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Washoe Tribe Develops Economic Plan Firmly Rooted in Community

Kelly Clark
Carson City
Release Date

Last fall, under a lightning-laced sky, members of the Washoe Tribe of California and Nevada began working with the Rural Economic Development Innovation (REDI) initiative. The tribal chairman, staff and elders were committed to improving tribal processes to move economic development forward in a more structured way.

Early in the process, Tribal Chairman Serrell Smokey voiced his interest in developing enterprise activities that bring Washoe culture to life. “Our culture is alive and as we grow, we need that to be part of all that we do,” he said.

Over the last four months, multiple tribal meetings have been held involving tribal and community members, tribal governance, tribal staff and tribal partners. At the partner meeting January 9, thirty participants broke into groups to outline value chains on project ideas, identifying the demand, transactional partners and support partners for each idea.

For a group that has only been meeting since November, there is a strong sense of understanding among the plan participants, of both the tribe’s history with business enterprise and its need to move forward with an economic development plan that is firmly rooted in Washoe culture to care for land, the people, and the waters of their ancestral lands.

The Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California is a federally recognized Indian Tribe with about 1300 members who live primarily in four reservation communities – Dresslerville, Stewart and Carson Communities in Nevada and the Woodfords Community in Alpine County, California. Many also live off-reservation. Tribally-owned parcels dot the landscape in Carson City, Douglas and Alpine Counties. (See adjacent map.)

The Tribe’s aboriginal ties to their homeland extend 10,000+ years in the Lake Tahoe Basin and adjacent east and west slopes and valleys of the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range. The Washoe Tribe traces its origins to the creation story in which they come from this place, radiating from DaɁaw Ɂaga (the edge of the lake – also known today as Lake Tahoe), their spiritual and cultural center.

Washoe people traditionally lived a seasonal life of hunting and plant gathering, spending summers at DaɁaw Ɂaga hunting, fishing, collecting medicinal plants, trading with native peoples to the West and serving as stewards of their beloved lake and surrounding lands.  Families journeyed down to the Pine Nut Mountains to gather pine nuts and celebrate the harvest – as a staple food source. Winter and spring, they lived in the valleys of the Eastern Sierra including present day Carson Valley, Eagle Valley and Washoe Valleys.

Today, trade and commerce continue as important activities for the Washoe/Wašiw people, and the Washoe Tribe prides itself on partnering with business, government, and non-profit organizations to improve the Sierra region’s economic landscape.

For the REDI planning effort, trainers and facilitators Carol Cohen and Noa Kornbluh of the Rural Community Assistance Corporation are the technical assistance providers who facilitate discussion and assist tribal members in identifying future economic opportunities using a process called “Wealth Works.” The process focuses on assets or capital that a community considers fundamental to its community and builds upon that framework to set future direction.

At the first meeting, tribal members identified all that they knew about their own tribal enterprise, smoke shops, and even a shrimp farm. History showed that bursts of activity were sometimes useful, but that sustained and thriving enterprise had not succeeded until recently.

Over the past 10 years, the Tribe has been building enterprise activities through a variety of businesses, including Curry Street and Mica Drive smoke shops, Meeks Bay Resort at Lake Tahoe, and the Wa She Shu Casino and Travel. An updated plan, planned for completion by year’s end, will help structure and focus economic development for the future.

Technical Assistance for the REDI plan is funded by USDA Rural Development and was created by USDA’s Innovation Center to support recommendations identified in the Report to the President from the Interagency Task Force on Agriculture and Rural Prosperity. The REDI Initiative is co-sponsored by the Rural Community Assistance Corporation with support from Umpqua Bank. The Washoe Tribe REDI project is one of 47 such projects funded nationwide.