Native North Americans of the Great Basin

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Native North Americans of the Great Basin

Trapped between the Sierra Nevada and the Rocky Mountains, the Great Basin is an arid expanse that includes present-day Nevada , Utah , western California , and southern Oregon . Summers in the Great Basin are brutally hot and winters can be bitterly cold. Diverse groups of people have been living in this harsh environment for at least ten thousand years. The Great Basin Native American population numbered about forty thousand when the first Europeans arrived.

The people of the Great Basin

Prior to the arrival of Europeans in the New World, almost all Great Basin tribes were hunters and gathers who migrated seasonally in search of food. The Northern Shoshones (pronounced sho-SHO-nees) and Bannocks lived in the northcentral part of the Great Basin, across present-day Idaho and the southwestern corner of Montana . Western Wyoming and northern Utah were the home of the Eastern Shoshones. The Ute ranged across most of Colorado , from the Wyoming border to New Mexico and from near Kansas to Utah. Southern Paiute (pronounced PIE-ute) territory covered southeastern Utah, northwestern Arizona , southeastern Nevada, and southwestern California. Farther north, spilling into Nevada, were the Owens Valley Paiute and the Washo. The Western Shoshones claimed the central part of the Great Basin, from present-day eastern Nevada extending into California and from northwest Utah into the southeastern corner of Idaho. Finally, the Northern Paiutes lived in southeastern Oregon, western Nevada, and a corner of northwestern California. Each of these groups adapted to their specific environments.

Life in the Great Basin

There was a lot of variety in the plants and animals of the Great Basin, but food was scarce. Women gathered roots, herbs, nuts, berries, seeds, and native fiber plants and processed them into food and medicine. Men netted birds, fish, and rabbits and hunted game animals by killing them with poisoned arrows or driving them into pits. After the hunt, women roasted or dried the meat and made clothing, shelters, and implements out of skins, bones, and sinews. A few groups farmed in the Great Basin: some Southern Paiutes and Western Utes grew corn and beans, and Owens Valley Paiutes grew tobacco .

The Great Basin could not support the sedentary lifestyle (staying in one permanent home) needed to develop complex political structures. Before the introduction of the horse, the meager food supply meant that social groups could not become larger than one to ten households. They gathered the food within an area and then moved on.

The spiritual beliefs and practices of Great Basin peoples reflected the demands of the environment. All groups viewed the natural world as endowed with supernatural power, and all groups had shamans—males or females who could perform healing ceremonies and control the hunts and the weather. Birth, puberty, and death rituals (sets of actions done in specific ways during religious ceremonies) were widespread.

The horse arrives

Because of their isolated location, the people of the Great Basin were shielded from the more devastating consequences of contact with Europeans until the late nineteenth century. But the horse was one aspect of European contact in the Americas that occurred long before Europeans arrived in the Great Basin and changed everything.

The Northern Shoshones, Bannocks, and the Eastern Utes acquired horses from distant Native American tribes at the end of the eighteenth century. They began raiding other tribes for horses and for slaves. Horse-riding groups organized into bands led by men who were successful hunters and warriors. The presence of mounted bands changed the way groups interacted in the Great Basin area. Previous associations between groups had been peaceful, but now horse groups raided nonhorse groups. Relations with Hispanics, who moved into the region south of the Great Basin in 1598, and with Indians surrounding the Great Basin, such as the Navajos and Comanches, were characterized by confrontations over raids for horses and slaves.

White settlers arrive

Intermittent warfare continued in the Great Basin during the period of white settlement. The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints (also known as the Mormons), a religious sect that was persecuted in Missouri and Illinois and migrated to Utah, arrived in the region of the Great Salt Lake in 1847. There was initial warfare between the Mormons and the Great Basin Native Americans, but by 1854 the Indians were defeated. The Mormons taught the Great Basin Native Americans farming and put them to work for wages; there was peace until the 1860s. At that time, a gold rush in Nevada caused a major increase in traffic along the overland trails in the central Great Basin. (See California Gold Rush .) The miners and settlers traveling through completely disrupted the native way of life. Violence erupted.

The U.S. government intervened in the hostilities. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) had already negotiated several treaties and agreements, promising to supply Great Basin peoples with annuities (annual payments) and presents in return for peace. In 1855, the government tried to establish Indian reservations (lands set apart by the government for the use of specific tribes) in Utah, where the BIA planned to teach the Great Basin peoples farming, ranching, or trade skills. The federal government relocated those Indians it perceived to be in the way of settlement while leaving alone others in remote locations. A few scattered bands of Western Shoshones and Paiutes managed to evade relocation, but the rest of the Great Basin tribes were moved.


Native Americans living on reservations did some farming and wage labor, but they also continued to hunt and gather, frequently leaving the reservations in seasonal cycles. They continue to follow these patterns today. The BIA's plans to make the Great Basin groups into farmers failed partly because the Native Americans resisted the change, but mainly because the land on the reservation was too poor in quality to support them.

Beginning in the 1930s, the BIA shifted from its policy of forcing Native Americans to adapt to mainstream American ways. The Basin Native Americans established elected tribal councils to conduct reservation business and pursued their own economic and educational strategies. In the early twenty-first century, tribal governments struggled to control their mineral and water resources and to regain lost lands, while also dealing with poverty and the resulting social problems of poor health, alcoholism, and violence.

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Native North Americans of the Great Basin

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