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by Richard C. Hanes and Laurie Collier Hillstrom


The Paiute (PY-yoot) tribe is actually many different bands distributed across a large part of the western United States. Paiute means "true Ute" or "water Ute." The Paiutes call themselves Numu, meaning "People." The vast desert area used by the Paiutes extends from central Oregon southward through Las Vegas Valley to land along the Colorado River in Arizona and Southern California and eastward to southwestern Idaho. According to Catherine Fowler in Native America in the Twentieth Century, the numerous Paiutes bands are often recognized in three main groups: (1) the Northern Paiutes of northwestern Nevada, northeastern California, southeastern Oregon, and southwestern Idaho, (2) the Owens Valley Paiutes, who traditionally inhabited the Owens River watershed of southeastern California, and, (3) the Southern Paiutes of southeastern California, southern Nevada, northwestern Arizona, and western Utah. Paiute peoples were also historically called Snakes and Bannocks by whites and were even confused with Northern Shoshone who shared many cultural and linguistic traits, as well as overlapping traditional territories. The three main Paiute groups spoke mutually unintelligible languages of the Numic branch of the Uto-Aztecan language family.

Human population numbers had always been small when compared to surrounding regions because of the widely distributed food and water sources in this desert steppe environment. In Native America in the Twentieth Century: An Encyclopedia, Catherine Fowler reported that the Paiute population totaled over 11,000 in 1992, including 7,323 Northern Paiutes, 2,266 Owens Valley Paiutes, and 1,456 Southern Paiutes. Nearly half of the Paiutes lived off-reservation, often in small, federally recognized "colonies" that blended into surrounding white settlements.


Prior to substantial contact with non-Native peoples, the Paiutes led a highly mobile nomadic lifestyle. They ranged from the forested highlands of the Rocky Mountains westward to the Sierra Nevada Range, including the desert lowlands in between. The lifestyles of the various bands across this expansive region were largely determined by the particular foods available in the area where they predominantly lived. Most subsisted by hunting small game and gathering roots, seeds, and berries. Some Southern and Owens Valley Paiute bands used irrigation techniques and grew corn, while some Northern Paiute bands were fishermen. The extended family was the main traditional unit of social organization. Bands were composed of loose affiliations of families led by a headman selected for his abilities.

According to Bertha P. Dutton in American Indians of the Southwest, the Southern Paiutes moved into the Southwestern region of what is now the United States around the year 1000 A.D. The Paiutes lived for many years near the ancient Pueblo peoples already settled in the area and adopted their techniques for raising corn. Eventually the Pueblo began to leave the area. Though their early contact with European hunters and trappers in the 1820s was friendly, hostilities between the Paiutes and non-Indian intruders grew over time. Epidemics of smallpox, cholera, and other diseases swept through Paiute communities in the 1830s and 1840s. The limited contact with Euro-American explorers, fur trappers, and settlers changed abruptly when large-scale migration over the Oregon Trail began in the mid-1840s. Conflicts increased as more and more of the Paiute territory was claimed by whites. To the south, Mormons arriving from northern Utah began settling the best lands of the Southern Paiutes, including the Las Vegas Valley. Also by the 1840s the Paiutes to the north and south had acquired horses and guns and began raiding white camps and settlements. The majority of conflicts with whites took place after 1848, when the discovery of gold in California brought a flood of settlers through the center of the tribe's territory. In 1859 a major silver strike occurred at Virginia City in western Nevada. The rapid influx of miners and ranchers into the region led to hostilities with Northern Paiutes, which escalated to the Pyramid Lake War. Relatively large reservations for the Northern Paiutes were established at Pyramid Lake and Walker River in an attempt to maintain distance and peace between the Paiutes and the newcomers. However, in 1860 traders at a Pony Express station on the California Trail kidnapped and raped two Paiute girls. Tribal members responded by attacking the Pony Express station, killing five whites in the process of rescuing the girls. The Paiutes then killed 43 volunteers sent to avenge the killings. After several minor battles involving an 800-man volunteer army from California led by Colonel Jack Hays, peace with the Paiutes was restored. Most Paiutes returned to the Pyramid Lake Reservation while others withdrew further north to southeast Oregon. The military established Fort Churchill in 1860 in western Nevada to maintain peace.

During the U.S. Civil War years, when government troops were busy fighting in the East, the Paiutes continued numerous raids on ranches, farms, mining camps, and wagon trains. Following the Civil War, U.S. Army troops returned in force to the West. In Oregon, the United States established military posts in 1864 at Camp Alvord and in 1867 at Fort Harney. By 1866 the military took the offensive to end the Paiute resistance to white incursions. The escalating conflict became known as the Snake Indian War, since Northern Paiutes were often called Snake Indians by some settlers. Two war leaders, Paulina and Old Weawa, led the Paiutes in 40 skirmishes with the federal forces over a two year period before finally being forced to surrender in 1868. A treaty promising a reservation in Oregon was signed at Fort Harney with three Paiute bands, but it was never ratified by Congress. The Paiutes were forced to relocate to other reservations located elsewhere in the region. To the south, the United States and Southern Paiutes signed the 1865 Treaty of Spanish Forks. Also never ratified by Congress, the treaty was designed to the place six Southern Paiute bands on the Uintah Reservation in northern Utah. The first reservation for Southern Paiutes, the Moapa Reservation, was finally created in 1872. That same year, the almost two million acre Malheur Reservation was established in central Oregon by presidential executive order for the "free-roaming" Northern Paiutes of southeastern Oregon. However, the Malheur Reservation was returned to public ownership in its entirety following renewed, but brief, hostilities called the Bannock War in 1878. The Northern Paiute population scattered to other reservations or small communities. Many Paiute bands refused to move to the reservations already occupied by other bands. Instead, they established settlements on the outskirts of towns, where they worked as wage laborers. Two Paiute communities grew on military posts abandoned in the 1890s, Fort Bidwell and Fort McDermitt, in Oregon.

Though several large reservations (Moapa, Pyramid Lake, Walker River, Duck Valley, and Malheur) were established for the Paiutes in Nevada, Oregon, and Idaho between 1859 and 1891, by the turn of the century tribal lands had been reduced to less than 5 percent of their original territory. The government between 1910 and 1930 extended formal federal recognition and set aside modest acreage, usually 10 to 40 acres, for many of the non-reservation Paiute bands. Typical of many reservations throughout the nation, the General Allotment Act of 1887 carved up tribal lands on the larger Paiute reservations into small allotments allocated to individual tribal members and then sold the "excess" to non-Indians. The Walker River Reservation alone lost almost 290,000 acres of its best land in 1906. Around the turn of the century, many of the Owens Valley Paiutes were restricted to areas far too small to support their former way of life as the city of Los Angeles acquired former tribal lands to control water rights to the Owens River.


The Paiutes were impoverished through the loss of traditional economies, suffered population loss from disease and violent conflicts, and were removed from emerging market economies of non-Indian communities. They were also largely ignored by the U.S. government through the first three decades of the twentieth century. In the 1930s U.S. Indian policy dramatically changed again when Congress passed the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934. Native groups began to form federally recognized tribes and gain access to grants and federal services. However, inter-governmental relations declined again after World War II. Federal recognition was terminated for four of the Southern Paiute bands in 1954. This changing status discontinued health and education services vital to their well-being, in addition to the collective loss of over 43,000 acres from their land base. In yet another swing in U.S. policy, federal recognition status, as well as services were restored in 1980. Economic and cultural recovery for the Paiutes was difficult under such vacillating federal Indian policies.

Due to their location in the arid West, many Paiute bands were involved in water rights disputes throughout the twentieth century. For example, the Owens Valley Paiutes struggled to obtain enough water from the Owens River, a primary water source for the city of Los Angeles, to operate a fishery. The Paiutes of the Pyramid Lake suffered when the United States built Derby Dam as part of the Newlands Project in 1905 on the Truckee River, the primary water source for Pyramid Lake. The dam diverted almost half the river flow to a separate valley, the Carson Basin. As a result, the Pyramid Lake level dropped 78 feet by 1967, depriving cui-ui trout access to upstream spawning beds and significantly impacting tribal fisheries and waterfowl habitat on the Pyramid Lake Reservation. The cui-ui, which are central to Pyramid Lake Paiute identity, were listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1967. This helped the Paiutes regain control over their lake and fisheries. Similar water diversion plans by upstream non-Indian users severely degraded Walker River Reservation resources as well. Litigation over water rights persisted throughout much of the twentieth century with frequently unsuccessful results for the Paiutes.


The Paiute population is broadly scattered, living in numerous small communities and a few large reservations. The Northern Paiutes live in at least 14 communities including: Pyramid Lake, Walker River, Fort McDermott, Fallon, Reno-Sparks area, Yerington, Lovelock, Summit Lake, and Winnemucca in Nevada; Burns and Warm Springs in Oregon; and, Bridgeport, Cedarville, and Fort Bidwell in California. Tribal memberships ranged from less than 20 individuals with the Winnemucca in 1992 to almost 2,000 with the Pyramid Lake tribe. The Owens Valley Paiute communities include Bishop, Big Pine, Lone Pine, Fort Independence, and Benton in eastern California. Their memberships in 1991 ranged from 84 at Benton to 1,350 at Bishop. Ten Southern Paiute communities include the Shivwits, Indian Peaks, Cedar, Koosharem, Kanosh, Kaibab, Moapa, Las Vegas, and San Juan. Their memberships are also small and ranged from 71 at Las Vegas to almost 300 at Moapa in 1992.

Acculturation and Assimilation


Due to their nomadic existence, most traditional Paiute homes were small, temporary huts and were made of willow poles and covered with brush and reeds. These abodes were frequently constructed near streams, where the Paiutes could fish or draw water for sustenance and irrigation.

Though marriage traditionally had no important associated rituals, the Paiutes did observe two related rituals. One was for young women at the time of their first menstrual period, and the other for young couples expecting their first child. In the menarche ritual, the young woman was isolated for four days. During this time, she observed taboos against touching her face or hair with her hands, eating animal-based foods, and drinking cold liquids. She also ran east at sunrise and west at sunset, and sat with older women of the tribe to learn about her responsibilities as a woman. After the four days of isolation, a series of rituals were performed to bring the menarche ceremony to a close. The young woman was bathed in cold water, her face was painted, the ends of her hair were singed or cut, and she had to eat animal foods and bitter herbs and to spit into a fire. The ritual for couples expecting their first child was very similar, but traditionally lasted 30 days. The pregnant woman observed the same taboos and received advice from older women, while the expectant father ran east at sunrise and west at sunset.


The Paiutes were a nomadic people, moving about the region to various food sources. The means of subsistence for specific Paiute bands depended to a large extent on their particular locations. In general, the Paiutes ate vegetables such as roots and rice grass, as well as berries and piñon pine nuts. Many used stones to grind seeds and nuts into flour for making bread. The Paiutes also hunted ducks, rabbits, and mountain sheep using bows and arrows or long nets. Some bands in mountainous regions fished, while others in arid desert regions dug for lizards, grubs, and insects, which were valuable protein sources. The Southern Paiutes adopted corn agriculture from the Pueblo peoples, and the Owens Valley Paiutes developed irrigation techniques to grow various crops. Many of the traditional foods are still key elements to tribal ceremonies, weddings, and other community events.


Typical of Native America, Paiute songs are performed by individuals or by groups in unison. A striking characteristic of Paiutes is the very limited traditional use of musical instruments. Drums, commonly used elsewhere by Native groups, were not used until after white contact. The primary traditional instruments were Shaman's rattles and sticks beaten during hand games. At Round Dances, the oldest music style in Paiute tradition, only the singer's voice is used for music. For some curing practices, healers use a small flute made of elderberry stems.


Paiute men and women traditionally wore a skin breechcloth or double-apron of skin or vegetable fiber such as sagebrush bark or rushes. The cloth was suspended from a belt made from cliffrose bark or antelope skin. They also typically wore animal-skin moccasins sometimes ankle high or woven yucca or sagebrush bark sandals on their feet. In the winter, they used robes of rabbit fur strips or skin capes. Southern Paiute men and women reportedly wore twined-bark leggings and Northern Paiute men wore simple buckskin shirts. Members of some Paiute bands wore hats decorated with bird, often quail, feathers. Except in Oregon, women wore basketry hats. Throughout Paiute country men wore tanned hide hats. By the mid-nineteenth century men's shirts and leggings and women's full-length dresses were made from fringed hide, which was most likely adopted from the Ute.


Popular Paiute songs are associated with hand games, Round Dances, and doctor's curing. Variations on the Round, or Circle, Dance were traditionally the most common dance form and the oldest. The Northern Paiute Hump Dance represented one variation. In a Round Dance, the participants form a circle and dance around often in a clockwise direction to music made by a singer situated in the center. A Round Dance is commonly held three times a year, during the Spring fishing season, just before fall pine-nut harvest, and during the November rabbit drives. Such dances serve to periodically affirm social unity and focus participants on the particular subsistence tasks at hand.

In 1889 Wovoka, a Southern Paiute, founded the Ghost Dance religion. In a vision, he saw the earth reborn in a natural state and returned to the Indians and their ancestors, free from white man's control. Wovoka taught his followers that they could achieve this vision by dancing, chanting, and eliminating all traces of white influence from their lives. The Ghost Dance incorporated the earlier Round Dance elements, including the lack of a percussion accompaniment.


In addition to the popular holidays of American society, the tribes recognize special days important to their particular communities. For example, Reservation Day is celebrated by The Burns Paiute Tribe every June 13 in honor of the date the tribe received reservation lands.


Until the 1930s, the Paiutes were healed by Native doctors known as puagants, believed to possess supernatural powers. The puagants each formed a magical relationship with one or more animal spirits, often using the fur or feathers of the animal to call upon the spirits to assist them in their work. By the late twentieth century, health care facilities were available to some Paiutes, often through the federal Indian Health Services (IHS). Examples of such facilities include the McDermitt Tribal Health Center in northern Nevada, the Fallon and Schurz Indian health centers in western Nevada, the Pyramid Lake Health Department in northwestern Nevada and the Owyhee Indian Health Service Hospital in southeastern Oregon.

In addition to economic development programs, projects addressing health care were a top priority among the bands. Compounded by poverty, the Paiutes suffered high rates of certain diseases, dysfunctional family relations, and substance abuse. Health screening programs were instituted where feasible. Care programs for the elderly were also implemented including regular monitoring of their well-being, in-home care, hot lunches, crafts, firewood supplies, and special housing.


The three main Paiute groups speak distinct languages of the Numic branch of the Uto-Aztecan language family. The Northern Paiutes speak a Shoshonean language, while that spoken by the Owens Valley Paiutes is related to the language of the Mono peoples of California. Members of the different subgroups have maintained their Native languages to varying degrees. The San Juan Paiutes, a Southern Paiute band whose reservation is completely within the boundaries of the Navajo Reservation in Arizona, is one of the only groups that continues to teach Paiute to children as a first language. Many other Paiute groups have actively taken steps to preserve their language. In the 1980s the Yerington Paiutes developed a dictionary and produced a series of story books and workbooks.


Examples of common Numa expressions and words include: Ku'-na O-ho'-i-gi around the fire; Mu-a Tva'-i-to-a moonlight; Ta-shin'-ti-ai cold feet; Au yes; To-a-Mi-yok give me the pipe; Pa-havwuk-i-num Tik-er-ru I am hungry; Ta'-kavw-yu'mu-kim the snow falls; Ku-na Ma-ko-to to light a fire; Ni-Tik-er'-ro-wa I will eat; Hainch Ki-tum-ar_g Friend, talk out!; Ya'-ni-kin to laugh; To-ya'pi mountain; Pi'-av female; Wan'-sits antelope; Ta'-mun Spring; To-namp chokecherries; Panso-wa'-bits duck; Pun-ko-U-nish Mi-er'-ro the horse goes fast.

"T he grandmothers have the special care of the daughters just before and after they come to womanhood. The girls are not allowed to get married until they have come to womanhood; and that period is recognized as a very sacred thing, and is the subject of a festival, and has peculiar customs."

Sarah Winnemucca Hopkins, 1883.

Family and Community Dynamics


Educational services were inconsistently available to the Paiutes on the various reservations and colonies. Schools were established at the Pyramid Lake and Walker River reservations in the late 1870s and early 1880s. In 1897 Indian schools were opened at Bishop and Big Pine Paiute communities and shortly afterwards at Independence. Not until after the turn of the century did other Paiute communities establish schools, from Lovelock Paiutes in 1907 to the Burns Paiutes in 1931 for the Northern Paiutes, and at Las Vegas, Shivwits, Moapa, and Kaibab between 1900 and 1940 for the Southern Paiutes. The schools lasted from only a year to decades. When local schools were not available, children were sent away, sometimes great distances, to boarding schools. The Stewart Institute, a boarding school for Nevada Indians, was established in western Nevada in 1890 and well used by Paiutes until the 1970s.


The most enduring Paiute tradition through all the dramatic changes of the past two centuries has been maintenance of independent and extended families as the basic social unit. Consequently, as in most Native societies in North America, women play a crucial role. For instance, besides child rearing and managing home life, women are the principal gatherers of traditional plant foods. These foods continue to provide a spiritual focal point in traditional ceremonies and feasts.


From Spring through late Fall, a series of pow wows are held around the region. These inter-tribal festivals include the Shoshoni-Paiute Annual Pow Wow held in July, the Veteran's Day Pow Wow held annually in November at Owyhee, Nevada, the Snow Mountain Pow Wow held in May in Las Vegas, Nevada, the Mother's Day Pow Wow held in May at Burns, Oregon, and pow wows at Bishop and Big Pine in California. Such festivals include arts and crafts shows, hand game tournaments, dancing, and traditional foods. The Paiutes commonly attend similar events hosted by tribes in surrounding regions as well, largely spurred through kinship ties.


Unlike marriage which had little ceremony, funerals received considerable emphasis. A traditional funeral observance known as the Cry ceremony was introduced to the Paiutes in the 1870s. Within the next 20 years, it became pervasive in the cultures of the Owens Valley Paiutes and Southern Paiutes. The Cry took place over one or two nights after a person's death prior to the funeral, and then was repeated a year or two later as a memorial. During the Cry ceremony, two groups of singers perform song cycles known as Salt Songs and Bird Songs. The Cry ceremony remained significant throughout the twentieth century. Between the singing, people close to the deceased offer emotional speeches and give away the person's valuables to guests.


Though the three groups differed both culturally and linguistically, today most members refer to themselves simply as Paiutes. The name Paiute means "true Ute" or "water Ute," reflecting the group's relationship to the Ute Indians of Utah. Though relations were generally good between Paiutes and Utes, in historic times the Utes became very active in slave raids on the Paiutes, trading abducted Paiute slaves to Spanish colonists in the Southwest. The Paiutes were also closely related to the Shoshone peoples of the Northwest. Though the Owens Valley Paiutes were culturally similar to the Northern Paiutes, they spoke the language of the Mono (or Monache) peoples that lived west of the Sierra Nevada. The San Juan Paiutes, though living in fear of the Navajo to the east, actually adopted some Navajo customs regarding dress, housing, and some linguistic traits. Though generally considered Southern Paiutes, the Chemehuevi who lived along the lower Colorado River south of the Las Vegas Valley on the Arizona and California border actually shared more traits with Southern California tribes than with other Paiutes, such as floodplain farming and earthen house construction of the Mohave culture, than other Paiute cultural practices.


A fundamental aspect of Paiute religion is acquisition of "power," or buha among Northern Paiutes. The Paiutes believed in many supernatural beings that manifested themselves in elements of the natural world, such as water, thunder, and animals. Buha could be acquired in dreams or at cave or grave sites. Aside from healing, buha was sought to help control weather, sexual prowess, vulnerability in warfare, and gambling success. One powerful spirit was Thuwipu Unipugant, or "the One Who Made the Earth," who was represented by the sun. The Paiutes prayed to the spirits in order to influence them and show their respect. For example, they might pray for rain or a successful hunt.

According to Bertha Dutton in American Indians of the Southwest, early efforts to convert the Paiutes to Christianity were relatively successful, particularly those Paiutes who lived among the Mormons in Utah. As Catherine Fowler noted in Native America in the Twentieth Century: An Encyclopedia, most Paiutes attend religious services in some Christian denomination, though some also participate in Indian religious movements such as the Native American Church, the Sweat Lodge movement, and the Sun Dance.

The Paiutes made a direct contribution to one of the major nineteenth century Native American religious movements. In 1889, when most Paiutes had been pushed off of their ancestral lands and forced to live on reservations, a Southern Paiute named Wovoka founded the Ghost Dance religion, which prophesied an end to white domination. The son of Tavibo, a mystic of the Walker River Paiute band, Wovoka experienced a powerful vision during a solar eclipse. In his vision, the earth was returned to a natural state, with unfenced plains full of buffalo, no more white men, and the Indians living in harmony. Wovoka preached that in order to achieve this vision of the future, the Indians needed to rid themselves of white influence, especially the use of alcohol. He also called upon the Native peoples to pray, meditate, and dance. Within a few years, the Ghost Dance religion had spread to angry and frustrated tribes all over the West. Some tribes, like the Sioux, interpreted the Ghost Dance as a call for renewed violence against whites. Though the Paiutes refrained from resorting to violence, they embraced the Ghost Dance for many years as a form of resistance to white culture.

Employment and Economic Traditions

Traditionally, the Paiutes lived on an economy of hunting, fishing, and gathering. Men hunted deer, mountain sheep, and antelope. Smaller mammals, particularly jackrabbits, were captured in communal activities using large nets. Waterfowl, such as American coots, at the various large lakes were also hunted. Fish were netted or speared. Women performed extensive plant gathering, including a wide variety of roots (tubers), berries, and seeds. Pine nuts were particularly important toward the south and camas bulbs to the north. To the furthest extent south, in the Las Vegas region, agave was a key food source. Also, in the far south of Paiute country, irrigation was used to grow corn, squash, melons, sunflowers, gourds, and beans.

The various natural food sources were gathered through the year in an annual cycle necessitating a good deal of mobility. Groups would break apart into families then rejoin again seasonally. Consequently, Paiute society consisted of economically self-sufficient and politically independent families who seasonally occupied "home" tracts. The families would unite semi-annually with other families forming a camp group of 2 or 3 families. The core family unit would continually expand or contract and the camp group also changed size and composition seasonally and through the years, often foraging together and pooling resources.

Like other Native American groups who could no longer continue traditional economies, the Paiutes experienced difficulties in securing sources of income for tribal members, as well as revenue for the tribes. After relocation to reservations, the Paiutes increasingly made a living by working for wages in nearby towns or ranches. In the Owens Valley, Paiutes worked as wage laborers in the local farming and ranching economy after the 1870s and later became involved in tourism and mining operations. Elsewhere, some Paiutes raised cattle. Pyramid Lake and Walker River Paiutes were able to keep fishing, selling fish in local town markets until the 1920s when loss of water due to river diversions lowered the lakes and disrupted fish runs upstream from the lakes.

The federal Indian allotment policies from the 1890s through 1910 hit some Paiutes particularly hard, carving up reservations and placing the more economically productive lands within reservation boundaries into non-Indian ownership. As examples, the Fallon Paiutes located on the original Stillwater Reservation lost 90 percent of its land base and the Pyramid Lake Paiutes lost a 20,000 acre timber reserve. Much of the retained Paiute lands suffered cattle trespassing and poaching of big game and fish resources.

In 1965, the Southern Paiutes received approximately $7.2 million from the U.S. government in a lawsuit for almost 30 million acres of tribal lands wrongfully taken. Many bands, such as the Moapa and Kaibab, used the money as capital to improve living conditions and develop educational and employment opportunities. Also during the 1970s, five bands of Utah Paiutes formed a legal corporation, the Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah, and received a government grant to build an industrial complex.

Passage of the Indian Self-Determination and Education Act in 1974 stimulated economic development from the late 1970s into the 1990s. The act promoted Indian economic self-sufficiency through loan and grant programs. Monies from land claim settlements and federal loans led to various forms of development. Pyramid Lake, Walker River, Reno-Sparks, Las Vegas, and Fallon communities opened smoke-shops and mini-marts. At smoke-shops on tribal lands, tribes could sell cigarettes to the public without federal taxes added, making them lucrative when located near well-used routes. The Pyramid Lake Paiutes also built two commercial fish hatcheries and received revenue from issuing recreational fishing permits for the lake. Attempts at developments such as business parks, as at Big Pine, had limited success due to the isolation of tribal lands. Traditional crafts continued, such as among the Kaibab, and a few artisans became commercially successful. Some bands have relied on grazing livestock or issuing grazing leases, including Pyramid Lake, Walker River, Fort McDermitt, and the Utah Paiutes. However, many of the Paiute communities, including Fort Bidwell, Summit Lake, Burns, and Lovelock among others, have enjoyed few successes in establishing employment opportunities and revenue sources. Still, by the latter twentieth century, most Paiute communities had successfully installed electrical and telephone services, plumbing, paved streets and built better housing. Economic plight led two Paiute bands to consider controversial projects in the 1990s. The Northern Paiute of the Fort McDermitt Reservation in Nevada discussed the possibility of building a storage facility for high-level nuclear waste on their lands, while the Southern Paiute of the Kaibab Reservation in Arizona debated whether to construct a hazardous waste incinerator. The financial rewards these projects offered the bands made them appealing, but both projects were ultimately defeated due to environmental concerns.

Politics and Government

Traditional Paiute leadership roles recognized leaders as spokespersons, not as autonomous decision-makers and figures of authority. Decisions were frequently made in a consensus-seeking manner among all adult band members. However, the loss of traditional economies and displacement to remote reservations and colonies led to concerns in the early twentieth century regarding health care, schools, law enforcement, sanitation, housing, and utilities. In order to qualify for federal assistance and establish intergovernmental relations with the U.S. government, most Paiute bands formally organized under the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act (IRA). The IRA encouraged the formation of governments based on Western social models rather than traditional tribal arrangements. The model included tribal councils composed of elected individuals headed by a chairperson and written constitutions with by-laws. Though the IRA-formed governments became the focal point of intergovernmental relations with the United States and state governments and other non-Indian organizations, traditional leaders frequently influenced policy directions internally. In some cases the IRA stimulated factionalism within tribal politics by aligning traditional versus "progressive" elements of the membership. The contemporary councils commonly serve as business corporations, overseeing use of tribal funds and promoting economic self-sufficiency. Elections are held every two or three years. Committees of traditional leaders, including elders, often guide the course of the elected tribal council.

Four of the Southern Paiute governments in Utah (the Shivwits, Indian Peaks, Koosharem, and Kanosh) were targeted by the federal termination policies of the 1950s. The Utah bands later reorganized under the Paiute Restoration Act of 1980. The San Juan Paiutes were not able to organize is such a manner and did not gain federal recognition until 1990.

Individual and Group Contributions

Though Paiute populations have traditionally been small compared to other Native North American groups, several Paiutes have made key contributions to education and the arts. The Paiutes and their accomplishments are described below.


Nellie Shaw Harner (1905-1985) was born in Wadsworth, Nevada on the Pyramid Lake Reservation. After attending the Carson Indian School in Stewart, Nevada, Harner went on to attend the Haskell Institute in Lawrence, Kansas and later received a B.A. in elementary education from Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona, and an M.A. from the University of Nevada at Reno. Fluent in the Paiute language and keenly interested in traditional stories, histories, and lifestyles of Native Americans, Harner taught and counseled in Bureau of Indian Affairs schools in Arizona, Kansas, Nevada, New Mexico, and Wyoming. Her master's thesis, The History of the Pyramid Lake Indians - 1842-1959, was a key contribution to Paiute written history. Harner was named Nevada's Outstanding Woman of the Year in 1975 and spent her retirement years on the Pyramid Lake Reservation.


Adrian C. Louis (b. 1945), a member of the Love-lock Paiute born and raised in Nevada, has published a number of collections of poems, including Fire Water World (1989), Among the Dog Eaters (1992), Blood Thirsty Savages (1994), Vortex of Indian Fevers (1995), and Ceremonies of the Damned (1997). His other work includes the novel Skins (1995) and another book, Wild Indians and Other Creatures (1996). Louis received an M.A. from Brown University and has been an instructor at the Oglala Lakota College on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. His literary focus has been on the forced assimilation of Native culture into the dominant Western society and its ramifications, including poverty, alcohol and drug abuse, humiliation, and demoralization.

Annie Lowry (1866-1943) was also born in Lovelock, Nevada to a Paiute mother. Lowry became the subject of a book by Lalla Scott as part of the 1930 Writer's Project of the Works Progress Administration. Through the project Lowry related many Paiute traditions and events of the late nineteenth century.

Clearly one of the better known Paiute is Sarah Winnemucca (1844-1891). Winnemucca published Life Among the Piutes: Their Wrongs and Claims in 1883. The book is considered to be the first autobiography by a Native American woman and one of the few Indian autobiographies in the later half of the nineteenth century. Born near Humboldt Lake in northern Nevada, Winnemucca was the daughter of Paiute leader Old Winnemucca. She served as an interpreter between Paiute raiding groups and the U.S. military in 1866 and again in 1878. She was a school teacher at the Malheur and Yakima reservations in the 1870s. Following the period of armed conflict, Winnemucca began touring first the West Coast in 1879 and then the East Coast through the early 1880s giving numerous eloquent lectures on the plight of Native Americans in the Great Basin region. In 1884 she gave testimony before a U.S. Senate subcommittee on the state of the reservation system. Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, a noted education proponent in the East, met Winnemucca and encouraged her to publish her story to educate the public about governmental injustice against the Native population. The book is a blend of autobiography, ethnography, and history of the Paiute peoples between 1844 and 1883. Winnemucca also published an 1882 article on Paiute ethnography in The Californian journal. Winnemucca founded the Peabody Indian School in Nevada in 1884 and operated it until 1887. She was the first woman honored in Nevada with a historical marker. Her book was reprinted again in 1994 by the University of Nevada Press.


A Southern Paiute of the Walker River band, Wovoka (c.1856-1932) founded the Ghost Dance religion in 1889. He grew up in the area of Mason Valley, Nevada, near the present Walker Lake Reservation. His proper name means "The Cutter" in Paiute. At the time of his father's death, Wovoka was taken into the family of a white farmer named David Wilson and was given the name Jack Wilson, by which he was known among local American settlers.

Organizations and Associations

Benton Paiute Reservation.

The reservation located in Owens Valley of eastern California is 160 acres in size with over 80 members in 1991.

Address: Star Route 4, Box 56-A, Benton, California 93512.

Telephone: (760) 933-2321.

Big Pine Reservation.

The reservation located in Owens Valley of eastern California is 279 acres in size with over 400 members in 1991.

Address: P.O. Box 700, Big Pine, California 93513.

Telephone: (760) 938-2003.

Bishop Reservation.

The reservation located in Owens Valley of eastern California is almost 900 acres in size with 1,350 members in 1991.

Address: 50 Tu Su Lane, Bishop, California 93514.

Telephone: (760) 873-3584.

Bridgeport Paiute Colony.

The colony holds 40 acres of land in rural southeastern California not far from the Nevada border.

Address: P.O. Box 37, Bridgeport, California 93517.

Telephone: (760) 932-7083.

Burns Paiute Tribe.

In 1897 homeless Northern Paiutes who had gathered around Burns, Oregon were provided 115 allotments of land. In 1972 Congress created a 750 acre reservation. The band gained federal recognition in 1968.

Address: HC-71 100 Pa-Si-Go Street, Burns, Oregon 97720.

Telephone: (541) 573-2088.

Cedarville Rancheria Community Council.

The small tribal community holds 17 acres of land in northeastern California near the Nevada boundary.

Address: P.O. Box 126, Cedarville, California 96104.

Telephone: (530) 279-2022.

Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe.

Consisting of a 3,500 acre reservation and 70 acre colony in west-central Nevada, the lands were first set aside in 1907 and 1917, respectively.

Address: 8955 Mission Road, Fallon, Nevada 89406.

Telephone: (775) 423-6075.

Fort Bidwell Paiute.

Located in the far northeastern corner of California near the Oregon state boundary, the tribe holds over 3,300 acres of land established by executive order.

Address: P.O. Box 129, Fort Bidwell, California 96112.

Telephone: (530) 279-6310.

Fort Independence Reservation.

The reservation located in Owens Valley of eastern California is over 350 acres in size.

Address: P.O. Box 67, Independence, California 93526.

Telephone: (760) 878-2126.

Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribe.

With the headquarters located four miles southeast of McDermitt, Humbold County, Nevada, much of the 35,000 acres of tribal land also lies in Malheur County, Oregon. The first 20,000 acres were set aside in 1936.

Address: P.O. Box 457, McDermitt, Nevada 89421.

Telephone: (775) 532-8259.

Inter-Tribal Council (ITC) of Nevada.

The Council was formed in 1964 to give the small, scattered Indian communities in the state of Nevada a larger voice in socio-political issues and economic development. The ITC has managed housing, Public Health Service, and other programs for the tribes.

Address: 680 Greenbrae Drive, Suite 280, Sparks, Nevada 89431.

Telephone: (775) 355-0600.

Kaibab Paiute Tribe.

The tribe holds a 120,000 acre reservation in the "Arizona Strip" area of Arizona north of Grand Canyon National Park.

Address: HC65, Box 2, Fredonia, Arizona 86022.

Telephone: (520) 643-7245.

Las Vegas Paiute Tribe.

The tribe holds 10 acres of land with the city limits of Las Vegas, Nevada set aside in 1912, and another 3,850 acres north of the city reserved by Congress in 1983.

Address: One Paiute Drive, Las Vegas, Nevada 89106.

Telephone: (702) 386-3926.

Lone Pine Reservation.

The reservation located in Owens Valley of eastern California is over 230 acres in size.

Address: P.O. Box 747, Lone Pine, California 93545.

Telephone: (76) 876-5414.

Lovelock Paiute Tribe.

The Tribe holds 20 acres in the town of Lovelock, Nevada in west-central Nevada, the lands were first set aside in 1907 and modestly expanded in 1910.

Address: P.O. Box 878, Lovelock, Nevada 89419.

Telephone: (775) 273-7861.

Moapa Paiute Band of the Moapa Indian Reservation.

Shortly after an 1873 Presidential Executive Order established a two million acre reservation, Congress severely reduced it to 1,000 acres in 1875. Since 1980, Congress added back slightly over 70,000 acres. The reserve is located approximately 55 miles northeast of Las Vegas, Nevada.

Address: P.O. Box 340, Moapa, Nevada 89025.

Telephone: (702) 865-2787.

Owens Valley Paiute-Shoshone Board of Trustees.

Though each of four Paiute bands in the Owens Valley region of southeastern California have their own governments, a common board oversees their activities on a regional basis. The four include colonies of several hundred acres each totaling over 1,740 acres at Bishop, Big Pine, Lone Pine and Fort Independence, established between 1902 and 1915. Another Paiute colony located in Owens Valley but not under authority of the Board is a 160 acre colony at Benton. The Board has operated a cultural center, recreational and educational facilities, and the Toiyabe Indian Health Project serving the entire Owens Valley region.

Address: 2301 West Line Street, Bishop, California 93514.

Telephone: (760) 873-4478.

Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah.

Composed of five separate Paiute bands, the five hold a total of over 32,400 acres of land scattered in five parcels in southern Utah.

Address: 440 North Paiute Drive, Cedar City, Utah 84720.

Telephone: (435) 586-1112.

Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe.

The 475,000 acre reservation fully contains a 112,000 acre desert lake, Pyramid Lake.

Address: P.O. Box 256, Nixon, Nevada 89424.

Telephone: (775) 574-1000.

Reno-Sparks Indian Colony.

First established with 20 acres located in Reno, Nevada, the colony now holds almost 2,000 acres, most of it located 10 miles north of the Reno-Sparks urban area in Hungry Valley.

Address: 98 Colony Road, Reno, Nevada 89502.

Telephone: (775) 329-2936.

San Juan Paiute Tribe.

Though holding no land of their own currently, they live on the traditional lands now in the western part of the Navajo Reservation.

Address: P.O. Box 2656, Tuba City, Arizona 86045.

Telephone: (520) 283-4589.

Shoshone-Paiute Tribes of the Duck Valley Reservation.

The reservation was established by executive order in 1877 and consisted of almost 300,000 acres in the 1990s almost equally split by the Nevada and Idaho state boundary.

Address: P.O. Box 219, Owyhee, Nevada 89832.

Telephone: (775) 757-3161.

Summit Lake Paiute Tribe.

Located in far northern Nevada in Humboldt County and first recognized in 1913, the Tribe holds slightly over 10,000 acres largely set by Congress in 1959.

Address: 655 Anderson Street, Winnemucca, Nevada 89445.

Telephone: (775) 623-5151.

Walker River Paiute Tribe.

The Walker River Reservation, first established by executive order in 1859, now includes over 313,000 acres of tribal lands located primarily in Mineral County but also Churchill and Lyon counties of south-central Nevada.

Address: P.O. Box 220, Schurz, Nevada 89427.

Telephone: (775) 773-2306.

Warm Springs Confederated Tribes.

The tribes, holding over 640,000 acres in north-central Oregon, are composed of three tribes of which the Paiute constitute a relatively small portion.

Address: P.O. Box C, Warm Springs, Oregon 97761.

Telephone: (541) 553-1161.

Winnemucca Colony.

First recognized in 1917 when 60 acres were set aside by Presidential executive order, the trip now holds 340 acres in the northwestern Nevada town of Winnemucca.

Address: P.O. Box 1370, Winnemucca, Nevada 89446.

Yerington Paiute Tribe Colony and Campbell Ranch.

The Tribe holds 22 acres of colony lands adjacent to Yerington, Nevada and over 1,600 acres of land ten miles north of the south-central Nevada lands.

Address: 171 Campbell Lane, Yerington, Nevada 89447.

Telephone: (775) 463-3301.

Museums and Research Centers

Eastern California Museum.

Extensive collections of the Owens Valley Paiute.

Contact: Bill Michael.

Address: 155 Grant Street, Box 206, Independence, California 93526.

Telephone: (619) 878-2411.

Museum of Peoples and Cultures.

Contact: Dr. Joel C. Janetski.

Address: 710 North 100 East, Allen Building, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah 84602.

Telephone: (801) 378-6112.

Nevada Historical Society.

Address: 1650 North Virginia Street, Reno, Nevada 89503.

Telephone: (775) 688-1190.

Nevada State Museum.

Houses extensive archaeological collections from traditional Paiute territory and routinely has exhibits for the public on traditional Paiute life.

Address: 600 North Carson Street, Capitol Complex, Carson City, Nevada 89710.

Telephone: (775) 687-4810.

Stewart Indian Museum.

Established in 1982 after closure of the Stewart Indian Boarding School, the Museum assists research efforts of tribes and individuals and sponsors the Dat-So-La-Lee Basket Maker's Guild.

Address: 5366 Snyder Avenue, Carson City, Nevada 89701.

Telephone: (775) 882-1808.

Sources for Additional Study

Bunte, Pamela A., and Robert J. Franklin. From the Sands to the Mountain: Change and Persistence in a Southern Paiute Community. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1987.

. The Paiute. New York: Chelsea House, 1990.

. "Southern Paiute." Native America in the Twentieth Century: An Encyclopedia. Edited by Mary B. Davis. New York: Garland Publishing, 1994.

Dutton, Bertha P. American Indians of the Southwest. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1983.

Fowler, Catherine S. "Northern Paiute" and "Owens Valley Paiute." Native America in the Twentieth Century: An Encyclopedia. Edited by Mary B. Davis. New York: Garland Publishing, 1994.

Fowler, Don D., and John F. Matley. "Material Culture of the Numa: The John Wesley Powell Collection, 1867-1880." Smithsonian Contributions to Anthropology, Number 26. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1979.

Steward, Julian H. "Basin-Plateau Aboriginal Sociopolitical Groups." Smithsonian Institution, Bureau of American Ethnology, No. 120. Reprint. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1970.

Wheat, Margaret M. Survival Arts of the Primitive Paiutes. Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1967.

Winnemucca, Sarah. Life Among the Piutes: Their Wrongs and Claims. Boston: Cupples, Upham, 1883. Reprint. Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1994.