Whereas: Stories from the People’s House

Land of Misfortune: Sarah Winnemucca Petitions Congress

Winnemucca Petition/tiles/non-collection/3/3-26-Winnemucca-petition-to-Congress.xml Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration In this 1884 petition, Sarah Winnemucca demands the return of her people to the Malheur Reservation in southeastern Oregon.
In 1884, Native American advocate, author, and educator Sarah Winnemucca sent a petition to Congress for the Paiute Indians to be restored to the Malheur Reservation in southern Oregon. Unlike many appeals addressed to Congress in the late 1800s, and particularly unlike those written by women, the tone of Winnemucca’s petition is one of righteous demand rather than supplication. Throughout her life, Winnemucca served in many roles, always compelled by her desire to champion her people. She argued that the suffering and injustice her people had endured could no longer be borne without the U.S. government taking measures that granted her tribe agency and allowed them to be self-sustaining.

Some Paiutes (the current spelling of the name of the tribe) had been relocated from western Nevada, where Winnemucca was born, to the Malheur Reservation in southeastern Oregon, created in 1872 by executive order of President Ulysses Grant. Following the Bannock War in 1878, the Paiutes were punished for the participation of a small number of the tribe in the conflict with further removal to the Yakima (now Yakama) Reservation in northern Washington Territory. The move separated families and took them away from land that could provide for them, and the tribe suffered and languished in this new location. Winnemucca traveled with a small delegation to Washington, D.C., in 1880 to plead the case of her people. She received a written promise from Secretary of the Interior Carl Schurz that the Paiutes could return to Malheur, but Schurz reneged on his assurance, and this never happened.

Paiute Indians in Nevada/tiles/non-collection/3/3-26-Group-of-Paiutes-LOC.xml Image courtesy of the Library of Congress A photograph of a group of Paiute Indians in Nevada between 1871 and 1873 taken during an Army Corps of Engineers survey of western territory.
Following the failure of her 1880 trip to Washington, Winnemucca wrote this petition to Congress in 1884, insisting that her people be allowed to return to the Malheur Reservation, “which is well watered and timbered, and large enough to afford homes and support for them all, where they can enjoy lands in severalty without loosing [sic] their tribal relations, so essential to their happiness and good character, and where their citizenship, implied in this distribution of land, will defend them from the encroachments of the white settlers, so detrimental to their interest and their virtues.” Representative Ambrose Ranney of Massachusetts introduced the petition in the House on January 24, 1884, and it was referred to the Committee on Indian Affairs. Winnemucca’s entreaty, several pages and signed with hundreds of names, is included among the records of the Indian Affairs Committee from the 48th Congress, alongside similar ones referred to the committee that were written on behalf of tribes like the Nez Perce and Cherokee who were experiencing degradation of their way of life by settlers and the U.S. government.

Winnemucca Subcommittee Testimony/tiles/non-collection/3/3-26-Winnemucca-Subcommittee-Testimony_Page_01.xml Image courtesy of Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library On April 25, 1884, Sarah Winnemucca testified before a subcommittee of Indian Affairs, becoming the first Native American woman to testify before Congress.
Ranney worked as a lawyer in Boston before election to the House, so it was fitting that he introduced the petition on the House Floor. Winnemucca had been invited to lecture on the East Coast by notable Boston residents Elizabeth Peabody, publisher, author, and founder of the kindergarten movement in the United States, and her sister Mary Mann, educator, author, and wife of Representative Horace Mann. The sisters arranged for the publication of Winnemucca’s groundbreaking work, Life Among the Piutes: Their Wrongs and Claims, the first English-language work by a Native American, which Mary Mann edited. Peabody and Mann advocated strenuously on Winnemucca’s behalf, using their connections and influence to publish accounts of her situation, encourage friends to support her cause, and ask public officials to assist her. Peabody personally accompanied Winnemucca at some of her lectures, as she traveled around the East Coast.

On April 22, 1884, Winnemucca appeared before a subcommittee of the Indian Affairs Committee, becoming the first Native American woman to do so. Winnemucca understood that her appearance before the committee was a kind of a performance, a line she had been walking as she lectured along the East Coast, often appearing in Native American dress. She knew her unique position would attract attention, attention that she could then shift onto the plight of her tribe.

Letter of Support/tiles/non-collection/3/3-26-Letter_Peabody_to_Wellborn_Piute_Indians_c1884_HR48A-H10-2_001.xml
Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration Prominent Boston philanthropist and educator Elizabeth Peabody sent supporting materials to the Indian Affairs Committee on behalf of Sarah Winnemucca’s petition to Congress.
Letter of Support/tiles/non-collection/3/3-26-Letter_Peabody_to_Wellborn_Piute_Indians_c1884_HR48A-H10-2_002.xml
Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration Prominent Boston philanthropist and educator Elizabeth Peabody sent supporting materials to the Indian Affairs Committee on behalf of Sarah Winnemucca’s petition to Congress.
Letter of Support/tiles/non-collection/3/3-26-Letter_Peabody_to_Wellborn_Piute_Indians_c1884_HR48A-H10-2_003.xml
Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration Prominent Boston philanthropist and educator Elizabeth Peabody sent supporting materials to the Indian Affairs Committee on behalf of Sarah Winnemucca’s petition to Congress.
Winnemucca was also a savvy interlocutor, able to craft persuasive arguments tailored to her audience. According to a news report, Winnemucca related the hardships her tribe endured and their current circumstances. Probably sensing that a return to Malheur would never be allowed, she shifted from the appeal in the petition introduced in January. In her testimony she asked not for the Paiutes to be restored to Malheur, made up of arable land also sought after by white settlers. Rather, she proposed Fort McDermitt on the Nevada-Oregon border, arid and harder to cultivate, where she likely felt the Paiutes might finally be allowed to live in peace. Winnemucca had served as an interpreter at Fort McDermitt when it was a U.S. Army post. It was also the place where she first began to plead the case of her people to public officials.

Winnemucca’s petition to Congress included a letter from Elizabeth Peabody to Indian Affairs Committee Chairman Olin Wellborn, and copies of two letters from Army officers describing the condition of Fort McDermitt in Nevada. Peabody entreated Wellborn to urge the committee to grant the Fort McDermitt land to the Paiutes: “If done at once,” she advised, “it will be cheaper for the government and save the tribe from quite perishing. Without a home, & with no conditions of self-support, they appeal to the heart of the humane irresistibly.”

Representative Robert S. Stevens, chair of the Indian Affairs subcommittee before which Winnemucca appeared, introduced H.R. 6973, “For the relief of the Piute Indians,” on May 12, 1884, but it died in committee. Unable to convince the U.S. government to help her people, Winnemucca returned West to do the only thing left she felt would help her tribe: teach. With funding from Peabody, Winnemucca started a school for Paiute children that would teach English and other skills. Sarah Winnemucca died in 1891. She was living on a ranch in Lovelock, Nevada, with her tribe. In 1889, Fort McDermitt was established as an Indian Agency, and in 1936, the federally recognized Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribe reservation was created under the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934.

Explore other records related to women’s history and Native American history in Records Search.

Sources: Congressional Record, House, 48th Cong., 1st Sess. (24 January 1884); RG 233, Records of the U.S. House of Representatives, Committee on Indian Affairs, 48th Congress, Center for Legislative Archives, National Archives and Records Administration; H.R. 6973, For the relief of the Piute Indians, Committee on Indian Affairs, 48th Cong., 1st Sess. (12 May 1884); New York Times, 27 October 1891; Baltimore Sun, 23 April 1884; Mary Oberst, “Sarah Winnemucca (1844?–1891),” The Oregon Encyclopedia, https://oregonencyclopedia.org/articles/sarah_winnemucca/; Cain Allen, “Malheur Indian Reservation,” The Oregon History Project, 2005, https://oregonhistoryproject.org/articles/historical-records/malheur-indian-reservation/; Tania Nicole Jabour, “Spectacular Subjects: Race, Rhetoric, and Visuality in American Public Cultures (1870–1900),” PhD thesis, University of California-San Diego, January 1, 2015; Cari M. Carpenter, “Sarah Winnemucca Goes to Washington: Rhetoric and Resistance in the Capital City,” American Indian Quarterly, Spring 2016, Vol. 40, No. 2, 87–108; 93-94; Katharine Rodier, “Authorizing Sarah Winnemucca?” In Reinventing the Peabody Sisters, Eds. Monika M. Elbert, Julie E. Hall, and Katharine Rodier (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2006): 108–128.