The Washoe: First People of the Lake

Before Contact

Lake Tahoe and approximately 10,000 square miles of land surrounding the lake were once home to and the responsibility of the Washoe Indians.  Washoe existence at the lake centered around fishing camps and milling sites located in lush meadows within view of the lake and along permanent streams.

By comparing the similarity of artifacts found at archaeological sites, archaeologists track the Washoe way of life back about two thousand years.  Photo: Washoe artifacts used for serving and preparing food. Linguists think Washoe origins are earlier than any other Sierran or Great basin Indian cultures.  The Washoe language is unique and unrelated to those spoken by any neighboring tribes.  Washoe tradition indicates their homeland has always included Lake Tahoe, without reference to migrations from other worlds, as is common in other cultures.  The Washoe were first to name Lake Tahoe simply "the Lake," just as locals do today. Da ow ga, the Washoe word for "lake" is thought to be the source for "Tahoe."  All other lakes in the Washoe language include a descriptor.  The Washoe name for the Pacific ocean, for instance, isda ow ga shemu, meaning "real lake."

Contact or the Encroachment

Photo: Old photo of Washoe Children.

Lake Tahoe, like the rest of the American West had been the territory of native people, "Indians," as Columbus named them.  Discoveries of gold and silver attracted overwhelming numbers of immigrants from around the world.  At Lake Tahoe, it was the Comstock silver strike of 1859 in Virginia City that transformed the landscape into a frontier for massive resource extraction.  After contact with non-Indian cultures (or the encroachment as the Washoe describe it) in the mid 1800s, the Washoe endured as a people, many maintaining ties to Lake Tahoe even after being forced from family camps and upland resource areas.  Families continued to trek to the lake each spring, gathering seeds and medicinal roots, making baskets, speaking their language and raising their children, working as domestics, laborers and game guides for the resorts.  They maintained remnants of their past way of life and cultural traditions even as their leaders struggled for political and social reforms and requested land and protection for their resources.

"Encroachment" is the legal term the federal government used to describe the process by which the Washoe gradually lost their territory: "The evidence shows that from 1848 to 1863 the area was overrun by miners, settlers and others with the approval, encouragement and support of the United States government.  Encroachment continued with increasing intensity until by December 31,1862 the tribe had lost all of its lands."


Approximately 1500 enrolled members of the Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California live on "Colonies," tribal lands scattered in the Reno, Carson Valley, and Gardnerville areas of Nevada and in Woodfords, California.  Tribal headquarters are in Gardnerville and Stewart Indian School.  An active tribal government continues to lobby for a land base in the Lake Tahoe basin and works with federal and state agencies and private land owners to protect locations important to Washoe Heritage.

During a recent visit to Lam Watah, a cultural site you may visit where Washoe people once lived, one tribal Elder stated:

Yes, [the lake] was a sacred place. It is to us yet, even though it is so different today from what it was in our people's time, before the white people came.  It is hard to see what is happening to it, the surrounding area. The land is valuable, and not just in monetary value, but it was our land and we love it.  We were taught to respect everything from the land...So it is very precious to us still...we were the first people to take care of the lands and all the plants and things that grow...And it feels good to come up here and see these things and to walk around and remember...and hopefully the people who are here now will have respect and take care of the area...

Please honor this rich heritage and help protect these sites.  If you find artifacts, please leave them and report finds to the:

Heritage Resource Manager of the U.S. Forest Service Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit (530) 543-2600.

More on Washoe Heritage

If you would like to learn more about the Washoe, you may visit the following locations:

Lam Watah Washoe Heritage Site - This small archaeological site managed by the U.S. Forest Service includes many boulders with depressions where women prepared food for their families during the summer and processed dried food for the winter.  It is in a meadow setting similar to that enjoyed by these FirstPhoto: Washoe basket weaver. People, along a one mile hike to Nevada Beach.  The trail head is located on the corner of US Highway 50 and Kahle Drive, just north of the casino area in Stateline, Nevada.

Baldwin Museum - The Washoe exhibit, created by the tribe is housed in the Baldwin Estate portion of the Tallac Historic Site, a National Register District managed by the U.S. Forest Service.  It is located approximately 4 miles west of the junction of California State Highway 89 and U.S. Highway 50, along the south shore of Lake Tahoe.

Photo: 'Beacon Nights' basket which was woven by Louisa Keyser.

GateKeepers Museum - This museum features a magnificent collection of baskets from many California Indian groups, including Washoe basketry.  It is located at: 130 West Lake Boulevard in Tahoe City, on the north shore, south of the bridge at the Truckee River.

Carson Valley Museum and Cultural Center - This museum includes a permanent Washoe exhibit, designed and installed by the tribe.  This exhibit features dramatic murals depicting four aspects of Washoe heritage by different artists.  The museum is located in the old Douglas County high school, 1477 Highway 395 in Gardnerville.

If you would like to read more about Washoe Culture the following is in print:


  • "Lake of the Sky: Washoe Stewardship of Lake Tahoe" by The Washoe Cultural Office. 2004. The Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California, Gardnerville, NV..
    (PDF 1,526 KB)
  • "Wa-De-T-i-me - It Grows Here" by The Washoe Cultural Office. 2009. The Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California, Gardnerville, NV.
    (PDF 2,540 KB)
  • "The Washoe" in Handbook of North American Indians Vol. 11. The Great Basin. by Warren L. d'Azevedo. 1986. Smithsonian.
  • Washoe Tales: Three Original Washo Indian Legends. by Grace Danberg. 1968. Occasional Paper No. 1, Nevada State Museum
  • Wa She Shu "The Washoe People" Past and Present by The Washoe Cultural Office. 2009. The Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California, Gardnerville, NV. (PDF 1,362 KB)