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Bringing back a forgotten tradition | Bartell's Backroads

The Washoe people were the first to use snowshoes to get around Lake Tahoe, but they lost that tradition when they were forced off their land in the 1800s.

CARSON CITY, Nevada — Traditions once lost are now being learned by members of one of California's oldest tribes. 

The Washoe people, or Washeshu Itdeh, were the first to use snowshoes to travel around Lake Tahoe. When white settlers first encountered the tribe, the Washoe were seen wearing snowshoes. Herman Fillmore is a teacher and youth counselor with the Washoe Tribe. He is using new archaeological evidence to teach young tribe members how traditional snow shoes were made, and their importance.

"As people on top of the Sierra — all the other tribes were in the low lands — we were the only ones crossing the Sierra in the winter. We were the only ones using the snowshoes," says Fillmore. 

The Washoe have a grim history with non-native settlers. The snowshoe tradition was lost in the 1880s when the tribe was forced to move away from the snow covered hills' bountiful forest floor of Tahoe, to a reservation in Carson City, Nev.

The Washoe tradition of snowshoeing dates back thousands of years, but it only took about 100 years to lose a tradition that used to define them. When settlers took over the Tahoe region, making snowshoes was quickly forgotten. 

"This is a means of travel," Fillmore said. "So, when we were restricted to the reservation, there was no need to travel like we used to. We were given commodity foods and there was no reason to hunt."

The Washoe Tribe is small, which made it easy for the government to force elders onto rocky, dry land. Parents were pushed into labor positions, and children were sent to the Steward Boarding School for Indians, where their language was taken from them. 

"It's going extinct," Fillmore said, adding only 10 people in the world can speak Washoe today. "We are a moribund language." 

Fillmore and other tribal leaders are working to bring back the forgotten traditions of snowshoeing. With the help of old artifacts and photos, the tribe has re-learned how to weave raw hide and bend willow the way their ancestors did. 

"We are all having to learn together," says Fillmore. 

"Washeshu Itdeh" translates to "the people from here." With the help of the snowshoe, young Washooshe are learning "here" is in the snowy mountains, surrounding Lake Tahoe.

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