Remembering Woodfords’ original residents
R-C Alpine Bureau
They lived in balance with these mountains. The rivers were filled with the native Lahontan cutthroat trout, called K’ik’idi in Washoe. Edible plants and berries grew in abundance. Today it is called Woodfords, but before the arrival of people seeking to find the riches of gold and silver it was part of the land that provided sustenance and life to the Hung-a-lel-ti band of the Washoe Tribe. They were undisturbed and stable here for uncounted generations.
Their lands were much larger than the borders of what is now Alpine County. With so many immigrants, gold seekers, and settlers coming through their way of life could no longer be supported. Using a cycle that meshed harmoniously with the seasons, the Washoe people were able to live here by hunting and gathering.
By 1849 trading posts were set up on their land. Settlers most often chose to live on parcels with abundant game and edible plants that were depended on by the tribe. Within a decade in the mid 19th century, everything about their existence and territory changed completely.
After gold was found in California, silver was discovered in Virginia City and the Comstock Bonanza lured those seeking riches onto Washoe terrain. The settlers viewed the land as an object of financial opportunity. In a very short time pine nuts, seeds, game, and fish had been overused. The harmonious rhythm that the Washoe had maintained was broken.
Settlers and miners cut down trees, including the sacred Piñon pine to build structures, support mine shafts, and even burn as fuel. The Piñon pine woodlands that had once provided the Washoe with more than enough pine nuts became barren hillsides. Lahontan cutthroat trout disappeared from the region’s waters after over harvesting. Today there are efforts being made to reintroduce the fish into Alpine’s rivers and lakes.
The Washoe hunted sage hens, deer, and many other local animals, all of which were plentiful. Each year their rabbit drive was a huge event. Rabbits provided fur for winter warmth and were another staple of their diet. The wagon trains came by the hundreds though, and traveled the trails that had previously been used by the Washoe for hunting and gathering. It completely disrupted their way of life. All of this happened less than 10 years after John Fremont led his exploratory mission through what is now Alpine County in 1844.
The Dawes Act of 1887 broke up Washoe land into individual allotments. Cattle ranchers also leased Washoe land. The tribe gained federal recognition in 1936, and filed a claim in 1951 asking for reparation for fishing and hunting rights, minerals, timber, and land that had been wrongly taken. They settled in 1970, but there was no amount of money that could replace their lost way of life or change the suffering that stemmed from that loss.
In 1970, a special act of Congress granted 80 acres to the tribe. This is now known as Hung-a-lel-ti. It is no where near enough land to support their previous way of living. Their ancient traditions included seasonal migration to the shores of Lake Tahoe, and encampment locations along the rivers and streams that were revisited each year. These special areas were chosen for specific access to hunting or for plants that were ready to harvest.
The Washoe people loved and still love this land, and respect the importance of every tree, animal, and plant. Each inch counts. It is possible to perceive evidence of the way it was for the people who had their beginnings on this exact spot if you know how to look. These rivers run like the blood through their veins.