Author and Activist
When Sarah Winnemucca appeared before an Indian Affairs committee in the US House of Representatives in 1884, she became the first Native American woman to address Congress. Her speech drew on years spent advocating for her people, the Northern Paiutes. During the Bannock War, in 1878, she served as an interpreter, running messages between the US military and the Bannock people. After the war, in retaliation for the participation of a few Northern Paiutes, Winnemucca’s people were forced on to the harsh Yakama Reservation, in what is now Washington State, where they suffered from illness, starvation and a lack of resources. In 1884, having tried and failed once to have her people released, Winnemucca took a petition to Washington, D.C.
Winnemucca was a gifted orator. Her Congressional testimony came on the heels of an extensive lecture tour, in which she gave speeches at venues up and down the East Coast. Years earlier, in San Francisco, she and her father gave dramatic talks on the plight of the Paiutes, in which she presented herself as an ‘Indian Princess’. Snippets of her speeches exist in her autobiography, Life Among the Piutes: Their Wrongs and Claims, the first by a Native American woman. By all accounts, she was a mesmerizing speaker. ‘The lecture was unlike anything ever before heard in the civilized world – eloquent, pathetic, tragical at times,’ one reporter wrote, in 1879. ‘[Her] quaint anecdotes, sarcasms, and wonderful mimicry surprised the audience again and again into bursts of laughter and rounds of applause.’
Indian Affairs Statement 1884
But here came an order from the President to ‘take all the five hundred Piutes under your care there and take them across the Blue Mountains, and across the Columbia River, to Yakama Reservation’.
This order came in December. Imagine what a severe winter it is out there at that time. They could not disobey the order although everything was said that could be in our behalf. But we took up the march and the soldiers had good buffalo shoes and buffalo robes and prepared for their comfort, and here were my people. They were poor and had no clothing and no blankets and no buffalo robes, and nothing to make them warm, because we did not belong to a buffalo country. We took up our march and marched over drifting snow, my people carrying their little children. Well it took us a good while. Some times, after we camped here and there, some would come along making a great noise crying. Some white people would mimic and mock them. Women would be coming along crying, and it was not because they were cold, for they were used to the cold. It was not because they were sick, for they suffered a great deal. The women were crying because they were carrying their little frozen children in their arms….
My people’s dead bodies were strung all along the road across the Columbia River to this Yakama Reservation. When we got there we were turned over to another man, and then after we got there we died off like a lot of beasts, and of course then the following winter I came right here to Washington. I began to lecture about it in San Fransisco, and they sent for me and my father, the President did. We came on here and I pleaded – at least my father did – and of course my father asked for that same reservation back again. Says he ‘I did not do anything’. He said ‘my people did not do anything’. He said that our people had saved the lives of white people, and were now scattered everywhere and why should my people be punished like that?…
So you see they could not get back. How could any one get back to a place where they wanted to go and were not permitted to go while the lion was lying there with his mouth open ready to shut his teeth down upon them if they made the attempt?… So we have no reservation, no home and now I ask you for my people to restore us and put us I do not care where as long as it is in our own home, in the home where we were born, and that is all.
… I ask you for my people to restore us and put us I do not care where as long as it is in our own home…