The people of the Valley: Proud of ancient traditions, the Washoe Tribe looks to the future |

The people of the Valley: Proud of ancient traditions, the Washoe Tribe looks to the future

by Sharlene Irete

It was a day of snow, rain, sunshine, wind, young people and old people, looking back in history and making 21st century adaptations – with a thread of tradition running throughout. Another day in the life of the People of the Valley.

In the Pine Nut Mountains with the environmental department

The calendar says fall, but the weather is a preview of winter as snowflakes swirl in the wind in the Pine Nut Mountains on the morning of Nov. 8, 2006.

There are about two dozen people in the Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California’s Environmental Protection Department, and today five are working on a woodlands project.

“The piñon beetle beat up the land,” said tribe environmental specialist Darrel Cruz. “We’re targeting beetle-infested trees by taking them out. That way the healthy trees are able to resist disease.”

The crew is chipping and removing dead and infested trees on a section off Highway 395 on the way to Topaz Lake in the Pine Nut Range.

“This is the Frank parcel – 50 acres,” said Cruz.

“We’ll take care of about 20 acres or until we run out of money.

“Part of the reason we do this in the fall is because the beetles go into dormancy. By chipping, we hope to expose them to the cold. They can’t survive the cold.”

The conservation crew removes some chips to give the tribe’s elders to use for fuel. Some chips are used as base on back-country roads.

“Biomass – that’s the chips and the firewood – is delivered to the elders so everyone’s benefiting,” said Cruz. “And by thinning the forest we keep it from getting destroyed by fires.”

Environmentalists have found the benefits of letting wild land fires burn naturally, but for the past 100 years fire management has meant putting fires out.

“The forest used to be managed by fire,” he said. “Natural forest management.”

As an environmentalist, Cruz deals with water quality, invasive plants and recycling.

“In bioengineering, we use all native plants to stabilize the banks,” he said about the river restoration his department did on Upper Clear Creek.

The work on the river and in the Pine Nuts is in accordance with practical knowledge learned over generations: Clear wood in cool weather, use native plants to prevent river bank erosion, let animals and insects do their work.

“If it’s natural, that’s what we want to see,” said Cruz. “We work with other agencies to make sure things are natural for animals. Dead trees provide food for birds, and birds are food for other predatory animals.”

Besides leaving some of the dead trees for wildlife, conservation efforts include leaving prehistoric and historic artifacts where they lie.

Black volcanic glass shines on the ground all around the Pine Nuts. A piece could easily be slipped into a pocket to take home as a personal treasure, a memento of the day.

“I tell the workers to leave the obsidian, it’s a piece of history,” Cruz said. “Leave the history intact.”

Washoe tribal lands encompass a large area in several counties in two states.

“They’re our traditional home lands, and our ancestors are buried here. We want to keep in touch with it,” said Cruz.

“The work we do here doesn’t just benefit the tribe, it benefits everybody.”

Washoe Tribal Health Center on Watasheamu (Main River) Road in Dresslerville

Clouds fly past the eye to the sky from the inside of the Washoe Tribal Health Center.

The pattern on the outside of the dome of the modern 15,500-square-foot outpatient health clinic resembles patterns from Washoe basketry. The building representing a vessel of many uses houses a center of many uses.

Besides general medical services, the $2.2 million center offers dentistry, optometry, podiatry, cardiology, behavioral health and wellness programs.

“People still call it ‘the clinic,'” said Washoe Tribe Health Board and Tribal Council member Darienne Tenorio.

“We have optical, dental, a dietitian, chiropractic, and you can get immunizations, X-rays, medication – it’s not really a clinic.

The new facility opened December 2002. The previous clinic was across from the tribal headquarters on Highway 395 where the law enforcement office is now.

There are 60 employees, from the office staff to the chief medical officer. Many employees are Washoe tribal members.

“The optometrist is from the Navajo nation and started in October,” said Tenorio. “She works two days in Reno and Sparks and three days here.

“Chief medical officer Lawrence Simpson, who is 41, is from Dresslerville. He went to college and came back as a doctor to work here.”

Optometry tech Nita Zulian has worked at both health centers for a total of 20 years.

“I’ve seen babies, and now they have their own babies,” said Zulian.

She has worked in many capacities during her time in the clinic – in the dental department, as a community health representative, in the pharmacy, as the medical records supervisor and optometry tech.

“Next thing is I’m going to retire,” said Zulian.

When she first came to work with the clinic, all of the patients’ records were in a three-drawer cabinet. The files take up a whole room now. Only eight people were needed to run the clinic when it first opened.

“The services have expanded,” Zulian said. “It’s grown, but the closeness hasn’t changed.”

Doing things by hand on paper worked just fine in those days, but now Zulian said she’s used to doing her work with computers.

“The computer world is a wonderful place to be. It’s changed for the better.”

Lunch at Ye-Hlue. Hlue. Idem. Lue. Hmuugol. (The Old People’s Eating Place)

The Old People’s Eating Place is an adobe house on the corner of Wa-She-Shu (Washo) Way and Mem de wee (Deer) Run in Dresslerville.

The senior center resembles the family room at your grandparents’ house, complete with a wood stove, a sitting area with couches, big-screen TV, popcorn machine, game tables and the smell of comfort food.

Handwritten signs on the wall advertise beverages in two languages: go’beh, “coffee” and díme, “water.”

Lunch time is like a big family gathering. The workers for the tribe eat first at tables on the back patio, protected from the wind.

On this day, a few hardy tomatoes are all that remain of the vegetable garden and the fruit trees have lost most of their leaves.

The lunch guests sign in for meals next to a donation box. On the menu today is chicken in mushroom sauce, boiled rice, mixed vegetables, pan bread and oranges.

The elders sit at big tables to eat together, read or catch up on the news of the day. The senior center is one of the few places left to hear people conversing in Washoe.

Dinah Pete is called upon to do the opening prayer for most conferences. She speaks Washoe and is considered by the tribe to be a wealth of history. She said her family used to clear trees just as the workers were doing today.

“I know a little bit of our culture. We try to teach our younger children our cultural ways,” said Pete.

“We still pick acorns, pine nuts, wild fruit and berries. The elders do baskets but are getting so they don’t get out anymore – it’s too cold. And we’re losing some of them.”

Senior center director Lance Astor commutes from his home in the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony daily. He oversees the home delivery of meals to the Carson, Stewart, Woodfords and Dresslerville communities.

“We provide other services – lunch, care giving, financial assistance to some,” Astor said. “On Fridays we have a diabetes check, weight check and they can get their blood pressure taken.”

Today at the senior center, flu shots are provided.

“During the flu season, we target our elders here and also at the clinic to catch our seniors early,” he said.

As of today, Dale Bennett and Miranda Esparza have been on the job as cooks at the center for a week and a half.

“I like to cook. I do catering in the summer,” said Bennett.

Catering is a good thing to know when two cooks prepare 66 plates outbound and 25 meals in house every day during the week.

“In the summertime we’ll grill quite a bit,” she said. “We have our own garden, so they grow a lot of the fresh things we serve.”

Everyone at the center shares gardening duties.

“We start cooking at 8 a.m. and get the lunches out,” said Esparza. “We clean up, and we’re out of here by 3 p.m.”

Madelina Henry lives in Alpine County and is chairwoman of the elders advisory council.

“I have my meals delivered but I come here once a month when I have my (council) meeting,” Henry said. “We work things out if there’s any problems – meals, elderly concerns – different things.”

The elders go on day trips planned by the senior center to Reno and Apple Hill or to pick acorns.

Henry describes the process of preparing acorns, a staple food. She said acorns grow around Jackson and Placerville, Calif., and start falling in October.

“The acorns have to dry through the winter,” Henry said. “Then shell them when dried, clean the skin off. We used to pound it. Leach it and then it’s ready to cook. We used to grind the acorns with the rock out back.

“If we want to teach the younger generation different cultural things, the children are going to have to participate,” she said.

“And like with pine nuts it’s the same thing – it’s hard work.”

The end of the school day at Douglas

Helping native students get through school has been Lori Pasqua’s job for her 12 years as education advisor at Douglas High School.

“I don’t want all these kids to hear ‘just drop out’ like I did,” she said.

Pasqua chose these four young native people for the Day in the Life project because of their abilities to motivate other students.

Kaela Horse tutors students during the last two school periods. Reese Kizer plays football, golf and basketball yet keeps his 3.0 grade point average.

This is Rachel Walker’s first year at Douglas where she is in the color guard. The 18-year-old participates in many activities at her church, Trinity Lutheran.

Rojelio Carmona said he comes to school ready to work.

“I listen in class and get my homework done because I don’t want to waste my time or anyone else’s,” he said.

Rojelio likes math in school, even when most people think it’s hard. He works at Meeks Bay as a hired hand on “whatever they need done.”

While the students were waiting for the interview, they formed an idea to start a “teens helping teens” group. The plan is to meet once a month with Douglas and Pau-Wa-Lu students to discuss how to address the drop-out problem.

Kaela said she’d do just about anything to help her fellow students get through school.

“It’s worse here than a Pau-Wa-Lu,” said Kaela.

“It’s work or homework that are the problems – kids are dropping out of school,” said Rojelio. “Students are out there who need help.”

“They’re too afraid or embarrassed to ask adults for help,” said Kaela. “I’m ready to help with basically anything they’re struggling with.”

For her plans after graduation, Kaela said she knows Truckee Meadows Community College has a school for dental hygienists but she’s still undecided on a career path.

Rojelio is in his second year of welding and is enrolled in the on-the-job training apprenticeship program at Western Nevada Community College.

Rachel is interested in civil engineering, particularly water issues.

Reese hopes to put his athletic abilities to work at school.

“I want to go to San Diego Golf Academy,” he said. “I can learn how to become a professional to teach other people golf or to become a pro golfer.”

A ride along with Washoe Tribal Police Officers

“Entering Washo Land” is a sign attached to the fence surrounding the Lower Clear Creek parcel.

A chain blocks access to a dirt trail showing evidence of recent use by horseback riders and four-wheelers. On the chain is another sign, “Trespassing or vandalism on Indian trust land is a felony.”

Sgt. Ricardo Hart and Ranger Jim Silva are responding to a report of a squatter on the parcel. The tribal officers drive through the parcel’s trails in separate vehicles, collecting scratches from the tall desert bushes. “Nevada racing stripes,” Hart calls the scratches.

The squatter vacated some time ago but his litter remains. The investigation turns out to be trash detail, and the officers don purple surgical gloves to fill two black trash bags with the cast-off belongings.

Hart said tribal officers run like a pack of wolves – rarely are their vehicles seen solo. In this way the officers provide their own back-up and cover more territory.

The area of responsibility for Washoe Tribal Police Officers includes the Carson and Stewart communities in Carson City, upper and lower Clear Creek, Stewart Ranch off Hot Springs Road, Washoe property off Jacks Valley Road, the Dresslerville community.

“We’re pretty spread out,” said Hart. “We only have two officers today. Our job is broad, with such a small crew.”

There are 11 people including Capt. Richard Varner in the department – seven officers, two rangers and an office employee. One of the tribal officers is Washoe but being Washoe is not a requirement.

“We’re police officers but we’re different in a way,” said Hart. “It’s such a small department and we have so many duties.”

Tribal officers enforce tribal law which mirrors Nevada Revised Statutes. All peace officers are POST-certified through Police Officers Standards and Training.

They handle arsons, assaults and animal control, just like any other department, and have a duty to act when they see infractions outside their jurisdiction.

Silva is starting the new ranger program. He and one other ranger patrol all 65,000 acres of Washoe allotment land. What is left of traditional Washoe land looks like a checkerboard on a map of Nevada and California.

“We’re environmental enforcers,” said Silva. “We look for crime and crime against the environment, such as dumping.”

He said because of the number of deer in the area, there’s always a possibility of catching poachers.

The tribal officers’ duties also include acts of respect and goodwill in the community.

“Every elder in the community has a full police escort,” Hart said about escorting members of the Washoe community to funeral services.

“At Halloween we all pitch in and buy candy to hand out,” he said. “We get turkeys and baskets for the elders or needy and give them out at Thanksgiving. You have to have trust while you’re doing your job.”

After collecting litter from the Lower Clear Creek parcel, Hart and Silva drive north to patrol the streets of the Carson colony and come back south through the Indian Hills neighborhood. Returning to dirt roads, the officers have to stop several times to unlock and re-lock gates to get to Hobo Hot Springs.

Many people drive Jacks Valley Road or Highway 395 on a daily basis not knowing the existence of the hot springs on the land between the two thoroughfares.

The waters of Hobo Hot Springs are thought by the Washoe elders to have healing properties. The natural springs suffered abuse over the years, but tribal members have worked to restore the site.

The environmentally sensitive area is not too far away from two golf courses, where irrigation allows the desert to support green turf.

After a look at the springs, the officers get back on the dirt roads to unlock and re-lock another set of gates to eventually reach Jacks Valley Road.

Travelling south on Foothill Road, Hart swerves to avoid a deer that bolts in front of the cruiser. Not too many years ago a deer’s survival didn’t depend on how fast it could dodge an SUV.

The officers continue their patrol in and out of the patchwork of Washoe parcels to Fredricksburg, check out the sand pits in the increasing darkness, and conclude the shift by driving through Dresslerville to arrive at Washoe Tribal Police headquarters on Highway 395.