SHOSHONE Indians span widely dispersed geographical and cultural areas. Eastern Shoshones live on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming, Shoshone-Bannock tribes are at Fort Hall in Idaho, and Western Shoshones reside on reservations in Nevada. While the Shoshones' linguistic roots may have originated in the Great Basin of Utah and Nevada, archaeological evidence suggests a Shoshonean presence eight thousand years ago in the Bitterroot, Yellowstone, Absoroka, Wind River, and Bighorn Mountains.
Shoshones began migrating onto the Plains beginning around a.d. 1500, although the mountain Shoshones (Sheepeaters) did not venture to the Plains. They acquired horses in the late 1600s and then split into Comanche and Eastern Shoshone divisions in the early 1700s. As Plains horse-and-buffalo cultures, they celebrated the Sun Dance and leadership that valued military prowess. Shoshones of eastern and northern Idaho occasionally hunted buffalo and other large game, but staples were fish and camas roots. Western Shoshones did not use horses, but hunted small game and harvested wild vegetables and piñon nuts.
Shoshones in Idaho and Wyoming rapidly integrated into the European-American fur trade during the years from 1825 to 1845. The Fort Bridger Treaty of 1868 created the Wind River and Fort Hall Reservations. There are approximately 5,700 enrolled Eastern Shoshones at Wind River (with about 4,300 in residence) and about 4,500 Shoshone-Bannock people at Fort Hall. Most Shoshones are employed in ranching and farming.
Crum, Steven J. The Road on Which We Came: A History of the Western Shoshones. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1994.
Madsen, Brigham D. The Shoshoni Frontier and the Bear River Massacre. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1985.
Stamm, Henry E., IV. People of the Wind River: The Eastern Shoshones, 1825–1900. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999.
Henry E. Stamm IV
See also Fur Trade and Trapping ; Indian Economic Life ; Indians and the Horse .
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Shoshone or Shoshoni (shəshō´nē), Native North Americans whose language belongs to the Shoshonean group of the Uto-Aztecan branch of the Aztec-Tanoan linguistic stock (see Native American languages). In the early 19th cent. the Shoshone occupied SE California, NW Utah, SW Montana, W Wyoming, S Idaho, and NE Nevada. The Shoshone were traditionally divided into four groups: the Comanche of W Texas, a historically recent subdivision of the Wind River Shoshone of Wyoming; the Northern Shoshone of Idaho and Utah, who had horses and ranged across the Great Plains in search of buffalo; the Western Shoshone, who did not use horses and subsisted mainly on nuts and other wild vegetation; and the Wind River Shoshone of Wyoming. Today the Shoshone live on reservations in California, Idaho, Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming. In 1990 there were some 9,500 Shoshone in the United States.
See V. C. Trenholm and M. Carley, The Shoshonis, Sentinels of the Rockies (1964); E. Dorn, The Shoshoneans (1966); J. G. Jorgensen, The Sun Dance Religion (1972).
"Shoshone." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 10, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/shoshone
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Sho·sho·ne / shōˈshōnē/ • n. (pl. same or -nes ) 1. a member of an American Indian people living chiefly in Wyoming, Idaho, and Nevada. 2. the Uto-Aztecan language of this people. • adj. of or relating to the Shoshone or their language.
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Shoshone (pronounced shuh-SHOW-nee ) or Shoshoni. The name may mean “high growing grass.” The Shoshone refer to themselves using several similar words that mean “people.” Other tribes and whites often referred to them as “Snake” people for two reasons: their location near the Snake River, which runs through Wyoming, Idaho, and Oregon, and the tribal warriors’ wartime practice of carrying rattles that looked like snakes and using them to frighten enemies’ horses.
Formerly in parts of California, Oregon, Nevada, Idaho, Utah, and Wyoming. Modern-day Shoshone live on or near reservations in their former territory.
In 1845 there were an estimated 4,500 Northern and Western Shoshone. (Earlier estimates are not reliable because they often included members of other tribes.) In the 1990 U.S. Census, 9,506 people identified themselves as Shoshone. The largest numbers lived in Wyoming (1,752), Idaho (676), Nevada (2,637), and California (1,595). In 2000 the total Shoshone population had dropped 8,340. Wyoming still contained the largest number of tribal members (2,385). Nevada had 1,713; California had 1,101; Utah had 645; and Idaho had 312.
Origins and group affiliations
Early Shoshone most likely moved north from the Southwest between about 1 ce and 1000. Some of the many groups who make up the Shoshone tribe are related to the Paiute, Comanche, and Ute tribes.
Many different Shoshone groups (called bands) lived throughout the Great Basin—an area located between the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada mountain range. Theirs was a sparsely populated region where life was hard; some groups tried to eke out a living in Death Valley, the lowest point in the Americas with little rain and very high temperatures. The Shoshone are perhaps best known for being the tribe of Sacajawea (pronounced sak-uh-juh-WEE-uh; also spelled “Sacagawea”; c. 1784–c. 1812) who helped guide the historic expedition in which American explorers Meriwether Lewis (1774–1809) and William Clark (1770–1836) mapped the West for the first time. The Shoshone had friendly relations with white settlers at first, but this changed as they found themselves forced onto reservations. In modern times they struggle for the rights to their ancestral lands.
Before the whites arrived
Many bands make up the Shoshone tribe. Members of the bands speak the same language, but they developed different lifestyles based on the areas where they lived and how they supported themselves. Historians call the groups Northern, Western, and Eastern Shoshone, but most Shoshone do not refer to themselves that way.
Around the time of their move from the Southwest into the Great Basin, the Shoshone tribes separated and settled in different areas. They dominated the Great Basin until the arrival of other tribes such as the Blackfeet and Sioux (see entries) from the East.
The Shoshone adapted well to their new surroundings. The Northern and Eastern groups, for example, adopted a nomadic lifestyle, hunting and gathering where resources were plentiful. Soon they began to hunt buffalo, a task made easier after they acquired horses late in the seventeenth century. The tribe eventually expanded its hunting territory and ran into conflict with other buffalo-hunting tribes like the Blackfeet and Arapaho (see entry). This constant friction, coupled with a 1782 smallpox epidemic, caused the Eastern Shoshone to move into Wyoming.
c. 1700: The Northern and Eastern Shoshone acquire horses and become buffalo hunters.
1782: The Eastern Shoshone are devastated by smallpox and attacks by the Blackfoot.
1805: The Shoshone meet Lewis and Clark.
January 1863: The Bear River Massacre takes place.
1863: The first Treaty of Fort Bridger is negotiated, setting aside reservation land for Shoshone groups.
1868: The second treaty of Fort Bridger is negotiated, reducing the amount of reservation lands.
1900: Chief Washakie dies.
1930s: Shoshone bands reorganize and form tribal governments.
1990s: Struggles over land rights continue.
Shoshone help American explorers and settlers
The Shoshone first saw Spanish settlers, who arrived in the New World in the 1500s, and later encountered other explorers, but contact with foreigners was minimal. Their relations with whites really began with the 1804–1806 Lewis and Clark expedition into the American West. The pair first met a Shoshone Indian when they hired French-Canadian fur trapper Toussaint Charbonneau to serve as their interpreter. Charbonneau agreed to help the explorers, but it was his Shoshone wife, Sacajawea, who proved to be the important presence on the expedition. With her help, Lewis and Clark and their crew made their way from the Missouri River through to the Pacific Ocean, encountering many Shoshone bands along the way.
American settlers began arriving soon after Lewis and Clark charted the West. When the explorers returned to St. Louis, Missouri, in 1806, pioneers, trappers, and traders started pressing onto Shoshone lands. They were followed by a religious group called the Mormons, who founded Salt Lake City, Utah, in 1847. The lure of gold in California sent more whites west in 1849, as did the discovery of silver in Nevada in 1857. The American westward movement forever changed the lives of the Shoshone.
Most Shoshone military resistance to white expansion took place in the early 1860s. Native American war parties attacked wagon trains, pony express riders (mail carriers on horseback), and telegraph line crews. They were reacting to the disappearance of buffalo herds from overhunting and to the influx of huge numbers of whites. To protect American settlers from Native American raids, California sent an army to establish Fort Douglas near Salt Lake City. In January 1863 three hundred army troops went on a punishing raid against Chief Bear Hunter (died 1863) of the Northern Shoshone at Bear Hunter’s village, 140 miles (225 kilometers) away from Fort Douglas.
The Native Americans prepared their village for the soldiers’ arrival by building barricades. The Shoshone, however, had never experienced the full force of the U.S. Army. The soldiers flooded the village with gunfire on the morning of January 29. In four hours they killed 250 Shoshone, ruined 70 homes, and captured 175 horses while suffering only 14 deaths and 49 injuries. The Bear River Massacre (1863), as it came to be called, was the turning point in Shoshone-American relations. According to Virginia Cole Trenholm and Maurine Carley in The Shoshonis: Sentinels of the Rockies, Mormons sent to view the battle site reported “the dead eight feet deep in one place.… The relentless slaughter of the Indians, for the first time, served as [a] … lesson. The natives now realized that the [U.S.] army had the power to deal them a crushing defeat.”
Northern and Eastern Shoshone make peace
The Northern and Eastern Shoshone were ready to make peace with the whites after the Bear River Massacre. Later in 1863 Shoshone chiefs signed the first of several treaties in which they agreed to sell much of their land to the U.S. government for payments that were usually never made. The federal government began to assign Native Americans to reservations. Many branches of the Shoshone tribe resisted the idea of moving from their homelands, but as time went on, they were left with no choice. Finally all the Northern Shoshone, together with the Bannock (see Paiute entry), were moved to the Fort Hall Reservation in eastern Idaho.
By the beginning of the twentieth century most Northern Shoshone were living at Fort Hall, which was located in an area of dry, poor soil. Then as white timber lords, railroad companies, and miners grabbed Shoshone lands; reservation acreage decreased from 1.8 million acres to 544,000 acres. White hostility toward the Shoshone prevented the Natives from exercising their treaty rights—the rights to hunt, fish, and gather on their own land.
The Wind River Reservation was established for the Eastern Shoshone later in 1863. It consisted of 44 million acres in Wyoming. After about five years a new treaty reduced the band’s acreage to less than 2.8 million acres, but the Eastern Shoshone did not break their peace with the white Americans. In fact, under the leadership of Chief Washakie (c. 1804–1900), they aided the Americans in their wars against the Sioux throughout the 1870s. After all their help, though, the Wind River band felt betrayed when the federal government moved their old enemies, the Arapaho, to the Wyoming reservation in 1878.
After the death of Washakie in 1900, the Eastern Shoshone suffered one tragedy after another. Their population plummeted due to starvation, epidemics of measles and tuberculosis, and other problems. (Tuberculosis, often called TB, is an extremely contagious bacterial disease that usually attacks the lungs.)
The Western Shoshone signed the Treaty of Ruby Valley in 1863. In it they agreed to keep the peace, allow settlers to set up some businesses on their land, abandon “the roaming life,” and at some future date live on reservations. It is important to note that in this treaty they did not give up their lands.
For the first three decades of the twentieth century many of the Western Shoshone avoided or tried to avoid moving to the reservations being established by the federal government. For many of them, the U.S. government agreed to the creation of colonies (small Native American settlements near larger white settlements) in Nevada as alternatives to reservation life. By 1927 only about half of the Western Shoshone lived on reservations. This pattern continued into the twenty-first century.
Shoshone in the twentieth century
In the 1930s new government policies brought reforms to the Shoshone in the form of self-government, and the quality of their lives began to improve. The Shoshone began sharing their culture with white Americans and worked diligently to retain many of their traditional cultural practices. They taught and used the Shoshone language, built schools and cultural centers, and held powwows (traditional song-and-dance celebrations).
The Shoshone people live on or near 18 reservations and colonies in Utah, Idaho, Nevada, Wyoming, and California. Many of the reservations also serve as homes to Arapaho, Bannock, Paiute, and Goshute peoples.
The many Shoshone peoples have a wide range of religious beliefs and practices. Some believe the Sun created the Heavens and the Earth, while others believe that either Coyote or Wolf or a kindly spirit called “Our Father” was the Creator. The aid of these and other spirits is often sought, but first the seeker has to undergo purification in a sweat lodge, a building in which steam is produced by pouring water over heated rocks. Many groups do not have priests or other religious leaders. Instead individuals seek out supernatural powers on their own, through visions and dreams.
A fairly recent addition to Shoshone spiritualism is the Peyote (pronounced pay-OH-tee ) religion, which originated in Mexico and the southwestern United States and spread throughout North America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Many Shoshone welcomed the Peyote religion as a source of comfort and strength in the face of hardship. Peyote is a type of cactus; when parts of it are chewed, the user sees visions. For a people like the Shoshone, who always believed in strong links to the supernatural and the powers of spirits, peyote is a tool to communicate better with spirits and to discover supernatural powers.
The Shoshone also welcomed the messages of the Ghost Dance religions of 1870 and 1889. Ghost Dancers believed that the performance of their special dance would hasten the day when the traditional Native American way of life would be restored and Native peoples would be freed from the burden of white intervention.
All Shoshone groups speak dialects (varieties) of the same language. Though the dialects differ slightly among the divisions, they are, for the most part, understandable by all Shoshone. All together in the early twenty-first century there are more than one thousand speakers of the language, and the tribe is teaching it to their children.
The small, wandering bands of Western Shoshone sometimes had headmen, leaders who had little real authority. Shoshone groups who hunted buffalo were more likely to have chiefs with a greater degree of authority. This type of organization was necessary for the group to be effective against enemies intruding on their buffalo-hunting territory. These chiefs made decisions after consulting with a council, and they came and went as their popularity rose or fell.
Among the Eastern Shoshone, chiefs played a more important role. Men like Washakie—older men who had proved their worth in past battles—were chosen to lead. In modern times the many Shoshone reservations and colonies are governed by elected tribal councils and business councils.
Shoshone Population: 2000 Census
In the 2000 U.S. Census, 8,340 people identified themselves as Shoshone. Paiute Shoshone and Shoshone-Bannock Tribes of the Fort Hall Reservation were not included in this number. Their populations are included below. The census did not include many of the smaller communities such as Ely (five hundred people in 2006 according to tribal statistics) The groups included in the census identified themselves this way (often using names of the colonies or reservations where they live):
|Shoshone-Bannock Tribes (Fort Hall)||4,922|
|Death Valley Timbi-Sha Shoshone||213|
“2000 Census of Population and Housing. Matrix 7: American Indian and Alaskan Native summary file.” Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, Data User Services Division, American FactFinder, 2004.
The Shoshone were hunter-gatherers, but the food they ate differed according to where they lived. For example, those who lived near water could fish. No groups owned land; it was shared by all, as were the fruits of their labors. The Shoshone also engaged in extensive trade. They received metal arrow points from the Crow Indians in exchange for horses. Later they traded furs with whites for horses and weapons.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s many Shoshone who refused to move to reservations became dependent on wages paid by white employers. Those who lived on reservations were encouraged to farm, even where the land was not at all suitable for farming. They suffered hardships when government agents failed to deliver promised supplies, seeds, and instructions on how to farm. In the early twenty-first century many Shoshone still lived in poverty.
The Eastern Shoshone at Wind River have been hit the hardest by economic suffering. The reservation is located in a rugged, remote, mountainous area, with limited opportunities for agricultural activity. Income is generated by leasing land for grazing and by raising horses and cattle. Some income is earned from tourists, who are drawn by the excellent fishing, tours of Fort Washakie Historic District, and the reservation’s location near the Rocky Mountains, the Continental Divide, and Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks. A large percentage of tribal members are employed in government programs such as social services.
The Northern Shoshone have fared better, in part by opening a variety of shops and gambling establishments and by farming. Their reservation covers some prime farming land. The tribe grows potatoes, grain, and alfalfa, raises cattle, and leases land to other farmers. The Northern Shoshone have won many contracts and grants from the federal government for various projects, and tribal members are employed on those projects. Still, the tribe suffered when a phosphate mine on the reservation was closed in 1993 after nearly fifty years in operation.
The Western Shoshone support themselves by cattle ranching, and they continue their struggles with the U.S. government over land rights. (See “Current tribal issues.”)
Some Northern Shoshone lived in tepees made from buffalo hides or interwoven rushes (marsh plants with hollow stems used for weaving) and willows. Others built conical dwellings of brush and grass. All Northern groups built and maintained sweat lodges and huts where women retreated during their menstrual period. (Menstrual blood was considered evil, even dangerous.)
The Western Shoshone lived in more permanent camps than other Shoshone communities because they did not have to chase buffalo. They usually did not use animal hides in their homes and buildings. For the winter months they constructed cone-shaped huts with bark walls. Rings of stone supported the walls and kept the structure erect. Some built sun-shades and circular cottages out of brush and light timber. Many of the mountain-dwelling Western Shoshone lived in wickiups (pronounced WIK-ee-ups ), frame huts covered with brush or bark matting. Others did not build homes at all, but sought shelter in caves when the weather turned bad. All Western Shoshone built sweat lodges and most built menstrual huts.
The Eastern Shoshone built substantial tepees. Each of these structures required the hides of at least ten buffalo. The chief’s tepee might be painted with a yellow band to set it apart from the others.
Clothing and adornment
Most Shoshone wore few clothes, especially during the summer months. Women and girls usually wore only skirts and hats, while young boys went naked. During times of extreme cold they sewed small animal furs and hides into dresses, shirts, and robes, and the best hunters and their kin wore larger pieces of clothing made from deer and antelope skins. The clothing of the Eastern Shoshone tended to be more decorative than the Northern and Western divisions.
Buffalo-hunting groups wore buffalo robes in winter and elk skins in summer. Also common were leggings and breechcloths (garments with front and back flaps that hung from the waist). Many went barefoot; those who did not wore moccasins of buffalo hide.
Both sexes pierced their ears and wore many necklaces. Western Shoshone also practiced face and body painting and some facial tattooing.
Shoshone bands were often named for the main foods they consumed, so names like “Salmon Eaters” and “Squirrel Eaters” were typical. Like many of the tribes of the region, some Northern and Eastern Shoshone bands depended on buffalo hunts for their main food. Men also chased down sheep and antelope to add to their wild game menu. In September they often combined forces with the Bannock and Flathead for a massive buffalo hunt. Some caught fish—primarily salmon, sturgeon, and trout—and gathered other wild foods. They used torches to attract fish at night, then netted or trapped them.
Shoshone women were skilled at making cakes from dried berries, nuts, and seeds of all sorts. They cooked turnips and other tubers in pits beneath hot rocks until the vegetables were soft and brown.
The Western Shoshone used sticks to dig up a variety of nuts and roots; they also picked berries. They wandered more than other Shoshone bands, looking for places where edible plants and wild growth were most plentiful. The Western Shoshone did not hunt buffalo; they confined their hunting to smaller game—antelope, rabbits, and rodents—and to fishing. They also collected grasshoppers in large numbers by sweeping through open fields to send the insects scattering.
Children were taught by the elderly and the handicapped, who sang songs and told stories while parents were busy gathering food. At the beginning of the twentieth century, when the U.S. government was handling Indian affairs on the reservations, Christian missionaries were invited to establish schools. Some Shoshone children were sent to boarding schools located far from home and family. At these schools children were encouraged to speak English and to give up their Native tongue, but among the Shoshone these efforts to eliminate Native traditions were largely unsuccessful.
In the 1950s Shoshone children were integrated (merged or blended) into America’s public school system. Educational attainment improved, but test results from the 1990s showed that some Shoshone children still lagged behind other students. One reason for low test scores may be related to language and cultural differences.
Frequently the public schools are the Shoshone child’s first encounter with mainstream American society. Native students are often hampered by the language barrier and the lack of Native American history and culture in the curriculum. Students at the Wind River Reservation are fortunate to have their own Wyoming Indian High School, which teaches the Native culture and language. Other communities operate their own Head Start programs for preschoolers.
The Shoshone had healers, men or women called shamans (pronounced SHAH-munz or SHAY-munz ), who knew how to use roots, herbs, charms, and chants to cure ailments. More serious cases were cured by spirit power. The shaman obtained spirit powers through visions, usually seen during a fast in a secluded place like a mountain peak. The shaman applied spirit power while laying hands on the patient or sucking out the disease-causing object.
Old rituals and ways declined after the move to reservations. People starved when the government did not provide adequate food, and tuberculosis was common. Government reforms that began in the 1930s brought better health care. The last half of the twentieth century saw many improvements in health care, and as a result the Shoshone population increased.
Painting and crafts
All Shoshone groups have long and unique artistic traditions. The Eastern Shoshone at Wind River Reservation preserve hundreds of ancient pictographs depicting Water Ghost Beings, Rock Ghost Beings, and other fearful creatures.
Once they began using horses to travel greater distances, many Shoshone learned skills from their new Plains neighbors. They recorded tribal history in elk- and buffalo-hide paintings. In addition, like other tribes, they used mineral paints to decorate leather parfleches, pouches or containers for carrying food. Each tribe, however, developed its own distinctive designs.
Western Shoshone crafts are quite different from those of the Northern and Eastern tribes. Lacking water and wood supplies, Western Shoshone societies made extremely complex baskets and tools for carrying water, foods, and other objects. Not having leather like other groups, the Western Shoshone perfected the weaving of various willows, grasses, and other materials into beautiful, yet functional, art.
The Lemhi Shoshone made bows from the horns of mountain sheep. It could take two months to complete one bow, but the bows were accurate and powerful enough to shoot big game. The Lemhi softened and uncurled the horn by soaking it in hot water. Then they whittled it and tied the pieces together with tightly wrapped hide. They decorated finished bows with designs made from porcupine quills. Other tribes traded for these highly prized weapons. The Lemhi also produced watertight bags from salmon skins to that they tanned.
Shoshone are also known for their beadwork. Early designs were more geometric, or boxlike, while later ones appear more realistic. Key colors were white, green, blue, and cobalt. During the mid-1900s the Shoshone Rose became a familiar motif.
The Shoshone have a longstanding commitment to the written word. Sacajawea’s brother is credited with producing the first written Shoshone story. Shoshone authors have written tribal histories, and newspapers are produced at the Wind River and Fort Hall reservations.
Coyote Wants To Be Chief
The Shoshone have many tales of Coyote, the trickster and alleged creator of people. Coyote is a prominent figure in many tales from the western tribes of North America.
People from all over the country—all kinds of animals, even Stink Bug—gathered together in a valley for a council. Rumors were going around that a lot of them wanted to make Coyote the head man. Meadowlark told Coyote that Coyote was going to be a great chief. As he was going along, Coyote met Skunk, who told him the same thing, that Coyote was going to be the biggest chief there ever was. Then Coyote met Badger and he said the same thing. Every time Coyote heard this he got so swelled and he wished he would meet some more people who would tell him the same things.
Coyote wanted to find [Wolf] his brother. Wolf had been away for a long time. Coyote ran around that valley so fast, looking for Wolf, that he got all tired out.
The council was to start before the sun came up. Coyote didn’t sleep the night before, [so] he was so weary. In the middle of the night Coyote got sleepy. He still had a long way to go to get to the council. Coyote sat down to rest a little while in some timber. He didn’t want to go to sleep but he was very weary. His eyes began to close. He picked up some little yellow flowers and propped his eyelids open with them. He fought sleep but he was so tired. Finally he fell asleep and didn’t wake up till noon the next day. He got up and ran toward the valley. To his surprise he began meeting people. They were coming back from the council. He started asking, “What did you talk about? Who became a chief?” And they all told him, “Your brother did. He is the biggest man in the country now. He is the chief.”
Coyote wanted to find his brother. Then Coyote found his brother and asked him if he were the biggest chief. Wolf said, “Yes.” The people all wanted him to be the biggest chief.
Steward, Tom. Shoshone Tales. Edited by Anne M. Smith. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1993.
Festivals and ceremonies
All three Shoshone divisions practiced a variety of dances and ceremonies. Major dances with religious themes included the Round Dance, the Father Dance, and the Sun Dance. The Round Dance (also performed by the Paiute; see entry) was performed when food was plentiful or as part of an annual mourning ceremony. The Father Dance, possibly a form of the Round Dance, paid tribute to the Creator and asked him to keep the people healthy.
In the old times the Sun Dance was performed after a buffalo hunt. The head of the buffalo was prepared so that it seemed to be alive. In modern times a mounted buffalo head is used. It is then kept at the home of the sponsor of the following year’s Sun Dance. Sponsoring a Sun Dance is an expensive proposition, but is a great honor. The Sun Dance has become a focal point for all Shoshone people. It expresses Native American unity and renews the people’s connections to their spiritual side.
Modern-day Shoshone host celebrations called fandangos (festivities that include prayers and games) and powwows. The powwow—a traditional song-and-dance celebration—is a recent introduction, having come to the Shoshone in 1957. Shoshone powwows include dancers from many Plains tribes.
Some Shoshone warriors took the scalps of their enemies as a symbol of victory. Upon returning to his village, a triumphant warrior would place each scalp atop a pole and dance around it.
Military societies called the Yellow Brows and the Logs existed among the Eastern Shoshone. Yellow Brows were young men who underwent an initiation ritual in which they spoke backwards, so that “yes” meant “no,” for example. They painted their hair yellow and took a vow to remain fearless in battle, never giving up even in the face of death. When preparing for an attack, a Yellow Brow and his horse performed a frenzied dance called Big Horse Dance. In battle Yellow Brows went first; behind them came the older soldiers called Logs, with their faces painted black.
Courtship and marriage
Courting couples looked forward to socializing at Round Dances, although some men kidnapped their brides—not caring if the women were single or already married. Good hunters made especially desirable husbands, so they often had more than one wife. Divorce was common, and frequent remarriage was normal. The choice of residence for the newlyweds—with the bride’s or the groom’s family—varied from group to group.
The role of women
In early times Shoshone women were considered inferior to men, especially when they were young. This is partly because they menstruated, and menstrual blood was considered evil. (Women were isolated in special huts during their periods.) A woman’s status in society was based upon that of her husband. As women grew older, they could attain a higher status by curing, assisting at births, and demonstrating skill at gambling. The coming of Europeans elevated the status of Shoshone women, who often acted as go-betweens with trappers and traders (as Sacajawea did).
By the late 1990s Shoshone women had expanded their roles in many ways, especially in tribal ceremonies. Thanks to their efforts, many traditional dances and songs (formerly performed only by men) have been kept alive.
Death and burial
Sometimes when food was extremely scarce, the old and the feeble were abandoned by their group and soon died. Some Shoshone wrapped their dead in blankets and placed them in rock crevices. They believed the souls of the departed journeyed on to the lands of Coyote or Wolf. Mourners cut their hair and destroyed the deceased’s property, horse, and tepee. The Western Shoshone practiced cremation, and often burned the dead in their dwellings. The ghosts of the dead were feared; even dreaming about someone who had passed on was a bad omen.
Current tribal issues
The Western Shoshone have had longstanding land claim disagreements with the federal government. They continue to reject government offers of money and instead hope to regain some of the 22 million acres lost since the nineteenth century, when nearly all their homeland was seized illegally. The treaty they signed in 1863 permitted railroad, mining, and timber activities on their territory, but the Shoshone could not have imagined how many people would come and live on—and mistreat—the land.
The federal government continues to permit various businesses to use Shoshone land. Shoshone outrage at the misuse of their land has led to radical action. In 1972 the tribe joined an organization, the American Indian Movement (AIM), in a demonstration called the Trail of Broken Treaties. Five hundred Native Americans arrived in Washington, D.C., to protest government policies toward Native Americans and occupied the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs building for nearly a week.
Since then Shoshone activists have continued their legal battles. The tribe blocked plans for nuclear waste disposal on their land. They also postponed the detonation of a bomb that would send vast pollution over the desert. In 2006 the United Nations instructed the U.S. government to cease activities on the land until the Shoshone claim is settled. The United States, however, continues to use Shoshone land for military testing and mining. A lawyer for the tribe estimates that gold worth more than $20 billion has been taken from the area over the years.
For decades the Lemhi-Shoshone people have pursued federal recognition. The government has yet to acknowledge them, but in 1999 it honored their ancestor, Sacajawea, with a coin celebrating the bi-centennial of the Lewis and Clark expedition. The government also gave the town of Salmon, the Lemhi’s former homeland, a $12 million grant to open a museum in her honor. Sacajawea’s descendants, however, will not benefit, nor have they received federal recognition, which would entitle them to federal benefits and allow them to live as a sovereign (independent) nation.
Washakie (c. 1804–1900) was a chief of the Eastern Shoshone and became the most powerful leader of his tribe. His name may be translated as “Gourd Rattle,” “Rawhide Rattle,” or “Gambler’s Gourd.” During battle he would ride toward his enemies and shake his rattle to frighten their horses. In the 1820s and 1830s Washakie and the Shoshone were on good terms with white frontierspeople, trappers, and traders. They participated in Rocky Mountain get-togethers with fur trappers and joined them in battles against the Sioux, Blackfoot, and Crow (see entry)—traditional enemies of the Shoshone. Washakie signed the Treaty of Fort Bridger in 1863, guaranteeing U.S. travelers safe passage through his band’s territory. His good relations with the U.S. government made it possible for him to secure the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming for the Eastern Shoshone. Washakie died in 1900 at Flathead Village in Montana’s Bitterroot Valley and was buried with full military honors at Fort Washakie, Wyoming. His tombstone reads: “Always loyal to the Government and his white brothers.”
Sacajawea (c. 1784–c. 1812) played an important role as a guide to American explorers Lewis and Clark during their westward trek (1804–6) across the country. She was born sometime between 1784 and 1790 among the Lemhi Shoshone of Idaho-Montana. When she was between ten to twelve years old, Sacajawea was kidnapped by the Hidatsa tribe in a raid. In 1804, a French-Canadian trader, Toussaint Charbonneau, purchased her and married her. Charbonneau joined Lewis and Clark as an interpreter shortly before Sacajawea gave birth to their child, Jean Baptiste Charbonneau. The only woman on the expedition, Sacajawea proved invaluable in leading the explorers through the wilderness. She was a symbol to all people they encountered that theirs was a peaceful mission. Sacajawea’s date of death is even less certain than her date of birth. One account reported her dying of a disease in 1812—six years after the return of the expedition—aboard a trader ship on the Missouri River. Another account suggested that she returned to her homeland, lived with the Wind River Shoshone led by Washakie, and died at about one hundred years of age. (This would put her death date around the year 1884, not 1812.)
Other notable Shoshone include: Pocatello (c. 1815–1884), who put up the fiercest Shoshone resistance to white settlement; Bear Hunter (died 1863), killed resisting a U.S. Army raid; and Shoshone-Goshute-Paiute author Laine Thom (1952–), who has edited two critically acclaimed books about the Native American experience: Becoming Brave: The Path to Native American Manhood and Dancing Colors: Paths of Native American Women.
Hendricks, Steve. The Unquiet Grave: The FBI and the Struggle for the Soul of Indian Country. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2006.
Himsl, Sharon M. The Shoshone. San Diego, CA: Lucent Books, 2005.
Ryan, Marla Felkins, and Linda Schmittroth. Shoshone. San Diego: Blackbirch Press, 2003.
Slater, Eva. Panamint Shoeshone Basketry: An American Art Form. Berkeley: Heyday Books, 2004.
Sonneborn, Liz. The Shoshones. Minneapolis, MN: Lerner Publications, 2006.
Wilson, Elijah Nicholas. The White Indian Boy: The Story Of Uncle Nick among the Shoshones. Kila, MN: Kessinger Publishing, 2004.
“Archives: Oral History Collection.” Chief Washakie Foundation. (accessed on September 8, 2007).
“Ely Shoshone Reservation” Great Basin National Heritage Route. (accessed on September 8, 2007).
Lemhi-Shoshone Tribes. (accessed on September 8, 2007).
Stamm, Henry E. “A History of Shoshone-Bannock Art: Continuity and Change in the Northern Rockies.” The Wyoming Council For The Humanities: Chief Washakie Foundation. (accessed on September 8, 2007).
Te-Moak Tribe of Western Shoshone Indians of Nevada. (accessed on May 28, 2007).
Timbisha Shoshone Tribe. (accessed on May 28, 2007).
Wind River Indian Reservation: Eastern Shoshone Tribe. (accessed on September 8, 2007).
Ned Blackhawk, Associate Professor, Department of History, American Indian Studies Program, University of Wisconsin, Madison
"Shoshone." U*X*L Encyclopedia of Native American Tribes. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 10, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/shoshone
"Shoshone." U*X*L Encyclopedia of Native American Tribes. . Retrieved September 10, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/shoshone