Shoshone, Western (Native Americans of the Great Basin)

Western Shoshone were a number of Shoshonean-speaking groups generally inhabiting a particular area. Many groups were known to whites as Diggers. Their self-designation was "Newe." The Goshute (Gosiute) are ethnic Shoshones, despite considerable intermarriage with the Ute and the existence of a 1962 court ruling legally separating them from the Western Shoshone. Little pre-1859 scientific ethnographic data exist on the Western Shoshone.

Location Most Western Shoshone bands lived in harsh environments such as the Great Salt Lake area (Goshute) and Death Valley (Panamint). Their territory stretched from Death Valley through central Nevada into northwestern Utah and southern Idaho. Most Western Shoshones today live on a number of reservations within their aboriginal territory. They also live in nearby and regional cities and towns.

Population The aboriginal population of Western Shoshones may have numbered between 5,000 and 10,000, although it had declined to roughly 2,000 by the early nineteenth century. In 1990, 3,815 Paiute-Shoshones, Goshute Shoshones, and Shoshones lived on reservations. This figure does not include 2,078 Te-Moak Shoshones (1992).

Language The Western Shoshone spoke three central Numic languages—Panamint, Shoshone, and Comanche—all members of the Numic (Shoshonean) branch of the Uto-Aztecan language family. Since all Shoshones (Western, Northern, and Eastern or Wind River) spoke Shoshone, the term Shoshone is an ethnic rather than a linguistic one.

Historical Information

History Western Shoshones were first visited by non-natives—the Jedediah Smith and Peter Skene Ogden parties—in the late 1820s. Other trappers and traders passed through during the next 20 years. Despite the willingness of some groups, such as the Walker party, to massacre Indians, the latter were relatively unaffected by early contacts with non-natives.

The Mormons, who ultimately had a huge impact on the Goshute Shoshone, began arriving to stay in 1847. The white presence increased throughout 1840s and 1850s, but the discovery of the Comstock Lode in 1857 turned the stream into a flood. By then, degradation of the natural environment was well under way. New diseases also stalked the region, severely affecting both human and animal populations. Indians responded by either retreating farther from white activity or, less often, by raiding, stealing, and begging.

The Pony Express, established in 1860, passed through the center of Western Shoshone country. Supply depots at important springs displaced Indians, which encouraged attacks and then army reprisals. By 1860, Mormons had invaded Goshute territory, and miners and ranchers were closing in on the rest of Western Shoshone lands. Grazing, plowing, and wood cutting (pinon and juniper pine) destroyed subsistence areas and forage land. Indians began to work for settlers as wage laborers to fend off starvation. Euro-American clothing, technology, and shelter quickly replaced the traditional variety.

Federal negotiations with Great Basin tribes began in the 1850s, in part to check sporadic violence against settlers. The first treaties with Western Shoshone groups were signed in 1863. They called for Indians to give up hostilities, settle down eventually, and receive goods annually worth a total of $50,000. In return, the settlers could stay. Significantly, the Indians never actually ceded any land.

The army soon began rounding up Indians. When no reservations near good land with water were established during the 1870s, some Shoshones joined Northern Paiutes and Bannocks in their wars of resistance. In 1879, Shoshones refused an order to move to the Western Shoshone (Duck Valley) Reservation. Despite the extreme disruption of their lives, elements of traditional culture survived, such as religious beliefs (largely excepting the Goshute) and limited subsistence patterns. Most Shoshones still lived unconfined after 1900.

The percentage of Western Shoshones living on reservations peaked at 50 in 1927. Most carried out semitraditional subsistence activities combined with seasonal or other wage work in mines and on ranches and farms. In an effort to enlarge the reservation population, the United States encouraged Northern Paiutes to settle at Duck Valley. Finally, accepting the fact that most Western Shoshones did not and would not live at Duck Valley, the government created a series of "colonies" during the first half of the twentieth century.

In 1936, the Paiutes and most Shoshone groups organized the Paiute-Shoshone Business Council. Chief Temoak and his descendants were considered the leaders of this effort. The U.S. government refused to recognize the traditional Temoak council, however, and instead organized their own Te-Moak Bands Council. This split culminated when the traditionalist-backed United Western Shoshone Legal Defense and Education Association (1974) argued that the Te-Moak Bands Council did not represent Western Shoshone interests and, further, that the Western Shoshones never ceded their land. The courts rejected their claim in 1979 and ordered them paid $26 million in compensation. In 1985, the Supreme Court ruled that the 1979 payment legally extinguished their title to the disputed 24 million acres.

Religion Apo, the sun, was a principal deity. Anyone could obtain supernatural powers through dreams and visions, although medicine men (bugahant) served as religious leaders. Most groups recognized three kinds of shamans: curers of specific ailments, general curers, and self-curers or helpers. Curing was effected by sucking and the laying on of hands. In theory, men and women could both be shamans, although only men may have practiced curing. Shamans were also capable of capturing antelopes’ souls and helping to drive them into corrals. Some groups may not have had shamans at all.

People used several hundred herbal remedies to cure nonsupernatural ailments such as cuts and bruises. The round dance was basic to ceremonial celebration. In some areas the dance was associated with courtship or rainmaking. Festivals were often held in times of plenty.

Government Groups in small winter villages were composed of family clusters and named for an important food resource or a local geographic feature. Thus, the territory and not the composition of the group was definitive. Group membership was not fixed and groups were not bands per se. Chiefs or headmen had little authority other than directing subsistence activity.

Customs Ritual activity focused on birth, girls’ puberty, and death. Girls’ puberty rituals included isolation as well as instruction on hard work and other proper behaviors. Corpses were cremated or buried in caves or rock slides. Some groups observed an annual mourning ceremony that included singing, speech making, and destroying the deceased’s property. Mourners cut their hair and waited at least a year before remarriage. Shamanistic midwives offered supernatural assistance to ensure a baby’s welfare. Some infanticide was practiced, especially in the west.

Good hunters might take more than one wife. Groups west of the Humboldt River practiced the bride price. Marriages were meant to establish close family ties. Divorce and remarriage were common. In the Reese River Valley, pinon groves were owned by individual families. Games included shinny, ball race (men), hoop and pole, dice, and four-stick. Most of these games involved betting. Shinny had some religious significance. People also played with jacks and string games. The elderberry flute was the only widespread musical instrument.

Dwellings Relatively little subsistence activity in winter meant less population mobility and the chance to establish villages of several families. Winter houses for about six people were conical huts of bark-covered pole frame. The smoke hole served as an entrance. People also lived in caves, brush sun shades, and domed wickiups. Sweat houses were domed in the north and conical in the south. Most groups also built menstrual huts.

Diet The main economic activity was foraging in families or groups of families from spring through fall. Staple plant foods included grasses, pine nuts, seeds, berries, spring greens, and roots. The Panamint ate mesquite pods and screwbeans. Seeds were threshed, roasted on parching trays, winnowed, ground, and boiled. They could then be eaten or cached. Mesquite pods were ground and eaten as cakes. Other desert foods included salvia seeds, cactus, agave, and gourds.

Meat, some of which was dried for winter, included bighorn sheep, antelope, deer, jackrabbits, and rodents. Dogs assisted in summer sheep hunts. Groups of people drove antelope and rabbits into corrals and nets. Antelope were also hunted individually using masks and disguises. Other food sources, depending on location, included fish, birds, waterfowl, larvae, grasshoppers, and crickets.

Key Technology In general the Western Shoshone adapted very successfully to a relatively harsh environment. They used sticks to beat grasses and dig roots, as well as using seed beaters of twined willow. Coiled and twined baskets were important in grass collection, as was a twined winnowing tray. Waterproof baskets allowed people to forage far from water.

Other tools and equipment included stone metates for grinding seeds; snares, traps, and deadfalls to hunt cottontails and rodents; bows of juniper and mountain mahogany; wildcat skin quivers; stone or horn arrow straighteners; and some pottery.

Trade Western Shoshones traded items such as salt and rabbit-skin blankets to Owens Valley Paiutes for shell money and buckskins.

Notable Arts Baskets were of very high quality. The people also made rock art for at least several thousand years as well as art objects from a variety of materials, including stone, wood, and clay.

Transportation Western Shoshones possessed few horses even after other Shoshones acquired them (horses competed for their staple grasses).

Dress Boys and some girls remained nude, especially in summer. Otherwise girls wore a front apron. Even in winter many people wore few clothes other than fur robes. What clothing existed was made of rabbit skin and/or the hides of bighorn sheep, antelope, or deer. If these materials were scarce, people used bark or grass as clothing materials. Women wore twined sage-bark or willow hats and a skin gown in winter. Both sexes wore fur or sage-bark moccasins in winter. They pierced their ears and wore ear and neck ornaments of shell and bone. Face and body painting and tattooing were common, especially among young adults.

War and Weapons Other than some historic-era conflict over the Ute propensity to sell Goshutes into slavery, the Western Shoshone practiced little warfare.

Contemporary Information

Government/Reservations The following reservations and colonies have a significant Western Shoshone presence:

Duck Valley Reservation, Owyhee County, Idaho, and Elko County, Nevada (1877; Shoshone and Paiute): 289,819 acres; 1,701 enrollment (1990); organized under the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA); constitution and by-laws approved 1936; governed by a business council.

Duckwater Reservation, Nye County, Nevada (1940; Shoshone): 3,815 acres; 288 enrollment (1990); governed by a tribal council.

Ely Indian Colony, White Pine County, Nevada (1931; Shoshone): 111 total acres; 274 enrollment (1990); organized under the IRA; constitution and by-laws approved 1966; governed by a council.

Fallon Reservation and Colony, Churchill County, Nevada (1887; Paiute and Shoshone): 69 (colony) and 3,480 (tribal, plus 4,640 allotted) acres; 506 Indians (1990); governed by a business council.

Fort McDermitt Reservation, Humboldt County, Nevada, and Malheur County, Oregon (1892; Shoshone and Paiute): 16,354 tribal acres in Nevada plus almost 19,000 acres of tribal land in Oregon; 387 Indians (1990); governed by a tribal council.

Big Pine Reservation, Inyo County, California (1939; Paiute and Shoshone): 279 acres; 331 Indians (1990).

Bishop Indian Colony, Inyo County, California (1912; Paiute-Shoshone): 877 acres; 934 Indians (1990); governed by a tribal council.

Death Valley Indian Community, Death Valley, California (1982; Timbi-sha Shoshone): 40 acres; 199 Indians (1992).

Fort Independence Reservation, Inyo County, California (1915; Paiute and Shoshone): 234 acres; 38 Indians (1990).

Lone Pine Reservation, Inyo County, California (1939; Paiute-Shoshone): 237 acres; 168 Indians (1990); governed by a tribal council.

Yomba Reservation, Nye County, Nevada (1937; Yomba Shoshone): 4,718.46 acres; 192 Indians (1992).

Goshute Reservation, White Pine County, Nevada, and Juab and Tooele Counties, Utah (1863): 7,489 acres; 98 Indians (1990); 413 enrolled members (1993), 1940 constitution and by-laws; governed by a business council.

Battle Mountain Reservation, Battle Mountain, Nevada (1917; Te-Moak Band of Western Shoshone): 700 acres; 553 Indians (1995); governed by a tribal council.

Elko Indian Colony, Elko, Nevada (1918; Te-Moak Band of Western Shoshone): 193 acres; 1,326 Indians (1995); governed by a band council.

Ruby Valley (Te-Moak) Trust Lands, Elko, Nevada (1887; Te-Moak Western Shoshone Indians):15,000 acres; approximately 30 Indians (1998); governed by a tribal council.

South Fork and Odgers Ranch Indian Colony, Lee, Nevada (1941; Te-Moak Band of Western Shoshone): 13,050 acres; 257 Indians (1995); governed by South Fork Tribal Council.

Wells Indian Colony (1980; Te-Moak Tribe of Western Shoshone): 80 acres; 182 Indians (1995); governed by a band council.

Skull Valley Reservation, Tooele County, Utah (1917; Goshute Tribe): 17,444 acres; 32 Indians (1990); 111 enrolled members (1993); no constitution.

Economy In addition to employment with federal and tribal entities and income from leases and land claims funds, significant economic activities on the various reservations include enterprises such as smoke shops, motels, gas stations, and other small businesses. Several reservations and colonies remain in the cattle and farming business. Un- and underemployment are generally very high.

Outside of limited cattle and hay ranching, there are no employment opportunities on the Goshute Reservation. Skull Valley leases land to Hercules (aerospace), and some tribal members work there as well as at a convenience store and a seasonal water project.

Legal Status The following are federally recognized tribal entities: the Death Valley Timbi-sha Shoshone Band (since 1982), the Duckwater Shoshone Tribe, the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribes, the Paiute-Shoshone Indians of the Bishop Community, the Paiute-Shoshone Tribe of the Fallon Reservation and Colony, the Paiute-Shoshone Indians of the Lone Pine Community, the Shoshone-Paiute Tribes of the Duck Valley Reservation, the Yomba Shoshone Tribe, the Confederated Tribes of the Goshute Reservation, and the Skull Valley Band of Goshute Indians of Utah. The constituent bands of the Te-Moak tribe of Western Shoshone Indians make up a federally recognized tribal entity.

Daily Life Tribal gatherings (fandangos) feature traditional round dances, prayers, and games. Most groups have instituted language preservation programs. In confederation with other Great Basin tribes, several Western Shoshone groups opposed siting the MX intercontinental ballistic missile system on treaty lands. Western Shoshones have rejected the 1985 Supreme Court land claims decision (see "History" under "Historical Information"), holding that by the terms of the 1863 treaty they retain formal title to 24 million acres of aboriginal land. Negotiations are currently in progress.

Communications remain difficult on the remote Goshute and Skull Valley Reservations. Those Goshute Reservation children not attending boarding schools are bused 60 miles to high school; the ride is 16 miles at Skull Valley. Both the Native American Church and the Mormon Church are popular among Goshutes. Reservation crafts include beadwork, basketry, and making buckskin items.

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