First to enjoy the beauty and bounty of the area we now call Meeks Bay were a number of family groups belonging to the tribe of Indians known as the Washoe, who occupied the lands surrounding the high mountain lake we now know as Tahoe.
In winter, these family groups inhabited the valleys to the east which are today known as Carson, Washoe and Eagle. Little food could be gathered during this dormant, inclement period, and dietary staples which had been harvested and hunted during the spring, summer and fall of the year provided subsistence until spring came again. Meanwhile, the people fashioned and repaired their tools, clothing and houses. The winter encampments also afforded them opportunity for creative work and allowed for the family interaction which gave the group its strength and perpetuity.
Winter houses, called galis dungal, were usually conical, supported by a main frame-work of securely-placed poles which were lashed together at the top. To these were added inter-mediate pine or willow poles, followed by several layers of cedar bark, pine boughs or manzanita. An interior fire pit, encircled with rocks and vented by a central roof opening, served the purposes of warmth and cooking.
Among the Washoe's most important tools were their baskets. Valued today as pieces of fine art, these beautifully woven articles played crucial, practical roles in the daily life of the group. During the winter months, the women would sort and weave the willow, redbud, fern root and other plant materials collected during the year throughout the group's geographically varied territory into intricately beautiful con-tainers used for cooking, eating, carrying water and collecting the seeds and plant materials which were a major element of their diet.
The skill demonstrated in the work of a fine basket was a source of understandable pride for the Washoe woman. Great care was taken in the time-consuming effort of weaving, and the results produced had their merits not only in terms of utility, but also beauty.
DA OW A GA As the snows receded from the Washoe winter encampments on the valley floor, the strong youthful members of each camp would strike out for da ow a ga, the sacred lake high in the mountains to the west, whose name meant "the giver of life".
While some locations of questionable merit required the approval of the group's medicine woman before they could be occupied, a group usually returned to an established camp which was favored by an abundant quantity of the foods and medicinal plants necessary to sustain it through the year. Washoe tended to honor the prior use of a given area by one particular group, and thus a group would return to the same site year after year. Each group had a number of alternative camps to choose from, although with proper respect could also use a neighboring group's area.
By preceding the elders and youngest children to their summer encampment, the more robust members of the group were able to observe the development of wild plants, gather foodstuffs and prepare the camp for the arrival of the rest of their group. It was of great importance, also, that their arrival be timed to take advantage of the annual migration of fish up the various tributaries of the Lake to spawn.
MAGULU WATAH The bay we now call Meeks was known by the Washoe as magulu watah, one of a number of well-established sites around da ow a ga where fishing was good and wild strawberry, rasp-berry, currant and rhubarb were plentiful. Here too could be found camas, wild onions and lilies, and the seeds of native grasses important in the Washoe diet.
WISE CUSTODIANS Summer at magulu watah was a time of gathering and fishing, the moment for each of these activities dictated by nature's own time-table. In gathering the various plant foods and materials, the Washoe were careful to observe management practices which would nurture and replenish the supply in seasons to come.
Thinning the bulbs of the wild onion and loosening the soil to aerate the roots of plants were among the methods employed to insure their abundance in perpetuity. The meandering limbs of the wild currant bush, a plant used in the making of arrow shafts, were routinely pruned, encouraging those that remained to develop straight and strong. The roots of the bracken fern, an essential element in the dark designs of the intricately woven "three-willow" baskets, were cultivated to attain great length, as this trait simplified the weaving process and enhanced the beauty of the finished product.
The plenitude of fish at magulu watah made it a favored location for summer encampment. Though much of the catch was consumed immediately, a portion was left to dry in the sun, and stored away for winter use. At one of several large grinding rocks near the shore of the bay, the Washoe women gathered to grind this dried fish together with other ingredients to make a semi-perishable meal which was easily transported and quickly prepared.
The use of grinding rocks at magulu watah represented not only a means of processing food, but an important focal point for the social and cultural continuity of the tribe. Here, while carrying out the daily work of food preparation, the women exchanged information and tribal lore, all the while keeping a watchful eye on their children at play on the shore and at the fringe of the surrounding forest. Two grinding stones still can be found within the perimeter of the bay, and a third lies nearby, buried beneath yards of dirt brought in during a highway paving project more than half a century ago.
Magulu watah was periodically chosen as the gathering-place for several tribal groups. On these occasions, the cultural identity of the larger unit was reaffirmed, as the young people of the tribe learned its traditions through ritual and ceremony. George Thomas Murphy, with whom we shall later become better acquainted, recalls some of the special ceremonies which he witnessed during his early years at the bay:
"There were Washoe Indians here when we came. The Diggers weren't allowed, as the Washoes and Diggers fought and the Diggers were afraid. At one time, when an Indian girl died, they dressed her all in white, with a shield of basketwork over her breast. They sent for "cryers" from Reno - three women who moaned and cried night and day.
"They used to have pow-wows and they would bring singers from Reno for these occasions. They built big camp fires and danced around the fires while the singers would sing - we would call it grunting.
"When a girl was old enough to be married, they would have a coming-out pow-wow. She would have a belt made of beads, beautiful handwork. The braves would be in an outside circle and the girls in an inside circle. When she was opposite the brave she wanted, she would throw him her belt, he would grasp it, and they were married."
As fall approached, the Washoe would gather their belongings and stores of winter food and depart magulu watah for their winter camp, remaining long enough at established locations along the way to harvest and hunt for the components of their winter diet which were to be found there.
ENCROACHMENTS IN EDEN By the early 1860s, the pattern of the Washoe peoples' annual migration to magulu watah and the other encampments of the west shore had begun to be disturbed by a new presence: white interlopers whose intentions were in direct conflict with the the Washoe way of life. The wide territory which the Washoe had inhabited for thousands of years, rich with its many dietary, medicinal and cultural resources, was appropriated out of hand, and the resulting depletion of these vital resources gradually worked to diminish the productive value of the groups' annual migratory pattern.
Another contributor to the demise of the Washoes' time-honored pattern of migration was the establishment of the Stewart Indian School in Carson City in the late 1920s. With the youth of the tribe confined to the school on a year-round basis, the vitality of the remaining group was no longer sufficient to accomplish their annual relocation. Further, the Washoe had no reason to hope, as they watched their ancestral lands pass into the domain of white "ownership", that the tribe could ever rekindle the old life of hunting and gathering beside da ow a ga.
While a few individuals continued to return to the site of magulu watah into the 1930s, it was not the traditional journey of their fore-fathers. Magulu watah was gone, and those few encampments which still existed had been pushed west, into the hills. The sites of the old encampments were now filled with many white men, and the old gathering places and fishing spots usurped.
The peaceable nature of the Washoe people made the assumption of their former domain easy for those who came to enforce their own uses on the land. In fact, the hapless hospi-tality of these displaced Washoe family groups was seen by the new arrivals as a tentative first step in the development of what in many cases became lasting friendships.
From another perspective, the Washoes' rather passive acceptance of their loss left open the possibility, however compromised, of their continuing presence. For while the arrival of these interlopers meant the Washoe could no longer use their former lands for gathering and hunting, the impossibility of continuing their traditional existence led to development of their cultural skills into a new means of survival. Ironically, the same seasonal white population which displaced them would provide a receptive market for the sale of their baskets. Through the early decades of the 1900s, this circum-stance would help to sustain them in the absence of their age-old way of life.
Other specific skills which proved valuable to those who appropriated the Washoes' former domain (including pole construction, the manu-facture of willow furniture and domestic work) will be mentioned in the course of subsequent narration. Meanwhile, we turn our attention to those who came next, each one perceiving a different and unique value in the land to which he would lay claim.
Story by Carol Van Etten.
Drawing by Betty Beede.