Valley says farewell to Winona James |

Valley says farewell to Winona James

by Jonni Hill

A chapter in the Washoe Tribe’s history ended Tuesday when 102-year-old elder Winona James closed her eyes for the last time and peacefully went to sleep.

“It was a relief that she could go so peaceful without any suffering,” said granddaughter Cindy Davis of Sparks.

“Grandmother was a great pillar in the Washoe Tribe and she fought for her people all the way to the end. She will be remembered fondly by many people and greatly missed,” Davis said.

Winona James was fine-featured and petite, which masked a strong independent will and a marvelous wit.

“Old ladies raise hell,” she said at her 101st birthday party as she was wheeled into the room at the Stewart Center in Carson City, where her guests had gathered to honor her. Decked out in her new birthday presents of turquoise jewelry, her hair braided neatly in two tightly-wrapped buns, she greeted her guests and talked almost non-stop through the full Washoe ceremony given in her honor.

She was born Sept. 14, 1902 in the sagebrush behind the Douglas County Courthouse in Genoa. She lived in Nevada her entire life, survived two marriages, raised three children, and helped raise her grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

She outlived all three of her children and she was still driving a car well into her early 80s. When asked what she attributed her longevity to, she flatly stated, “I never smoked, not a bit, and the only thing I drink is water on the rocks.”

She was orphaned at a very young age and was raised by her grandparents, Maggie Merrill and Charlie Kyser. Her grandfather re-married the famous Washoe basketmaker, Dat-So-La-Lee, who helped raise her in the tradition of the Washoe.

Following the seasons, her small family spent their summers encamped at South Lake Tahoe and winters in Carson Valley.

” I spent years at South Lake Tahoe, near Emerald Bay, from the time I was a baby in a basket, she said at one of her birthdays. “Lake Tahoe was known as Washoe Lake and I loved it there, before everyone took it away from us. I don’t like it now. Too many people.”

Educated for a time at the Mottsville School and the Stewart Indian School, James was soon on her own. At 14, she worked at a photo shop at Lake Tahoe, selling cards on the dock to passengers who came by boat. When she was about 21, she married Carson Valley rancher Oscar VanSickle.

She loved ranch life, she loved cooking for people and there was always something to do. After they sold their ranch and moved to Reno, VanSickle became a carpenter and they built a house in South Reno. She divorced VanSickle after 12 years of marriage and later married Don James, a Washoe.

They had a riding stables at the lake on the South Shore where they stayed all summer. In the winter they would travel. He would shear sheep in the spring often in Carson Valley and they moved wherever the work was. They had been married for 50 years when Mr. James died in 1985.

She was an avid horsewoman and continued to ride until she was almost 90. She often shared memories of riding over the mountains carrying fingerling fish, used to stock the streams and high country lakes, in milk cartons.

The family has requested that any memorials be in the form of donations to the Carson Valley Museum and Cultural Center in Gardnerville, specifically dedicated to the Indian studies and displays in the Museum.