Great Basin Indians
Great Basin Culture Area
Great Basin Tribes - Mountain Tribes
The Great Basin is a geographical classification of indigenous peoples of the United States who lived in a cultural region between and including the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range. The cultures who spent most of their time in the mountains are sometimes called the Mountain Tribes. This region consists of semi-arid high desert valleys with very little precipitation, and high mountain ranges. This culture is characterized by the need for mobility to take advantage of seasonally available food supplies and water sources.
Low population density. Low rainfall, sparce vegetation, water scarce.
Desert surrounded by mountains, including the Sierras and the Rockies.
Salty glacial lakes. Some areas of high temperature, including Death Valley.
The Great Basin consists of hundreds of north-south mountain ranges separated by deserts of sagebrush and lies mostly in Nevada, western Utah, eastern California, and southeastern Oregon, and parts of Colorado, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming.
The Great Basin mountain ranges are typically lower than those of the Sierra Nevada, and this difference shapes the climate and ecology of the region. When low-pressure systems from the Pacific Ocean arrive in North America, they often drop snow in the Sierra Nevada before they reach the Great Basin, which consequently has a dry climate.
The Great Basin is one of the four principal deserts in the United States and distinguishes itself from the Mojave, Chihuahua, and Sonora by its cold temperatures—ecologists often call it the cold desert.
When rain does reach Great Basin mountains, it nourishes a variety of trees: bristlecone pines at the highest elevations (sometimes above 10,000 feet), ponderosa pines farther down, and then mixed forests of pinon pines and junipers.
Few rivers or streams form in the region, and they are vital to Great Basin ecology. The Humboldt, Carson, and other rivers have been central to American Indian and Euro-American farming. Rivers and marshes also provide water for wildlife, including the native pronghorn (often erroneously called antelope in North America), migrating birds, and endangered fish. Rain not captured by plants and animals fills playas—flat expanses of bottomland—before it evaporates. The Great Basin has no outlet to the oceans.
Ethnoliguistic studies of the Tübatulabal language (Pahkanil) are leaning toward it being the root of many of the Paiute and Shoshone tribal languages. The further north into Pauite territory, the younger the language seems according to recent studies. The root language for native groups in the Southern Sierra and western Mojave and Great Basin is the Uto-Aztecan linguistic family. All but the Washoe spoke Numic languages in the Great Basin, and there was considerable intermingling between the groups, which lived peacefully and often shared common territories.
There is evidence that the original inhabitants of the region arrived as early as 10,000 BCE.
American Indians have lived in the Great Basin and Columbia Plateau regions since at least 10,000 years before the present, when the cold of the Pleistocene gave way to the relative warmth of the Holocene. Large lakes fed by melting snow in the Sierra Nevada and Rocky Mountains formed and became an important resource.
The shores of Lake Bonneville (now evaporated down to the Great Salt Lake) supported marshes where Native people fished, hunted, and harvested raw materials. As these lakes and marshes dried further, American Indians began to utilize resources from other ecological zones, especially the pinon forests that spread into the Great Basin between 7,500 and 4,500 years ago.
In the early historical period, the Great Basin tribes were actively expanding to the north and east, where they developed a horse-riding and bison-hunting culture. These people, including the Comanche, Bannock and Eastern Shoshone are often considered to be Great Plains tribes.
Great Basin Indians, such as the Southern Paiute, used the horse much less than their northern neighbors, although their culture also changed dramatically before contact with Euro-Americans. In particular, many Numic speakers migrated from the southwestern Great Basin into the rest of the region between 1000 and 1600, perhaps because they had overpopulated key river ecosystems, such as the Owens River valley.
European exploration and settlement of the Great Basin
European exploration of the Great Basin occurred during the 18th century Spanish colonization of the Americas. The first American to cross the Great Basin from the Sierra Nevada was Jedediah Strong Smith in 1827. Peter Skene Ogden of the British Hudson's Bay Company explored the Great Salt Lake and Humboldt River regions in the late 1820s, following the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada to the Gulf of California. Benjamin Bonneville explored the northeast portion during an 1832 expedition.
The United States had acquired control of the area north of the 42nd parallel via the 1819 Adams–Onís Treaty with Spain and 1846 Oregon Treaty with Britain. The US gained control of most of the rest of the Great Basin via the 1848 Mexican Cession.
The first non-indigenous settlements were connected with the eastern regions of the 1848 California Gold Rush, with its immigrants crossing the Great Basin on the California Trail along Nevada's Humboldt River to Carson Pass in the Sierras.
The first American religious settlement effort was the Mormon provisional State of Deseret in 1849 in present day Utah and northern Nevada. The Oregon Territory was established in 1848 and the Utah Territory in 1850.
The first indian reservation was established within ten years of Euroamerian settlement of the region.
Horse and non-horse cultures of the Great Basin
The Southern Ute and Eastern Shoshoni were among the first Indians north of the Spanish settlements of New Mexico to obtain horses, perhaps as early as 1680. There is some evidence that these bands acted as middlemen in the transmission of horses and horse culture from New Mexico to the northern Plains in the 1700s.
As the Northern Shoshoni of Idaho obtained horses in the 18th century, they were joined by Northern Paiute speakers from eastern Oregon and northern Nevada to form the Shoshoni-Bannock bands of historic times. By 1800, the Southern and Northern Ute, the Ute of central Utah, the Eastern Shoshoni, the Lemhi Shoshoni, and the Shoshoni-Bannock were well equipped with horses, lived in skin tepees, and were oriented toward the Great Plains, the pursuit of bison, and warfare with other tribes.
To the south and west in the Great Basin proper and on the western Colorado Plateau, the people did not take up the use of horses until 1850-60. Even then, they did not alter their hunting and foraging patterns and did not go to the Plains to hunt buffalo. The Washo did not use horses prior to white settlement, and rarely used them thereafter.
Social and political structure of the Great Basin cultures
The basic Great Basin social and cultural patterns were those of the nonhorse bands. The people were closely adapted to their arid environment. Small family bands moved through an annual cycle, exploiting available food resources in the various ecological zones of a particular valley and adjacent mountains. The quest for food structured Great Basin society and culture.
Food supplies were seldom adequate to permit groups of any size to remain together for more than a few days. Consequently, social organization was fluid and atomistic. For most of the year the people lived in small local groups, coming together into larger aggregates only for certain brief periods--during rabbit drives or when fish were spawning, as the Washo did at Lake Tahoe in the spring, or during the piñon nut season in the autumn. But despite periodic gatherings, there was no sustained sense of political cohesion or "tribalness," as that term is understood for other American Indian groups.
The same fluidity of social organization was characteristic of the horse-using bands. Possession of horses permitted larger numbers of people to remain together for much of the year, but such aggregation did not lead to the development of formal tribal organizations. Among both horse- and non-horse-using groups, a particular leader was followed as long as he was successful in leading people to food, or in war. If he failed, people would leave to join other bands, or to form their own bands.
Kinship, marriage, and rites
The basic local social unit usually was one or more "kin cliques," consisting of a nuclear family (parents and their dependent children) or two brothers and their families, in addition to assorted other individuals related by blood or by marriage to someone in the core group.
Kin ties were reckoned bilaterally through both the mother's and the father's sides and were widely extended to distant relatives. Such extension permitted people to invoke kin ties and move from one group to another if circumstances warranted.
Marriage practices varied, with a tendency among some groups to marry true cross-cousins (mother's brother's or father's sister's child), or pseudo cross-cousins (mother's brother's or father's sister's stepchild). Both the sororate (compulsory marriage of a man to his dead wife's sister) and the levirate (compulsory marriage of a widow to her dead husband's brother), were practiced, as were their logical extensions, sororal polygyny and fraternal polyandry. Usually the latter was not formalized, consisting only of a man extending sex privileges with his wife to a brother for a time.
Marriages were brittle and divorce occurred frequently. Yet to survive, it was necessary to be married, as most men and women were throughout their adult lives. There was no set pattern of postmarital residence. A newly married couple might live with the bride's family for the first few years until children were born, but the availability of food supplies was the determining residence factor.
Children began to learn about and participate in the food quest as soon as they were old enough to help. There was little emphasis on puberty rites except among the Washo, who held a special dance and put a girl through various tests at the time of menarche.
Death rites were minimal. An individual was buried with his possessions or they were destroyed. The Washo abandoned or burned a dwelling in which a death occurred. Occasionally, old people who could not keep up with the group or who could no longer produce their share of the food supply were abandoned.
Great Basin Technology and Economy
The Numic people and the Washo built two types of shelters; semicircular brush windbreaks in the summers, and domed brush, bark-slab, grass, or reed-mat dwellings in the winter. The horse-using groups used Plains-style tepees but sometimes built grass or brush houses. Winter villages were sited along the edge of valley floors, near water, food caches, and firewood. Summer encampments were near food areas and were shifted as necessary. Horse-using groups camped along wooded stream bottoms near firewood and forage areas for their horses.
Tools were simple and portable: the bow and arrow, stone knife, rabbit stick, digging stick, several types of baskets and nets, and flat seed-grinding slab and handstone. Some Western Shoshoni and Southern Paiute groups made a coarse brown-ware pottery; some Northern Shoshoni made steatite jars and cups.
Fishing, Hunting, and Gathering Methods in the Great Basin
In fishing areas, lines and hooks, harpoons, nets, and willow fish weirs were used. The Northern Paiute used duck decoys made of tule reeds covered with duck skins. Rodents were taken with snares and traps or pulled from burrows with long, hooked sticks. Rabbits were driven into nets and clubbed, or they were shot with bow and arrows. Antelope were driven into corrals and traps. Waterfowl were netted, trapped, or shot with bunt arrows (arrows with rounded heads, intended simply to stun). Deer, elk, and mountain sheep were taken by individual hunters with bow and arrows.
The people followed an annual route, exploiting plant and animal resources as they became available in the several ecological zones. Well over 70 percent of the food supply was vegetal. Over 200 species of plants were named and used, principally seed and root plants.
Piñon pine groves were found in upland areas of Nevada and central Utah, and large quantities of piñon nuts were collected in the autumn and cached for winter use. Rabbit drives were also held in the autumn. The drives provided an occasion for larger numbers of people to come together for gambling, dancing, and courting.
Winter was spent in small villages, living on cached foods and such game as might be taken. Early spring was a poor time; stored resources were often exhausted, and the people were forced to seek early greens and roots for food. Late spring and summer were devoted to collecting seeds, roots, insects, fishing where possible, and continued hunting.
Some Southern Paiute bands practiced limited horticulture along the Colorado and Virgin rivers. Some bands of Mono and Northern Paiute reportedly irrigated patches of wild seed plants to increase the yield.
The horse-using groups also followed an annual route but ranged over a much larger area. In some years, they ventured onto the Northern Plains for bison in the autumn, returning to the Bridger Basin, the Snake River area, or the Colorado Mountains for the winter. In the spring and summer, Shoshoni and Shoshoni-Bannock obtained roots from the Camas Prairie in Idaho and salmon from the Snake River, below Shoshone Falls. Deer, elk, and mountain sheep were taken when possible. Seed and root foods were collected as they became available.
Clothing and trade in the Great Basin
Clothing consisted of sage bark aprons and breechclouts and rabbit-skin robes in the winter. The horse-using peoples wore Plains-style, tailored skin garments. Artwork was largely confined to basketry decoration. Among the horse-using bands, quill and beadwork decorated clothing and rawhide shields, and bags and containers were painted.
Trade was minimal among western Great Basin groups, although there is some evidence of the use of strings of shells as a medium of exchange in aboriginal times. Horse-using groups were more active, trading among themselves and with other tribes. The Eastern Shoshoni and some Ute bands participated in the fur trade between 1810 and 1840. Between about 1800 and 1850, mounted Ute and Navajo bands preyed on Southern Paiute, Western Shoshoni, and Gosiute bands for slaves, capturing and sometimes trading women and children to be sold in the Spanish settlements of New Mexico and southern California.
Great Basin Religious Concepts
Religious concepts derived from a mythical cosmogony, beliefs in "power" beings, and a belief in a dualistic soul. Mythology provided a cosmogony and cosmography of the world. Mythical animals, notably the wolf, coyote, rabbit, bear, and mountain lion, were believed to be the progenitors of the modern animals. These animals lived prior to Indian life but were anthropomorphic, speaking and acting as people do in the present world. They created the world and were responsible for present-day topography, ecology, food resources, seasons of the year, and the distribution of Indian tribes.
Animals set the nature of social relations--that is, defined how various classes of kinsmen should behave toward each other--and set the customs surrounding birth, marriage, puberty and death. Their actions in the mythic realm set moral and ethical precepts and determined the physical and behavioral characteristics of the modern animals. Most of the motifs and tale plots of Great Basin mythology are found widely throughout North America.
Power beings were animals, birds, or natural phenomena, each attributed with a specific natural power according to an observed characteristic. Some such beings were thought to be benevolent, or at least neutral, toward men. Others, such as Water Babies--small, long-haired creatures who lured men to their deaths in springs or lakes and who ate children--were malevolent and feared. There were conceptions of various other vague beings, such as the Southern Paiute unupits, mischievous spirits who caused illness.
Shamans, or curers, were prominent in all Great Basin groups.
Both men and women might become shamans. Shamans received their powers to cure disease, foretell the future, and, sometimes, to practice sorcery from a power being who came unsought to a prospective shaman. It was considered dangerous to resist being given a shaman's power, for those who did sometimes died.
The being became a tutelary spirit, instructing an individual in curing and sources of power. Some shamans had several tutelary spirits, each providing instruction for specific types of treatment. Among Northern Paiute and Washo and probably elsewhere, a man who had received power apprenticed himself to an older, practicing shaman and from him learned rituals, cures, and feats of legerdemain associated with curing performances.
Curing ceremonies were performed with family members and others present and might last several days. The widespread American Indian practice of sucking an object said to cause the disease from the patient's body was often employed. Shamans who lost too many patients were sometimes killed.
In the western Basin, some men had powers to charm antelope and led communal antelope drives. Beliefs that some men were arrow-proof (and after the introduction of guns, bulletproof) are reported for the Northern Paiute and Gosiute but were probably general throughout the area.
Among the Eastern Shoshoni, young men sought power beings through a visionary experience. The active seeking of power beings through visions is a practice the Eastern Shoshoni probably learned from their Plains neighbours, although the characteristics of the beings sought were those common to Great Basin beliefs.
There was a concept of soul-dualism among most, if not all, Numic groups. One soul, or soul aspect, represented vitality or life; the other was the individual as he was in a dream or vision state. During dreams or visions, the latter soul left the body and moved in the spirit realm. At death, both souls left the body.
Relatively recent developments in Great Basin cultures
Contact with white civilization drastically altered Great Basin societies and cultures. The Southern Ute were in sustained contact with the Spanish in New Mexico as early as the 1600s, but other Great Basin groups had no direct or continued contact with whites until after 1800. The fur trade, between 1810 and 1840, brought new tools and implements to the eastern bands. Settlement began in the 1840s, as did the surge of emigrants through the area on their way to Oregon and California.
Mining, ranching, and farming activities destroyed or closed off traditional Indian food-gathering areas. Piñon groves were cut for firewood, fence posts, and mining timbers. The Indians attempted to resist white encroachment. Mounted bands of Ute, Shoshoni, Shoshoni-Bannock, and Northern Paiute preyed on ranches and wagon trains and tried to drive the intruders away. The struggle culminated in several local "wars" and "massacres" in the 1850s and 1860s.
After 1870, Indians were forced onto reservations or into small groups on the edges of white settlements, thus reducing their land base to a small fraction of its former size. This forced the abandonment of aboriginal subsistence patterns in favour of limited agriculture or stock raising, where possible, and wage work, especially as farm and ranch hands.
In 1870 and again in 1890, Ghost Dance movements started among the Northern Paiute of western Nevada. Prophets foretold that if the Indians danced and prayed, the whites would go away and the "old days" would be restored. The 1870 dance, led by a man named Wodziwob, centred in Nevada and California. The 1890 dance, led by Wovoka, or Jack Wilson, of Smith Valley, Nevada, spread to many Indian tribes in the western United States.
A Peyote Cult was introduced to the Ute and Eastern Shoshoni in the early 1900s by Oklahoma Indians. It later spread to other Great Basin peoples. Most peyote groups became members of the Native American Church, a nationally recognized organization. Great Basin peyote rituals are a mixture of aboriginal and Christian elements.
Ceremonies are led by "road chiefs"; that is, those who lead believers down the Peyote Road or Way. A ceremony, which lasts all night, includes singing, praying, and eating peyote buttons or drinking a concoction made therefrom, producing a mild hallucinogenic experience. The tenets of the Native American Church stress moral and ethical precepts and behaviour.
In postreservation times, the Eastern Shoshoni and Ute adopted the sun dance from the Plains Indians. The four-day dance is performed yearly to achieve health and valour for the participants, and partly as a tourist attraction.
The Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 led to the establishment of local elected "tribal councils" for the various reservations and colonies. Councils have sought to develop various economic activities including ranching, light industry, and tourism.
"Desert Archaic" or "The Desert Culture" are alternate terminology used by anthropologists to describe the Great Basin cultures. These include:
- Bannock, Idaho
- Colorado River
- Chemehuevi, southeastern California
- Southern Paiute, Arizona, Nevada, Utah
- Kaibab, northwestern Arizona
- Kaiparowtis, southwestern Utah
- Moapa, southern Nevada
- Panguitch, Utah
- Paranigets, southern Nevada
- Shivwits, southwestern Utah
- Fremont culture (400 CE–1300 CE), Utah
- Kawaiisu, southern inland California
- Mono, southeastern California
- Eastern Mono (Owens Valley Paiute), southeastern California
- Western Mono, southeastern California
- Northern Paiute (Numu or Paviotso)eastern California, Nevada, Oregon, southwestern Idaho, (Burns-Paiute), Arizona
- Kucadikadi, Mono Lake, California
- Palagewan (Tübatulabal Indian Tribe)
- Pahkanapil (Tübatulabal Indian Tribe)
- Papago (Tohono O'odham)
- Pima (Akimel O'odham )
- Shoshone (Shoshoni), Nevada, Wyoming, California, Idaho
- Western Shoshone, eastern California, Nevada, north Utah, southeastern Idaho
- Duckwater Shoshone Tribe or Tsaidüka, Railroad Valley, Nevada
- Goshute, Nevada and Utah
- Te-Moak Tribe, made up of the Tonomudza band, Nevada
- Yomba Western Shoshone Tribe,Nevada
- Northern Shoshone, Idaho
- Agaideka (Salmon Eaters), Snake River and Lemhi, Idaho
- Kammedeka (Jackrabbit Eaters), Snake River, Idaho to the Great Salt Lake, Utah
- Lemhi Shoshone, Lemhi River Valley, Idaho
- Pohogwe (People of the Sagebrush Butte) or Fort Hall Shoshone, Idaho
- Tukudeka (Mountain Sheep Eaters), central Idaho, southern Montana, and Yellowstone, Wyoming
- Yahandeka (Groundhog Eaters), Boise, Payette, and Weiser Rivers, Idaho
- Eastern Shoshone, Wyoming
- Kuccuntikka (Buffalo Eaters)
- Tukkutikka or Tukudeka (Mountain Sheep Eaters), joined the Northern Shoshone
- Coso People, of Coso Rock Art District in the Coso Range, Mojave Desert California
- Timbisha or Panamint or Koso, southeastern California
- Ute ,Utah, Colorado, northern New Mexico
- Capote, southeastern Colorado and New Mexico
- Moanunts, Salina, Utah
- Muache, south and central Colorado
- Pahvant, western Utah
- Sanpits, central Utah
- Timpanogots, north central Utah
- Uintah, Utah
- Uncompahgre or Taviwach, central and northern Colorado
- Weeminuche, western Colorado, eastern Utah, northwestern New Mexico
- White River Utes (Parusanuch and Yampa), Colorado and eastern Utah
- Washo, Nevada and California
Great Basin Tribes