon for the Northern Paiutes. Here Sarah taught school and acted as translator for the Indian Agent Samuel Parrish. For about four years things went relatively well until Parrish was replaced with William Rinhart. Rinhart established conditions which made living on the reservation intolerable which led to most of the people leaving the reservation. This along with situations of other Native Americans in the area led to the Bannock War. Although it’s not clear the degree to which Sarah’s people were involved in the war, Sarah acted as a translator of the US Army during the conflict. After the war, the Paiutes were forced to move to the Yakama Reservation in Washington Territory. The conditions here were terrible and after a time working as a translator, Sarah began to travel giving lectures about the plight of her people. She and her father went to Washington DC to obtain permission for the Paiutes to return to Malheur. Permission was granted, but later revoked.
While lecturing in California Sarah met and married Lewis Hopkins, an Indian Department employee. Together they traveled to the east coast where Sarah gave close to 300 lectures and met the Peabody sisters, Elizabeth and Mary. Together with Mary’s husband Horace Mann, they promoted Sarah’s lectures and encouraged her to publish them as a book. What money she made from the book was quickly depleted due to Lewis’s gambling and treatment for tuberculosis. Sarah returned to Nevada and established another school, this time one which promoted the Indian lifestyle and language. Its operation was brief due to the Dawes Severalty Act which required Indian children attend English-speaking schools.
In 1887, Lewis died and Sarah retired from public life. Four years later, Sarah herself died from tuberculosis on Oct 17, 1891. In 1993, Sarah Winnemucca was inducted into the Nevada Writers Hall of Fame and in 2005, a statue of her was placed in the National Statuary Hall Collection in the US Capitol.
Find out what else happened October 17 in Women’s History.