A look ahead

One of Nevada’s elder statesmen reflects on years of accomplishment as he prepares to leave tribal office

Outgoing Washo tribal chair Brian Wallace is deciding what to do with his life after 16 as tribal chair.

Outgoing Washo tribal chair Brian Wallace is deciding what to do with his life after 16 as tribal chair.

Photo By David Robert

In 1887, President Grover Cleveland predicted that the influx of settlers westward— toward the gold in them thar hills—would ultimately and rapidly render the Great Basin’s Washo nation extinct. As a white man with a blinding incapacity to foresee the future, he was, of course, wrong.

Today, the Washo Tribe of Nevada and California is thriving, becoming one of the most powerful and effectively managed Native nations in the West, and within America.

In the wake of both the Oct. 21 Washo Tribe election—in which longtime chairman A. Brian Wallace was defeated 156-115 to rookie Waldo W. Walker—and last week’s national midterm elections, Wallace looks relaxed, enjoying a latte at Comma Coffee in Carson City. It’s across the street from the Nevada state capitol and legislature. Dressed more like he’s ready to move furniture than mountains, Wallace reflects on his 26-year career in tribal politics—16 of them as chairman of the Washo people.

“This is a day that I’ve been looking forward to for a long time,” Wallace says. “In terms of moving on in my life, it’s a day that I’ve contemplated and not necessarily planned in detail for but certainly have thought about. It’s part of a natural process of moving forward and change, which is very much a part of our underlying existence anyway. Whether you’re sitting in a chairman’s chair or anyplace else, the world is still the same, and actually there’s a lot of things that I wanted to be able to do that I couldn’t necessarily do as the chairman of an Indian tribe, and those are the opportunities and choices that I’m looking at and working on now.”

He attributes his defeat to a desire for change after so many years of the same leadership.

Born in 1957, Wallace grew up in Washo territory, one of four children in a family brimming with Navy veterans. He says there were a few pivotal vignettes that impelled him to try to effect change for American Indians.

“When my brother came back from the Vietnam war with a different understanding of the world, I was very affected by that,” says Wallace. “He got involved in the land occupation efforts with the Pit River Indians and what was happening in California. It was the same time when the Indian Claims Commission settlement were going on, so we were hitchhiking around the country—particularly the West and California—going to these gatherings of Indian people, and there were traditional leaders like [late Hopi chief] Thomas Banyacya, who were trying to get everybody to reject the claims settlement and not accept it, because it was an unfair judgment.”

The U.S. Indian Claims Commission was created by Congress at the end of World War II because of uncomfortable parallels between U.S. genocide toward tribes and the Nazi holocaust. It was supposed to compensate tribes for the losses they had experienced.

“It was one of the more egregious examples of the disservice that the Indian Claims Commission did, and I just looked at it as another generation of theft of Indian lands, just another version of it. It actually came out of the Nuremberg trials, that was the only reason why it was organized. I was about 15, doing that, so I got involved in that kind of movement of Indian activism.”

Still, Wallace’s first stab at the top spot in Washo tribal politics, in 1986, was unsuccessful.

“I lost it, by six votes,” Wallace remembers, adding, “I could count the relatives that didn’t vote that day. That would have made a difference. I wanted to make sure it never happened again.”

Now, with one term as vice-chairman and four terms as chairman, Wallace is very much a contemporary leader, reminiscent of the great chiefs and orators of powerful nations who relinquished so much of the lives and lifeways they’d known as Turtle Island, which rapidly became the United States of America. Wallace has ushered his people into modern times by implementing one very basic philosophy: listening to the elders.

“One of the things I learned early on is we’re given two ears and one mouth for a reason,” he notes. “Listening is very, very important, and I was very lucky to be instructed and work and learn from a lot of good people.”

A high point
That listening has brought much good fortune for the Washo Tribe, accomplishments highlighted by the return of 24 acres of ancestral Washo lands—and prime Lake Tahoe waterfront real estate—from President Clinton in the summer of 1997. As long as he lives, Wallace says, he will never forget that unforgettable day.

“It set into motion the reconciliation of the business that we started with President Grover Cleveland in the late 1800s. When we were watching the helicopters come in and land at Incline Village along General Creek—which was where my family camp area was, so it was literally ground zero for me, as a Washo man—what I really felt that day was just a prideful moment that a lot of people had waited for. More than anything, I had mixed emotions, because of all the people that had waited so long that couldn’t be there, who had done a lot of work to see that happen. So you felt a tremendous responsibility that you were speaking for many people. It really helped break the dam loose for the tribe. The historic symmetry and justice of that moment was overwhelming. Not just for us. It was a very proud day to be an American as well, that a country could recognize its mistakes and begin to reconcile them. I remember reading the news interviews of Washo people breaking down in tears and how glorious that period was, to finally begin to feel the warmth of a world that began to turn in our favor. It was a tremendously emotional moment.”

Emotions run high, too, when it comes to the polarized parties involved in the future of Tahoe’s Cave Rock, which adventurous climbers want to scale—and the Washo intend to maintain as a sacred site.

“Cave Rock is still being worked on in the courts and being held out next to the [recent] Pit River challenge in the eastern district on Medicine Lake,” explains Wallace. “Traditionally, the adversary is the United States, but in this case, we have the Justice Department, [Attorney General] Alberto Gonzales, the U.S. Forest Service, the Secretary of the Interior and the president of the United States defending the tribe’s sacred sites. We were able to set the preconditions and position the United States to do exactly what it really should be doing, and can do, in terms of upholding its fiduciary responsibility to Indian people and sacred landscapes and the cultural heritage of this nation.”

What’s next
The argument that leaders are born, not made, is clearly irrelevant to Wallace, who prefers to look ahead. Wallace says his wife, LaVonne, waited patiently after their 1992 vows while her tribal-chairman husband spent what should have been the start of their honeymoon at a meeting with the city manager in Carson City.

“There’s some unfinished business there, no doubt. I have two teenagers I need to attend to, and my family in Nevada and California, so I really look at [defeat in the election] as a blessing.”

Wallace says many opportunities are already coming his way, courtesy of his rapport and relationships with many sectors of business and industry around America. People rather than politics will likely be his focus as he makes the transition from tribal leader to tribal member.

“I have relationships in national leadership of corporate America, from Wall Street to New York City, L.A., Vegas, to here and Hollywood. I look forward to it all, and the things I care about the most, family and self, this is the time to work on that degree of well-being. I want to spend more time with my elders and family. I want to use my experience with the American Indian Film Institute’s Tribal Touring Program, which Washo youth have participated in, to sharpen my own skills as a filmmaker and storyteller and use that to tell stories and develop evidence for the same things that I continue to work on, and try to steal back as much Indian land as I can in one lifetime, coming up with the arguments that appeal and sustain that.”