Washoe stories teach children about their culture — and how to stay safe
Special to The R-C
Eleanor Muscott remembers hearing Washoe stories when the power failed. If it was cold, she and her sisters and brothers couldn’t go outside to play or watch the one channel available on TV.
It was those times that her dad sat the kids down and told them Washoe stories.
“Creation of the Washoe People” related how the Creator, after consulting the trickster coyote, decided to make the Washoe people in his image and not that of a lizard, turtle or bear. He looked around the valley and found a bush covered with seeds. He took a big breath and blew on the seeds, and the wind spread them all over Nevada where they sprouted as the people.
“That’s how the Washoe Tribe came to be,” Muscott said. “My dad told me that story when I was very young.”
Muscott, program coordinator for the Douglas Native TANF program, was speaker at the third Washoe Storytellers presentation, held Tuesday at the Carson Valley Museum & Cultural Center to foster appreciation and knowledge of the Washoe language and culture.
Muscott told four traditional tales in English, since she doesn’t speak the Washoe language. “I’m a failure as a Washoe,” she said with a laugh. But she loves telling the stories to people new to them.
Muscott’s mother was Shoshone, Paiute and Washoe. At age 18, Muscott decided to be enrolled in the Washoe Tribe because, she said, the tribe is one of the smallest in the U.S., and as a teen she wanted “to be special.”
Over time, Washoe stories taught children how to behave, what their responsibilities were in the tribe social structure and do’s and don’ts of daily life. Parents wanted their children to be safe. “The Red Man,” a fearsome story about a giant man who stalked and ate Washoe people, reminded the kids to stay close to home, especially at night.
Muscott told one of her favorites, “Washoe Man,” a tale she learned from her uncle about water babies who live under Cave Rock at Lake Tahoe. Water babies have long flowing hair and the wrinkled faces of old men, conduct sacred ceremonies and can confer either good luck or bad luck on the men who come into their underwater lair.
That is why Washoe people hold Cave Rock to be sacred, Muscott said. The tribe asked for the permanent ban on climbing the volcanic formation, granted in the early 2000s.
Stories also taught children to be tolerant of other people and have respect for different cultures, according to Muscott.
“It’s the Washoe Tribe code of behavior,” she said, “and it’s being lost to the Washoe people, the reasoning behind these stories.”
Herman Fillmore of the Washoe Cultural Resource Department compiled a book of Washoe stories and conducts classes in the language. A fluent speaker himself, he gave the first presentation of the Washoe Storytellers series.
The next presentation is June 21 with Dinah Pete at the museum in Gardnerville. Doors open at 6 p.m., and the free presentation begins at 6:30 p.m. Contact Muscott at 265-2254 to purchase a book of Washoe stories.