By Alex Hoeft
The Truckee River is a lot of things to a lot of people. A place to go swimming or observe nature, a source of water, a subject of art, a route to work or school…
To the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, the Truckee River is life.
“Water is life, water is important,” said Michon Eben, Cultural Resource Manager and Tribal Historic Preservation Officer with RSIC. “The earth is our mother, and its water all across, its rivers and stuff — it’s breastmilk. And we feed from that. . . . We need that. We need that to survive.”
The RSIC was established in the early 1900s, and formed an officially recognized government in 1934. Today’s colony consists of about 1,100 members from the Paiute, Shoshone and Washoe tribes, whose ancestors have lived in the region since long ago. The community, originally established between Mill Street and Second Street in Reno, balances the traditional and spiritual culture of the people’s history with the contemporary actions of modern government and business.
In fact, the RSIC was one of the first organizations to work with the Truckee River Flood Project, a partnership between the cities of Reno and Sparks, Washoe County and others devoted to reducing negative impacts of flooding in the Truckee Meadows Area. Eben gave example of the now-present levee near Walmart on Second Street as the first structure built under the project umbrella back in 2009.
Flood management practices aside, one of Eben’s biggest pushes is for the Truckee River to qualify as a Traditional Cultural Property. TCPs are properties attempting to earn a place in the National Park Service’s National Register of Historic Places. Such qualifications include associations with cultural practices, traditions, beliefs, etc. in a current, living community that have always been practiced and are necessary in maintaining the cultural identity of said community.
“…When you look (TCP) up you’ll be able to see it’s something that this community holds important to us; that’s why it’s an important property,” Eben explained. “We used it in the past, we use it today. It’s really a TCP for the whole Reno-Sparks area. We need this water, we need this river. It’s our lifeline.”
Arlan Melendez, chairman of the colony, explained that the colony’s Tribal Health Center, like many of the surrounding RSIC, is located right on the river bank, and not on accident.
“To Native people, water is healing,” Melendez said. “We specifically picked that location, not only for its significance to our ancestors who used the river to (maintain) their traditional ways of life, but it is a reminder to all American Indians of the (sacred) importance that Mother Earth, specifically water, have in our world.”
Future structures on the colony lands will also be built near the river.. Currently a cultural center is in the works to stand right on the water.
Both ancestors of the RSIC and members today use the Truckee River for many activities, including fishing, swimming, rafting, and practical uses like irrigation and drinking, gathering native plants for medicinal use, and gathering willows for cradled boards and baskets.
To the colony, water is important. Water is healing. Water is life. General populations congregate around water, and this can also be said of the Natives.
“This whole Truckee Meadows was full of water, and that’s why our people lived here,” Eben said. “We always believe the water will take care of itself because it’s more powerful than we are as humans.”
Though the RSIC sits along the Truckee in Reno, the Tribes look at the river in its entirety — easy to do when Washoe, Paiute and Shoshone members of the colony live all along the river.
“Lake Tahoe is a big Washoe area, and all of Truckee River is both Paiute and Washoe. Along to Pyramid Lake is Paiute,” explained Eben. “So I just think it’s important to look at it holistically.”
It’s a bit easier to think holistically when the entire river’s creation is directly related to your people.
There’s a beginning to every story, and the Truckee River is no exception. In the entrance of the Tribal Health Center is a display board portraying the river’s origin story. That story, as told by Nellie Shaw-Harnar, is printed below:
In the Long Ago, the Neh-muh traded with the Indians living beyond the snow-clad mountains to the West (Sierra Nevada). Generally, these traders were composed of groups of men only, but occasionally, they took their families with them.
One party of traders, after visiting several tribes in the Land-near-the-Ocean, made ready to return to the Neh-muh country.
One of their members was not accounted for, so they waited for several days. The youth never reappeared. Finally, the leader decided that the return home would have to be made with or without his presence. That evening, they remained in camp longer than usual in hopes that the absent one would overtake them.
Several nights later the young man did appear. They were exultant at the sight of him, although overjoyed at the reunion the stranger was noticeably depressed.
The other traders exchanged tales of their adventure, but the youth made no comment. As the evening progressed into night, one by one the people retired. When only the leader and the youth remained, the leader, asked, “Is there something you would like to tell me?” After a long moment the youth answered in the affirmative, and revealed he was planning to bring a wife back with him. The leader was not surprised, and said, “Bring her to our camp so that we can all leave together in the morning.”
The groom then left to fetch his bride as the leader waited to welcome them. He was astounded when the youth emerged bearing a mermaid in his arms. After the leader designated a place for the young couple to stay that night, he beckoned the husband and he begged him to return the wife to her home. The young man replied that he loved her and wanted to take her to his home in the Neh-muh country.
Because he was persistent, the leader retired filled with misgivings. Before falling asleep he pictured the troubles the pair would encounter. The Neh-muh people did not relish the idea of strange wives for their young men as the mother in the Neh-muh family was its head, and they would certainly doubly resent a Woman-from-the Sea.
After a restless night the leader got up early to inform the others of the new woman traveler in their midst.
None of the group would consent to taking the girl back to their homeland. One after another they tried to persuade the husband to return her to the sea. Some men volunteered to help him return her to her own home. After each night of the new couple’s stay the men found that much water was beginning to surround the camp. Each morning they found it was necessary to move briskly ahead of the ever encroaching water. Eventually the frightened leader decided to tell the pair that they must remain behind; as they were endangering the lives of the other tribal members in the party.
The majority hurried home in the hope that they would never see the mermaid again!
Then one morning the groom arrived with his bride at the village. News of the strange woman had been spread throughout the band. The people were terrified!
As kind and friendly as were the Neh-muh, they were also very superstitious. They could not allow a Woman-of-the-Sea to live with them. The chiefs demanded that the relatives refuse to permit the young couple to live with them.
As the young couple advanced water was already trickling in their wake. This was even more alarming! When the relatives insisted, the couple moved to the outskirts of the village.
Those who visited the couple reported a body of water had appeared close by the domicile of the newlyweds, and that the bride spent much time immersed. Later the relatives, in apprehension, stopped their visitation altogether.
Today the descendants of the couple may be encountered at the north of the Coo-yu-ee Pah. Lake Tahoe was created when the travelers camped with the bride and groom, the Truckee River created on their journey, and Coo-yu-ee Pah was created at the final residence of the couple.
The people of the RSIC grow up with the above story as an inherent belief.
“We are trying to pass on the beliefs of what the river is and how important it is to us,” said Eben. “We’re hoping that people do stop and see that story (at the entrance of the Tribal Health Center), and then maybe it might recall, ‘Oh, I remember that story.’ Because it is kind of a big story because of what the children of the mermaid and that Paiute man — what happens there. I think that’s where it’s a big lesson to be learned and taught as well.”
Though drought is a current issue for everyone affected by the Truckee River (as Eben puts it, state and federal agencies can’t stop at “please conserve”; they need a bigger movement), the Natives have faith in the water.
“That water’s gonna take care of itself and will always be here. And when it’s not, the world is coming to a stop,” Eben stated simply.
Melendez is respectful and encouraging of all who use the river, but he also wants the public to understand the cultural resources it provides.
“We recognize that there are many stakeholder(s) of the Truckee River,” Melendez said, “but the Paiute, Shoshone and Washoe have been one for thousands of years.”
The featured photo was taken by Taylor Gipe.