Western Shoshone

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Western Shoshone

ETHNONYMS: Diggers, Root-Diggers, Shoshocoes, Walkers


Identification. The Western Shoshone, including the Gosiute of northwestern Utah, are a group of closely related peoples who live in the arid regions of the western Great Basin.

Location. Their territory stretched from northern Nevada and northwestern Utah, inhabited by the Gosiute, across the state of Nevada to the Death Valley region of southeastern California, inhabited by the Panamint. The area was very lightly inhabited by the Shoshone because of the stringent ecological conditions obtaining during historical times. Forty-three subgroups were named by Steward in his surveys. The names of these subgroups are generally geographical in origin, having been conferred by Europeans, but some are Shoshone names based on notable local food resources. The whole Region is arid and desert in character, with generally a very low annual rainfall, intermittent streams feeding into ponds and small lakes without outlets, scrub vegetation, and a varied to-pography.

Demography. Most Western Shoshone do not live on rancherías, although there are numerous small reserves, generally governed by local councils, in eastern California and Nevada. In the late nineteenth century, the population totaled about 2,400, and in 1980 the population was 2,923 according to the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Shoshone all spoke dialects and varieties of Central Numic, a member of the Uto-Aztecan language family. Central Numic has three basic component languages, Panamint (spoken only by the Panamint in the southwestern part of the area), Comanche (spoken on the southern Great Plains), and Shoshone (spoken by all other Shoshone groups).

History and Cultural Relations

The Western Shoshone live in one of the last areas in the United States to be settled by Europeans and Americans, although the southern parts had been reached by Spanish explorers. Jedediah Smith and Peter Skene Ogden both mention encountering Shoshone in the late 1820s. Other explorers in the area in the first half of the nineteenth century included Zenas Leonard, John C. Frémont, James H. Simpson, and Howard R. Egan. A great cultural impact was made by the arrival of the Mormons after 1847, followed by the California and Carson River gold rushes in 1848 and 1849, and the discovery of the Comstock Lode in 1857. Treaties by the U.S. government with various groups were signed in 1863 and began the process of gathering them on to Reservations, although nothing much was accomplished in this Respect until the late 1870s. Many small reservations were established shortly after the turn of the century and after the beginning of the "Indian New Deal" in 1935. In the 1930s, two competing councils were organized, one not recognized by the federal government, the other, the Te-Moak Bands Council, being sponsored by the government. In 1974, the United Western Shoshone Legal Defense and Education Association (now the Sacred Lands Association) was established. Shoshone title to their lands was finally extinguished with the awarding of $26 million by the Indian Claims Commission in 1979.


The settlement pattern was quite variable, depending upon availability of food resources and season of the year. Stable social units generally occurred where resources were stable, with individual families in other areas moving with their annual seasonal round. Families were generally found within a local geographic district, often around a single valley or Winter village cluster. Temporary dwellings were favored and dwelling types varied according to availability of building materials, length of stay, and use. The usual winter house, holding a small family, was a conical, bark-covered hut, while semisubterranean, earth-covered winter dwellings have also been reported. Many families sought shelter in caves rather than build huts. Sun shades were in use during the summer. Circular brush dwellings were built by some groups, and Others built domed wickiups. Conical or domed sweat houses were in almost universal use, as were huts for secluding menstruating women.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Subsistence adaptations were extremely complex, varying according to the local subsistence base. The collecting of plants was the Subsistence mainstay, with edible greens being gathered in the lowlands in early spring; later in the year berries and seeds were collected and cached in various localities for use during the remainder of the year. Piñon nuts were the mainstay in certain areas in the low foothills. Groves in the Reese River valley were owned by individual families, a unique occurrence among these groups. Winter villages were often located near large caches of nuts. In the Death Valley area, mesquite pods were relied upon heavily with several cactus species, agave, and gourds also being collected. Hunting was important, although not basic to the economy. Among large game, bighorn sheep were of primary importance, generally being killed from ambush in particularly advantageous locales, although communal hunts sometimes occurred. On the other hand, communal antelope drives were the rule in the Gosiute area, and such drives also occurred elsewhere. Antelope were sometimes individually stalked. Deer were also hunted, although they were much scarcer than sheep and antelope. There were occasional communal hunts, but individual hunts were much more usual. The fall rabbit hunt was an important source of food and fur, the jackrabbits and other types being driven into nets of grass twine. Snares and deadfalls were used for cottontail rabbits. Pocket gophers and ground squirrels were flooded or smoked out of their burrows or hooked out by means of skewers, with traps and deadfalls also being used. Fishing was very restricted, being possible in only a few localities. They hunted waterfowl, dove, sage hens and quail, and other birds when they were available. Other foods used included black crickets, bee eggs and larvae, and grasshoppers. Dogs were kept and were sometimes used in hunting. There were usually no other domestic animals, although horses were owned by some families.

Industrial Arts. Clothing was scarce. Most common was a sewn or woven fur robe, usually of rabbit skin, but sometimes of sheep, deer, or antelope hide. Hide clothing, skirts, and breechclouts, as well as clothing of grass or bark, were wide-spread. Various types of moccasins were used. Basketry was important; coiled and twined baskets, seed beaters, trays, and conical carrying baskets were common, as were the sinewbacked bow of juniper (sometimes of mountain mahogany) and horn glue. Quivers were made of wildcat skins. Low-quality pottery of local clays were made, sometimes sparsely decorated with surface impressions.

Division of Labor. Hunting was the primary occupation of the men, and women did most of the gathering. Women made the pottery. Men usually built the dwellings, with women helping in some groups. Both men and women could make clothing, and women usually did whatever weaving was possible.

Land Tenure. There is no information, although Individual families did own piñon groves in the Reese River valley.


Basically, the Shoshone kinship system functioned as a social network, the relatives passing on to each other information on the status of resource availability. But there were restrictions on sharing depending upon the predictability of resourcesthe more predictable, the more sharing. They had bilateral descent and used a Hawaiian-type kin terminology for cousins, with kin terms being modified to facilitate cross-cousin marriage.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Because men generally hunted and women gathered, marriage was essential to form a viable economic unit. Bride-price was common in some groups, but absent in others. If the man was a good hunter, he might have more than one wife. Such polygyny was usually sororal. There was a strong emphasis on the levirate and sororate. Polyandry was present among some of the eastern groups. Brothers in one family often married sisters in another, with the converse being true as well. Postmarital residence varied from group to group, with uxorilocal residence being common. Divorce was common, and so were multiple remarriages.

Domestic Unit. The nuclear family was the common Domestic unit, although there were some polygynous families.

Inheritance. There seems to have been an absence of Inheritance rules governing real and movable property.

Socialization. Old and handicapped persons looked after children while the parents were obtaining food. Puberty rites were restricted to females, the rites being an individual rather than a group ritual, with moral precepts and attitudes being instilled by the mother.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. The Western Shoshone had agamous communities without localized clans or any marked tendency toward local exogamy and endogamy. There was a general absence of complex social institutionsno men's or women's societies, age grades, or significant ceremonialism. As noted above, stable families and other social units tended to occur within areas of stable economic resources; otherwise, social groups and practices were quite variable at a low level.

Political Organization. Political organization was also on a low level of integration. Group composition depended on the number of individual families available. The most stable group was the winter village, but even these had little cohesion and the headmen had little authority. Local bands in some areas were probably a development from mainstream society political and economic pressure.

Conflict. Warfare was not common before contact, although killing of individuals did occur. There was some Evidence of conflict with the Ute and Northern Paiute. White migrants passing through the area were attacked occasionally, and there were some early attacks on White settlers.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Western Shoshone religion was animistic. Supernatural powers were acquired through dream and vision experiences.

Religious Practitioners. Steward noted three types of shamans: general curers, curers of specific sicknesses, and those who used their abilities for their own benefit only. Both men and women could become shamans, but only men practiced so far as is known. Some groups denied the presence of shamans. Shamans were also used for help in the huntfor example, an antelope shaman capturing the souls of antelope through dreams and charming them into corrals for slaughter.

Medicine. Injuries and sicknesses that were not thought to be caused by supernaturals were treated with a very large riety of herbal remedies (reaching into the hundreds of Different plant medicines). Sicknesses caused by supernatural agencies were cured by shamans, often by sucking out offending objects or blood. An unsuccessful shaman sometimes Returned the fee. Shamans were sometimes killed for refusing aid.

Death and Afterlife. Customs at death were variable. Sometimes bodies were buried in caves, rock slides, or talus slopes; at other times the bodies were cremated, abandoned, or burned in their dwellings. Some groups had an annual mourning ceremony; others cut their hair and abstained from remarriage for a time. In times of great food scarcity, the aged and infirm were sometimes abandoned. The ghost was believed to leave the body at death and return to the Land of the Coyote, and was feared by some groups.


Eggan, Fred (1980). "Shoshone Kinship Structures and Their Significance for Anthropological Theory." Journal of the Steward Anthropological Society 11:165-193.

Knack, Martha Carol (1986). "Indian Economics, 1950-1980." In Handbook of North American Indians. Vol. 11, Great Basin, edited by Warren L. d'Azevedo, 573-591. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution.

Steward, Julian Haynes (1938). Basin-Plateau Aboriginal Sociopolitical Groups. U.S. Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin no. 120. Washington, D.C. Reprint. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1970.

Steward, Julian Haynes (1938). Culture Element Distributions. Vol. 13, Nevada Shoshone. University of California Anthropological Records, 4(2), 209-360. Berkeley.

Steward, Julian Haynes (1938). Some Western Shoshone Myths. U.S. Bureau of American Ethnology, Anthropological Paper no. 18. Washington, D.C.

Stewart, Omer Call (1982). Indians of the Great Basin: a Critical Bibliography. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Thomas, David Hurst, Lorann S. A. Pendleton, and Stephen C. Cappannari (1986). "Western Shoshone." In Handbook of North American Indians. Vol. 11, Great Basin, edited by Warren L. d'Azevedo, 262-283. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution.

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Western Shoshone

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Western Shoshone