Published on May 13, 2011 by Amy
Life Among the Piutes covers the period from Winnemucca’s birth in 1844 to 1883, from the first contacts with whites through the Paiutes many conflicts with whites, resettlements, and negotiations to receive justice from the federal government. The book is one of the most colorful and personal tribal histories of the nineteenth century. Because of the attacks on her character, Winnemucca is careful to authenticate her narrative. Her editor, Mary Tyler Mann, emphatically states in the “Editor’s Preface” that her own role was simply to copy “the original manuscript in correct orthography and punctuation” (ii). Winnemucca appends many documents from whites attesting to her high moral character and to her services as interpreter and intermediary for the government.
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The central theme of her personal and ethnohistory is Indian-white relations. Part I consists of a single chapter on the background of her family and on the impact of white migration on Paiute life after 1844. Part II is a chapter on the domestic and social moralities of the Paiutes, and Part III contains six chapters on the conflicts between the Paiutes and whites from 1860 to 1863 as the Indians struggled to retain their native land, were moved from one reservation to another, and attempted to gain allotments on the Malheur Agency in Oregon.
Life Among the Piutes is far more personalized than are earlier Indian autobiographies. Winnemucca gives detailed accounts of her psychological reactions as a child. Especially powerful are her descriptions of her terror of whites, who she thought looked like owls, and her account of how her parents buried five-year-old Winnemucca and her sister up to their heads in order to hide them from nearby whites, who they feared would kill and eat the children. Winnemucca, however, gives little information about her personal life as an adolescent and adult.
Nevertheless, she does reveal more of her adult personality than do earlier Indian autobiographers. Casting herself in the role of a word warrior, she recounts episodes that emphasize her courage and stamina as she risked being killed or raped while she rode back and forth between the Paiutes and the army during the Bannock War of 1878. She also dramatizes her confrontations with corrupt Indian agents and indifferent government officials.
Winnemucca also describes Paiute beliefs and customs, especially those pertaining to family life and government. Especially significant is her emphasis on the roles played by women in Paiute culture. In the section devoted to Paiute-white relations from around 1860 to 1883, Winnemucca strongly criticizes the agency system. Also important is Winnemucca’s use of dramatic re-creation of scenes and dialogue, which Margot Liberty attributes to the quotative style of Northern Paiute narratives (Fowler 1978:40).
Her only other work is the article “The Pah-Utes” (1882), which is a general introduction to the tribe’s customs, language, and traditions.