Native Americans of the Great Basin


The Great Basin encompasses roughly 400,000 square miles of land between the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada. Geologically, it includes extreme eastern California, southeast Oregon, all of Nevada but the extreme south, extreme southeast Idaho, extreme southwest Wyoming, and western Utah. This is an area of interior drainage, featuring high deserts and valleys (around 5,000 feet), both freshwater and saltwater lakes, and mountains more than 12,000 feet high. Except for the high mountains, and especially in the south, there is relatively little precipitation.

Although Great Basin Indians share cultural traits and social connections with neighboring groups in other areas, so that the term "Great Basin cultural area" is a somewhat arbitrary convention, sufficient homogeneity existed within a defined region for anthropologists to consider the term legitimate. The boundaries of the Great Basin cultural area considerably exceeded those of the geographical one. Prior to 1600, between 40,000 and 50,000 people lived in an area extending from California east of the Sierra crest into eastern Oregon, central Idaho, extreme southwest Montana, western Wyoming, all of Nevada and Utah, the western two-thirds of Colorado, extreme northern New Mexico, and extreme northern and western Arizona.

Except for the Hokan-speaking Washoe, all late prehistoric Great Basin dwellers spoke dialects of Numic (Shoshonean) languages. Fluidity was a major characteristic of both territory and identity. That is, whereas today we speak of the Western Shoshone or the Northern Paiute, for linguistic and vaguely cultural purposes, these Indians had no such concepts. Since few groups regarded subsistence areas as exclusively controlled, they tended to range over wide distances, mixing and intermarrying with other Numic-speaking and neighboring groups.

Social and economic organization, and therefore leadership, was decentralized, except in eastern groups after the introduction of the horse.

Residents of the Great Basin adapted very successfully to a large number of microenvironments that changed over time. Hunting and especially gathering were the primary activities. Creosote predominated in the southern and western Great Basin; saltbush and sagebrush, as well as many types of seed grasses, in the high deserts; and juniper, pinon, and other trees in the mountains. A few marshes supported cattails and rushes. The region supported a wide variety of animals, although distribution was uneven.

In general, and with the exception of eastern groups of the posthorse era, Indians of the Great Basin were relatively peaceful. Many groups turned briefly to raiding when faced in the mid-nineteenth century with Anglo attacks and the destruction of their habitat. Afterward, they tried to adjust to the new situation. Many people were able to retain strong elements of traditional culture, particularly religion and social structure. Still, they faced the usual severe discrimination and policies aimed at cultural genocide. Despite land claims victories and mineral leases, the economic and social situation for Great Basin Indians today remains difficult.

Archaeological evidence suggests that people first entered the Great Basin roughly 12,000 years ago, probably arriving from the south. These earliest people were probably not Shoshonean; they were displaced or absorbed by Shoshonean people, perhaps as recently as 1000. The basic hunting and gathering way of life for Great Basin Indians changed relatively little from the Early Archaic period (8000-2000 B.C.E.) through about 1600 C.E. The only exception is in southern Idaho (Snake and Salmon Rivers area), where people hunted now-extinct big game from the thirteenth century B.C.E. until about 6000 B.C.E.

In and around Utah, the typical foraging life was partially replaced from about 400 to 1300 by semisedentary communities based on farming. These Fremont culture people made containers and artistic figurines of clay. Although distinguished in part by their agricultural traditions, they continued to rely on hunting and gathering, especially in the north and west. Fremont cultures began to break up by around 1000, and by about 1350 the Archaic tradition had reestablished itself throughout the Great Basin, remaining more or less intact until the nineteenth century.

Most groups relied heavily on seed-bearing grasses and pinon seeds as well as roots (camas, yampa, bitterroot) and berries (buckberry, wolfberry, chokecherry). Birds, rabbits, deer, pronghorn antelope, rodents, fish, insects, and other nonplant resources probably made up around 25 percent of their diet, on average. For many groups, pinon seeds were the winter staple. Women extracted the seeds, then parched and ground them to make a mush or gruel. Acorns were another important food; after being leached (north and west), roasted, shelled, and ground, they were also stone boiled into a type of gruel. People in and near the southern deserts used plants such as agave, mesquite, and screwbean. Some southern groups also grew a limited amount of corn, beans, and squash.

Great Basin Indian technology was simple but effective. People used twined and coiled baskets, constructed primarily of willow, grasses, and roots, to carry burdens; to beat, winnow, and parch seeds; and to contain cold and boiling water. Pottery generally appeared with the Shoshonean people. Although plants and animals provided most raw materials, people also made tools and utensils out of stone, obsidian, bone, and wood. Nets, traps, snares, flaked stone knives, and bow and arrow were all used in the hunt. Fish were taken with nets, weirs, hook and line, basket traps, spears, and harpoons. The ubiquitous fire-hardened digging stick was the main root-gathering implement. Fire was started with drills, and the embers were often retained for storage and transportation. Some groups also encouraged certain plants by burning brushlands and forests as well as pruning. Some native irrigation was also practiced, especially in Owens Valley.

Both season and location determined the type of shelter. Brush windbreaks were common in warm weather. Winter houses were typically conical, roughly 10 feet high and 10-15 feet in diameter, and built of brush, bark, grass, and/or tule over pinon and/or juniper pole frames. Some northern groups covered the frame with skins. Doorways generally faced east. Caves were also utilized. As for clothing, most people wore little except in the coldest weather. Women often wore twined sagebrush bark or willow hats and long gowns in winter. Men and women wore fur or twined-bark breechclouts. Fur or sage-bark moccasins were worn in winter, as were twined-bark or skin leggings. Fur (including buffalo) robes and rabbit-skin blankets, consisting of several strips of rabbit skin woven on a frame, were worn as capes during the day and used for coverings at night.

Aboriginal Great Basin society was relatively decentralized. The basic social and economic unit was the camp, or nuclear family, consisting of parents, children, and one or two grandparents, aunts, uncles, or cousins. This group was autonomous and self-governing by consensus, although an older male might be especially influential. Most labor was divided fairly rigidly by gender.

In regions of greater productivity, semipermanent winter villages emerged, which consisted of related family clusters. This type of interaction allowed people to share information about resources, to observe ceremonies and share mythological tales, and to trade. Headmen usually presided over villages; they delivered speeches on and coordinated subsistence activities, but the egalitarian impulse among Shoshonean people rendered their authority tenuous. Some more centralized societies emerged after the introduction of the horse.

Trade routes in the region, featuring Pacific coast shells, appeared at least by 5000 B.C.E. By around 2000 B.C.E., beads, obsidian, and other items were traded in a major network that ran from southern and central California to Nevada and Utah. Shell trade reached its maximum precontact distribution in the Great Basin by 1500. In general, Great Basin Indians exchanged hundreds of items between themselves and their neighbors, especially in the late eighteenth century, including hides, robes, food items, dresses, moccasins, medicinal plants, beads, and horses.

Aboriginal Shoshonean peoples recognized various beings or spirits capable of affecting human existence and may have recognized one or more supreme beings, such as the sun. They practiced both individual and group religious ceremonies. On an individual level, some people acquired supernatural powers, often through dreams or visions, from friendly spirits. Such powers brought them luck or skills. Certain rituals and behavior restrictions were associated with life-cycle events, especially girls’ puberty and death. Group activities were mostly associated with the Round Dance. Performed on occasions such as pinon harvests and communal hunts, the Round Dance was associated with fertility, bounty, and rain.

Male or female shamans, although possessing no formal political power, often exercised influence in society owing to their abilities to cure and lead the ceremonies. People formally showed respect for plants and animals they had taken. They ritually disposed of certain animal parts, such as glands or organs, and addressed dead animals in a special way. Plants were often taken with an offering to their spirits and a prayer of thanks. Over 300 plant species were used medicinally. Plants and animals played an important role in mythology and regional cosmology. Rock art as well as small sculptures and figurines, some of which are at least several thousand years old, expressed aspects of prehistoric religion and ritual.

Late-eighteenth-century Spanish explorers of the Great Basin encountered Indians who had already been influenced by Euro-Americans. Utes escaping from Spanish captivity probably brought horses north of the Colorado River by the mid-seventeenth century. By the mid-eighteenth century, many eastern Shoshonean groups had thoroughly adopted the horse and had moved closer—both culturally and physically—to their fellow mounted Indians on the Great Plains. In contrast, some western Shoshoneans, whose environment did not favor mounted exploitation, remained without the horse (except as a food source) until the nineteenth century. Groups like the Goshute Shoshones and the Southern Paiutes became ready targets for Ute and Navajo slave raiders, who in turn were supported by the Spanish and Mexicans into the nineteenth century.

The Spanish explored the region and traded with the Indians, but they did not form colonies. Because of the isolation and relatively harsh environment of the Great Basin, it was the last region in the contiguous United States to be taken over by non-natives. However, change, when it did come, was rapid, largely because the ecology of the region was so fragile. Indians guided and traded with early explorers and trappers; many Indians first received firearms, alcohol, and new diseases during that period. The first Mormon settlers appeared around the time the United States acquired the Great Basin, in the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Ranchers and farmers soon completed the process, begun by explorers, trappers, emigrants, and miners, of resource degradation and destruction of aboriginal habitat.

Livestock were allowed to compact the soil and overgraze, ruining the seed grasses. Anglos appropriated scarce water sources and converted natural resource-rich lands to farms. They prohibited the Indians from managing grasslands through regular burnings and cut down vital pinon groves for firewood. Game animals, deprived of their own resources and increasingly crowded out, either disappeared or retreated to safer though far less accessible regions. In a relatively few years, the environment that had supported tens of thousands of Indians for millennia was gone. Hungry, weakened by disease, and victims of wanton violence, Indian populations began to decline dramatically.

Survivors responded to this new situation in several ways. Many groups withdrew farther from areas of white activity and tried to carry on as best they could. As these areas became increasingly marginal, the camp groups were forced into greater levels of cooperation. Some briefly formed bands to exploit non-Indian "resources" or even to engage in war. Some remained near the trails and simply begged for food. Some people attached themselves to ranches or farms, working for wages but living apart and trying to retain their identities as Indians. The money around mining towns attracted some Indians, but they were always severely discriminated against and forced to undertake the most menial and low-paying work.

In the 1850s, the government created the first of the Great Basin Indian reservations, on which it planned to transform the Indians into Christian farmers (although without providing adequate land or material or technical support). Native culture was ruthlessly suppressed. Children were kidnapped or otherwise forced to attend culture-killing boarding schools away from the reservation. To make matters worse, the extent of Indian land was gradually whittled away, in part as a result of the Dawes Act of 1886. Many Great Plains Indians (up to 40 percent or more) remained away from the reservations altogether, preferring to take their chances on their own.

The Ghost Dance originated among Northern Paiutes, beginning around 1869. According to the visions of a man named Wodziwob, Indians who danced and sang in a specified way could bring about the return of a precontact golden age, including the return to life of deceased Indians. This movement spread rapidly throughout the Great Basin and into California and lasted from a year or two up to several decades. In 1889, another Northern Paiute, named Wovoka, revived the Ghost Dance religion. His visions instructed Indians to perform the Ghost Dance, live in peace among themselves and with whites, work hard, and avoid alcohol. If they would do these things, they would achieve happiness in the next world. As interpreted by its adherents throughout much of the west, however, the religion promised an immediate salvation.

About the same time as the second Ghost Dance gained popularity, the Ute Bear Dance began to spread into southern Nevada, northern and western Arizona, and southern California. Also, as part of Bear Dance ceremonies, some southwestern Great Basin groups began adapting part of the Yuman mourning ceremony. The "cry," like the Ghost Dances, was probably meant to comfort the living under increasingly desperate conditions.

No Great Basin groups danced the Sun Dance before the nineteenth century, but among the Eastern Shoshone, who adopted it from the Comanche about 1800, it did precede reservation life. At the same time that more western groups were adopting and adapting the Ute Bear Dance, the Utes themselves, along with the Eastern Shoshones, were creating a new, modern Sun Dance. As the Sun Dance spread, its focus shifted away from warfare and buffalo hunting toward transcending contemporary problems such as widespread illness and growing poverty and toward restoring harmony. Christian elements also entered the Sun Dance. The Sun Dance today is very popular as an ongoing expression of interreservation religious life.

The Peyote religion, or Native American Church, also appeared in the Great Basin in the late nineteenth century. Originating in prehistoric Mexico, Peyotism today incorporates elements of Christianity while remaining a pan-Indian affair. It is also part of the Traditional-Unity Movement, a recent tradition born of the political struggles of the 1960s and 1970s that incorporates elements of the Sun Dance, Sweat Lodge, and Sacred Pipe ceremonies. This movement and its associated ceremonies are particularly strong at the Fort McDermitt Reservation (Northern Paiute).

By the 1930s, the effort to make Christian farmers out of Great Basin Indians had failed. Instead, Indians had lost much of their land and, even though retaining their Indian identity, were in desperate straits socially and economically. Ranching, a key economic activity, supported only a small minority of reservation Indians. Severe discrimination and lack of language and job skills precluded significant off-reservation employment. Whites succeeded in destroying what viable Indian industry existed, such as the Pyramid Lake fisheries.

Conditions improved marginally into the 1940s as a result of the so-called Indian New Deal, which brought a degree of self-determination as well as increased federal support to the tribes. Land claims victories (over $137 million total) and mineral leases also brought money to selected groups beginning in the late 1930s. However, in a complete reversal of policy, the government began terminating some reservations and treaty responsibilities during the 1950s.

In the 1960s, the government again reversed course and significantly increased support to Indian peoples, helping to alleviate desperate poverty and usher in a renewed period of self-determination. Also, groups like the Northern Paiute and Western Shoshone Indians began a series of actions, such as hunting regardless of local laws and denouncing unfavorable bills before the Nevada legislature, to highlight their push for sovereignty and enforcement of treaty rights. By the 1970s, as a result of federal programs, continued land claims victories, tribal enterprises, and Indian political action, life on Great Basin reservations had improved significantly, if unevenly.

Despite these gains, Great Basin Indians continue to struggle. Chronic poverty and cultural devastation are difficult to overcome. Unemployment, substance abuse, and suicide rates remain high. Health facilities and services remain inadequate.

Control over their economic destiny remains elusive. And, as in many Indian tribes, particularly in the west, disagreements between traditionalists and "progressives" divide communities.

Still, pride in Indian identity is at a high point today, as evidenced by the profusion of Indian newspapers and tribal historical and cultural projects. Many tribal governments make decisions in the traditional fashion, by consensus, rather than by majority rule. Traditional activities such as pinon harvesting, ceremonies, and crafts remain important parts of native identity. Women are increasingly participating in tribal government. Tribal businesses include agricultural markets, crafts enterprises, fish hatcheries, and smoke shops. Mineral and ranch leases also provide a large percentage of tribal income, and credit restrictions and cash flows have eased. Despite ongoing challenges, most Great Basin Indians remain committed to prospering as Indians.

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