Often when speaking of this land’s original people, the past tense is used, as if the Washoe have slipped away to reside only on the pages of history books. Yet that is in error, as the tribe that has inhabited Lake Tahoe and its surrounding lands since time immemorial is still very much here. Several members are gathering in Truckee this October to discuss plans to build a traditional gathering place, with the hope to help heal themselves, this land, and the world at large.
The event is being hosted by the Washiw Zulshish Gum T’anu (WZGT), or Washoe Warrior Society, a group of Washoe Tribe elders and community members who formed to support the cultural remembering of the tribe.
“This organization started in 2009 because they wanted to build a roundhouse, a spiritual gathering place, they call Washiw Tahn-Nu Ung-Gal, or a People’s House. It will be dedicated to the cultural and spiritual values of our people; a place to heal and to remember who we are,” said Lisa Grayshield, executive director for WZGT and Washoe Tribe member, later adding, “The elders were concerned about all the problems that were happening, specifically with the youth. And they were concerned about the disconnect from our cultural ways and who we are as a people. They knew that reconnecting was what we needed to do in order to heal and to change things that we were losing — who we are, our language, our culture, our traditions.”
The elders sought to build Washiw Tahn-Nu Ung-Gal on Washoe lands, but the politics of the day prevented it. Other attempts were made as well, but land was always the issue.
“The Washoe Tribe has a governing council that is elected by the membership; they take care of the business aspects of the tribe,” Grayshield said, referencing healthcare, education, social services, police force, and other important functions such as environmental restoration and economic development. WZGT previously operated under the tribal council, but became its own 501(c)(3) nonprofit in 2020, with the hopes to be nimbler in its work and to be in a better place to seek land and funding. They continue to work alongside the tribe to enhance culture, language, and traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) program offerings.
Since becoming an independent nonprofit, WZGT now has rekindled the project that was at the heart of its original mission — to build a People’s House.
This idea came to life years ago because of the renowned but now defunct Tahoe-Baikal Institute, which was formed in 1990 to help preserve Lake Tahoe in the Sierra and Lake Baikal in Siberia. While mostly focused on environmental protection and ecology, the organization had helped cultivate a kinship between the indigenous people of Baikal, known as the Buryat nation, and the Washoe. In 2005, Melba Rakow, a Washoe elder and WZGT board vice president, travelled with Darrel Cruz, the Tribal Preservation Officer at the time, to Siberia to meet with the Buryat.
There, Rakow learned of an agreement made in the 1980s between the Buryat and the Washoe, that included a promise by the Washoe to build a yurt that would serve as a place of prayer. It was to be connected to other spiritual houses built by other original peoples around the globe, and the purpose was to demonstrate a bond of friendship and prayer and, as Rakow was told by a Siberian shaman, this would bring healing for the land, the water, and the people.
“Melba was told by the shaman that we were the only tribe left to fulfil our agreement to construct a yurt,” Grayshield said.
Grayshield, who is a retired associate professor of counseling and psychology at New Mexico State University, was called to lead WZGT about three years ago. “Melba called me and essentially told me that I was no longer retired, that I was gonna do this work.”
The work is especially crucial right now, Grayshield said, because the tribe has suffered through numerous deaths from suicide, illnesses, and violence.
“I left my community almost 20 years ago to work, and when I returned three years ago, it was as if I had never left; there was no change in the number of unwarranted violence in our communities, including suicide and physical illness,” she said. “Fulfilling [the promise to the Buryat] has become integral in the WZGT search for a historical, cultural, healing place for the Washoe. Some of us believe that by fulfilling this agreement, we will finally experience a resurgence of Washoe ways in our young people; the unwarranted violence will have run its course, and we will once again take our place as a strong Indigenous Nation of Washiw.”
The recruited executive director delved into records and talked to Washoe elders who knew the history of the Siberian connection, all of which led her to make contact with living Buryat members, who hadn’t heard from the Lake Tahoe peoples since 2005. The Buryat have welcomed the news that the Washoe are reviving the People’s House project, and have said that the other tribes in the prayer circle have continued to meet throughout all these years.
This rekindled spark is the basis of the October WZGT gathering in Truckee, which will be held Oct. 19 through 22. The meeting is “focused on creating a viable strategic plan to find land, put a yurt up, and then potentially break ground on the eventual People’s House,” Grayshield said.
A generous donor, who Grayshield said has been very supportive of the WZGT, was the reason Truckee was selected for the gathering, as he offered up his yoga studio as a location.
“I’ve often wondered how I could best support lifting up indigenous voices around Tahoe and answers have not felt very clear until I learned about WZGT,” said Scott Fitzmorris, owner of Mountain Lotus yoga. “They have a broad perspective and reasonable ambitions. They see how the Washoe traditions can inform the broader culture of society and landscape management but to get there, there needs to be healing of the Washoe culture.”
He continued, “Building the People’s House will allow Washoe people to reconnect to ‘The Giver of Life,’ which is the meaning behind the word ‘Tahoe.’ Anyone who loves Lake Tahoe can feel a shift of perspective when they see Tahoe not just as a beautiful lake, but as the giver of life. We need to learn from the Washoe perspective in many other ways as well.”
As WZGT’s board president and Lisa’s father, Frank Grayshield, stated in a short film clip on its website, “What happened in the past is in the past, the time for Washoe to return to the land is now. Now is the time for us to come together to speak up for the things we have lost.”
For the Washoe, having many voices raised in prayer to help heal the world is power.
“I just think it’s significant for all of us anytime we join in a worldwide prayer,” said Grayshield, who gave the example of the Hare Krishna chanting for world peace. “We truly believe from the depths of our heart … that our medicine people can make a difference with the prayers. We’re being called to step up and take our place amongst all these other praying tribes around the world to speak up for the land and the water and the people, the original stewards of the land. Even as I try to organize and take a lead as the volunteer executive director of this organization, it’s still kind of sinking in what’s happening to me. It feels more like a spiritual kind of movement.”
WZGT welcomes support from those interested in its mission. For this fall gathering, they are especially in need of financial assistance and accommodations for the elders who will be traveling here to attend. An event open to the general public is slated for Saturday evening. For info on the WZGT or the gathering, visit wzgt.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org.