Sarah Winnemucca was born in about 1844 in present-day Nevada near Pyramid Lake. Her grandfather, Truckee (Old Winnemucca), and father, Winnemucca the Younger, were chiefs of the Kuyuidika-a band of the Paiute Tribe. Sarah's Paiute name was Thocmetony, or “shell flower.” In an effort to adapt to the new reality of white settlers and miners moving into the area, Truckee encouraged his people to learn the white language and skills. As part of this, Winnemucca lived and worked in a white household during her youth. Over time, her English improved and she became adept at moving between the Paiute and European-American cultures. These skills would serve her well in her adult life.
Tensions with white settlers increased and conflicts ensued in the 1860s, including indiscriminate raids by the Nevada Volunteer cavalry on bands of Paiutes in northern Nevada. One raid killed several members of Winnemucca's family. By 1868, many Paiutes, including Winnemucca, sought the protection of the U.S. Army at Fort McDermit on the Nevada-Oregon border. While there, she worked as an interpreter and sent a letter to the Superintendent of Indian Affairs for Nevada. The letter, which pleaded the cause of her people, was later published in several newspapers and Harper's magazine. Winnemucca moved to the Malheur Reservation in eastern Oregon in 1875 to work as an interpreter. After a school was built there, she worked as an assistant teacher.
During the Bannock War in 1878, Winnemucca served as an translator, scout and messenger for General O. O. Howard of the U.S. Army. After the war, Northern Paiute bands were ordered to move to the Yakama Indian Reservation in eastern Washington Territory. Witnessing the harsh conditions and deprivation there, Winnemucca gave lectures in California and Nevada to raise awareness of their plight. She and other Paiutes also traveled to Washington D.C. in 1879-1880 to lobby for a return to the Malheur Reservation but it was ultimately closed.
In 1883 and 1884, Winnemucca traveled throughout the northeastern United States to deliver more than 300 lectures drawing attention to the plight of Native Americans. While in Boston, she compiled her lecture materials into a book entitled, Life Among the Piutes: Their Wrongs and Claims
. This was the first book written in English by a Native American woman.
After lecturing for a year in San Francisco, Winnemucca used royalties from the book and donations to open a school promoting the Paiute culture and language near Lovelock, Nevada in 1885. The school ran out of money and failed to get federal funding, closing two years later.
Retired from public life, she died in 1891 at Henry's Lake, Idaho. The city of Winnemucca, Nevada is named for her. The state of Nevada contributed a statue of Winnemucca to the National Statuary Hall Collection in the U.S. Capitol in 2005.
(Sources: Oregon Encyclopedia | Nevada Women's History Project | Wikipedia)