Great Basin Indians of the early historic period (1800-50) were divided into horse-using and non-horse-using groups. Horse-using groups generally occupied the northern and eastern sections of the Great Basin culture area. 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. The Washo did not use horses prior to white settlement, and rarely used them thereafter.
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 exigencies of the food quest 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 frequent. 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. 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.
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. 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 round, 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 round 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 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 Navaho 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.
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 wolf, coyote, rabbit, bear, and mountain lion, were believed to be the progenitors of the modern animals. They 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. They 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.
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, so-called Ghost Dance movements started among the Northern Paiute of western Nevada. The dances were millenarian in character. 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.
Indian children were sent to federal day schools and boarding schools beginning in the 1880s. These federal schools were phased out and Indian children began to attend local schools and universities.
Great Basin Indian peoples have retained some of their traditional culture in crafts, dances, and visiting patterns. Older people speak the native languages, but many of the younger people have neither learned nor used them. Many people remain on the reservations, but others have moved to towns and cities.