Eastern Shoshone

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Eastern Shoshone

ETHNONYMS: Green River Snakes, Plains Shoshone, Washakie's Band, Wind River Shoshone


Identification. The Eastern Shoshone have lived in Western Wyoming, particularly in the valleys of the Wind, Green, and Big Horn rivers, since about the fifteenth century, combining the general culture type of the Great Basin with those of the pre-horse and post-horse Great Plains. In addition, they have been influenced by Spanish, American, and other sources. In the early 1980s, there were perhaps three thousand of their descendants living on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming and its environs.

Location. The Eastern Shoshone can be divided into two groups, the Buffalo Eaters (Sage Brush People) and the Mountain Sheep Eaters (Mountaineers). The former occupied the Green River and Wind River valleys and had a pattern of annual movement with concurrent tribal concentration and dispersal. In earlier times they were under continual attack from the Plains tribes, including the Arapaho, Black-foot, and Sioux. The Mountain Sheep Eaters used the central Rocky Mountain region, including the Yellowstone Lake area. The Wind River Reservation, which they now share with the Northern Arapaho, was established in 1863. It is a Generally dry mountainous area with rainfall averaging about thirteen inches a year, and with average temperatures ranging from 10° to 80° F.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Shoshone spoke dialects of the Central Numic language, a branch of the Uto-Aztecan Language family, and had affinities to the languages of the Northern and Western Shoshone groups.

History and Cultural Relations

Their history since about 1500 can be described in a number of phases, beginning with their pre-horse penetration of the High Plains and their adoption of large-scale bison hunting; then with the acquisition of horses around 1700 came a Second phase of widespread raiding through the plains. A third phase, around the beginning of the nineteenth century, was marked by a losing war with the Blackfoot, smallpox epidemics, and the introduction of the Sun Dance. This was followed by a period of alliances with the Whites and renewed tribal viability under Chief Washakie. Reservation life in the later nineteenth century was characterized by intense hardship and population losses. The first half of the twentieth century showed cultural and demographic stabilization, and innovation in religious institutions. Since 1945, there has been Population growth and a general adaptation to mainstream White culture as well as to a growing Arapaho political Dominance on the reservation.


In the nineteenth century, the Eastern Shoshone had a complex pattern of land use. The Buffalo Eaters did not have a single set of specified boundaries, but a number of different ones of varying significance. The valleys of the Green and Wind rivers were their core area, with the plains and Mountains used at times. They had a pattern of annual movements with concurrent tribal concentrations and dispersals. The Mountain Sheep Eaters held the central Rocky Mountain Region but also had reciprocal relations with the Buffalo Eaters. In the early days, the dwellings were bison-skin tipis. The tipis' pole framework was covered by a complex arrangement of bison hides, and the covering was decorated with paintings celebrating the husband's accomplishments. Small menstrual huts were also used. Dwellings on the reservation today are generally wooden bungalows.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. There was a large variety of fauna available to the Eastern Shoshone, Supplemented by berries and roots, with seeds being of minor importance. Access to these resources was limited somewhat by natural conditions, and by the actions of hostile tribes. Hunters had a right to their kill, with a special sequence of sharing followed for bison. Sites for fish weirs or game traps involved only temporary property rights, and plant gathering involved none. Food was ritualized to only a minor extent, the most important being a taboo on meat eating by women in menstrual or birthing seclusion. Staples were the bison, fish (especially trout), elk, beaver, and mule deer. Major but only occasionally available game included the antelope, jackrabbit, mountain sheep, marmot, and sage hen. These were supplemented by many minor food sources. Lynx, mink, otter, and weasel were not eaten but were valued for their furs. Women, especially in the late summer and fall, picked currants, rose hips, haws, and gooseberries. They dug up roots, camas bulbs, and wild onions. Greens and the sugar content of various honey plants enlivened the diet. Thistles and some kinds of sunflowers served as the only source of seeds. The seasonality of foodstuffs ruled the annual congregating, movement, and dispersal of the various Shoshone groups. The bison was by far the greatest resource but was available only briefly in the spring and for a longer period in the fall. The women were skilled and rapid butchers and were efficient at drying the meat. But the Shoshone could only rarely gain as much as half their annual food supply from bison. The principal food fish were cutthroat trout, Montana grayling, and Rocky Mountain whitefish, taken primarily in the spring and either eaten fresh or preserved by sun-drying or smoking. The basic method of catching fish was by driving them into a weir. After bison and fish in importance were elk, which were run down like bison, or single elk being tracked like mule deer. Berries were eaten fresh, in soups, or pounded with meat and fat to be preserved as pemmican. Roots were cooked in an earth oven. Prickly pear in drier areas was eaten on rare occasions.

The horse, mule, and dog were the domestic animals, with cattle being added in the later nineteenth century. They prized horses and dogs as aids in transportation, hunting, and war; neither animal was eaten except in great need, nor were the hides and bones put to other uses. Both animals were well cared for, with the bison-hunting horse often being sacrificed on a man's grave. Men cared for war horses, women for pack horses and baggage. They used rawhide-lashed wood-handled whips but not spurs, transported the infirm with a horse travois, and raided other tribes for horses. They had a relatively low incorporation of the horse into religion and the formal social structure. The Buffalo Eaters kept dogs for hunting and as guards, and the Mountain Sheep Eaters used dog transport on a large scale.

Industrial Arts. The Eastern Shoshone made a wide variety of leather goods. Tipis, clothing, and containers, as well as hides or furs primarily for trade, were the major manufactures. The latter were of three types: sumptuary, ritual, and craft products; utilitarian objects (coiled basketry, drinking horns, bear-paw snowshoes) ; and improvised expedient productions (temporary housing, bullboats, scrapers). In later years they were heavily involved in the fur trade and in intermarriage with traders and White settlers.

Division of Labor. Bison-skin tipis were made by the women and decorated by their husbands. Leatherworking, Except for shields, bowstrings, drums, and rattles, was women's work. Women possessed special skills in plant gathering, household crafts, curing, household transportation, and gambling. They were socially subordinate to the men who were engaged in hunting, fishing, warfare, working with horses, and trade.


The Eastern Shoshone used Hawaiian kinship terminology, all cousins being equated with siblings or called by terms derivative from those used for siblings. In the terminology, which is still being used, there are distinctions between primary and descriptive terms. Collective and quasi-kin terms indicate focal and indefinitely extended relationships. Most primary terms refer to consanguineal kin. They distinguish the kinsman's line of descent and generation, and, in part, the sex of the speaker. Both parallel and cross cousins are considered to be more distant siblings.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. In the past, bride-service was common, especially through a young groom's living initially with his wife's parents. There used to be a high degree of polygyny, and Sibling exchange marriages were also probably common. According to Shimkin, however, in the period 1850-1930, only 3 cases of polygyny, 2 of sibling exchanges, and 3 of marriage with consanguineal kin were reported out of 239 marriages. These changes were likely due to Christian influence. Marriage was forbidden with any first or second cousin. Premarital sex relations were freely permitted and subject to no sanctions.

Inheritance. There was an absence of individual property rights in land or movable property, or of any rule of Inheritance governing the transmission of such rights.

Socialization. Infants and very young boys and girls were dependents undifferentiated by sex. They were rarely punished, but kept quiet through fears of monsters and enemies. Larger boys joined peer groups, with aggression being much encouraged. Adolescence for boys was not formally marked, and the search for supernatural power began at this time. Marriage and joining a military society connoted a man's Status. A girl would stay with her mother, helping in household chores, caring for younger siblings, and playing girls' games. Menarche required isolation in the family menstrual hut, avoidance of meat and of daytime sleeping, and the obligation to gather firewood. Shortly after menarche, a girl's Parents or, if they were dead, her older brother or maternal uncle, would arrange her marriageusually to a good hunter, stable and reliable.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Age and sex largely determined roles and status within the traditional society, with inheritance playing a small role. Social positions, however, were earned in warfare or attributed to the acquisition of supernatural power. Women were socially subordinated to men and menstruation stigmatized women as sources of dangerous ritual pollution. Polygyny (never sororal) involved conflicts and the economic exploitation of younger wives. In middle and older ages, midwifery, curing, or gambling earned prestige for women. In modern times, large bilateral kindreds have become key sociopolitical elements. Berdaches, of low status, were also present.

Political Organization. The whole tribe was gathered at times for winter shelter. In winter and early spring, the tribe could break up into three to five bands, each having a loose association with a particular region in western Wyoming, but not named or bounded. Membership in each band was flexible, with extended family groups joining one or another of the bands or sometimes another tribe entirely. Effective Leadership was necessary in the bison hunt, warfare, trade, and winter shelter. In the tribe, and to a varying extent in each band, the conduct of chieftainship was aided by two military societies and by a variety of temporary aides, such as heralds. The chief was a middle-aged or older man of military and shamanic distinction who gave orders affecting the tribal march or a collective hunt. He also gave counsel on issues of joint decision, but had little to do with internal disputes. There was evidence of an active tribal council in earlier times, but on the reservation now, they maintain a business council of six members. The business of the reservation as a whole is carried out by a joint business council with the Northern Arapaho tribe, also residents of the reservation. The two military societies, the Yellow Brows and the Logs, were complementary rather than competitive.

Social Control and Conflict. War was a continuing state among them, and war gains and losses directly affected tribal viability. In the early nineteenth century, the Shoshone were badly battered by smallpox and were threatened by Sioux, Cheyenne, and Gros Ventre raiders. They countered these threats by alliances with fur traders and the U.S. government, but they continued to lose small parties to raiders until well into the late nineteenth century. The demographic effects of warfare were severe. Eventually, there was a low adult male/female sex ratio, as a result of which they were forced to recruit trappers, Metis, and Indians from other tribes into Marriages. Features evident in Shoshone warfare were war honors, which were the greatest source of prestige, suicide in combat, and horse-stealing raids on foot. Chiefs were in charge of large actions and peacemaking.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Prior to extensive Christian missionary efforts and the introduction of the Peyote religion in the late nineteenth century, the Eastern Shoshone practiced two forms of religious beliefs and behavior. The first was directed toward personal success and survival through the acquisition of supernatural power from the world of spirits. The second was designed for the welfare of the community and of nature and to ward off impending prophesized disasters. The mythological beings and animations of nature and their powers were of central importance, with the relation between shaman and power being of supplication and dependency. A successful quest for power was expressed by a vision in which the power appears bestowing skills or protections, fetishes to call forth the power, a song, and individual taboos. Water Ghost Beings and Rock Ghost Beings were feared. The domain of ghosts included not only Ghost Beings, but old women, great-grandparents, apparitions, and whirlwinds.

Ceremonies. The Father Dance, the Shuffling Dance (Ghost Dance), and the Sun Dance were supplications addressed to beneficent beings, particularly Our Father. The Father Dance and the Shuffling Dance were especially a tradition among the Mountain Sheep Eaters and were usually nighttime events in the fall, winter, or spring in which both men and women participated in the singing of sacred songs. The Sun Dance, probably acquired from the Plains tribes, was a day-and-night event of the summer, restricted to men, with dancing and thirsting to exhaustion.

Medicine. It was believed that illness came from breach of taboos, malevolent dwarf people, and sorcery. On the other hand, they were pragmatic about childbirth, snake bites, minor ailments, and wounds and fractures. Houses where death had occurred were often abandoned.


Johnson, Thomas Hoevet (1975). The Enos Family and Wind River Shoshone Society: A Historical Analysis, Ann Arbor: University Microfilms.

Lowie, Robert Harry (1915). Dances and Societies of the Plains Shoshone. American Museum of Natural History, Anthropological Papers, 11, 803-835. New York.

Shimkin, Demitri B. (1947). Wind River Shoshone Ethnogeography. University of California Anthropological Records, 5(4). Berkeley.

Shimkin, Demitri B. (1947). Childhood and Development among the Wind River Shoshone, University of California Anthropological Records, 5(5). Berkeley.

Shimkin, Demitri B. (1986). "Eastern Shoshone." In Handbook of North American Indians, Vol. 11, Great Basin, edited by Warren L. d'Azevedo, 308-335. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution.

Trenholm, Virginia C, and Maurine Carley (1964). The S/io-shonis: Sentinels of the Rockies. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

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Eastern Shoshone

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Eastern Shoshone