Indigenous People: Great Basin Foragers
In studying indigenous people, the American Indians of the Great Basin culture area lived in the desert region that reaches from the Rocky Mountains west to the Sierra Nevada. The Columbia Plateau lies to the north, and the Mojave Desert is to the south. The Great Basin encompasses almost all of the present-day U.S. states of Utah and Nevada as well as parts of Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, Arizona, and California. The region is so named because the surrounding mountains create a bowl-like landscape that prevents water from flowing out.
The mountains tend to receive ample precipitation, but they form a rain shadow such that the interior averages as little as 2 inches (5 centimeters) of moisture per year. There are some pine forests in the mountains, but few plants grow on the desert floor. Game animals are scarce as well.
Great Basin Foragers’ Language
Most of the Great Basin Indians traditionally spoke Numic languages. Numic is a division of the Uto-Aztecan language family, a group of languages common in the western United States and Mexico. The Numic speakers included the Mono, Paiute, Bannock, Shoshone, Ute, and Gosiute.
The Washoe, whose territory centered on Lake Tahoe, spoke a Hokan language. It was related to languages spoken in parts of what are now California, Arizona, and Baja California, Mexico.
European Contact and Cultural Change of Great Basin Foragers
Contact with Spanish and Euro-American colonizers 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 little or no direct or continued contact with Europeans or Euro-Americans until after 1800.
Between 1810 and 1840 the fur trade brought new tools to those living in the eastern part of the region. In the 1840s Euro-American settlement of the Great Basin began, and a surge of emigrants traveled through the area on their way to the West coast.
As elsewhere in the United States, government policy in the Great Basin was designed to assimilate, or integrate, the tribes into Euro-American society. Assimilation was accomplished by undercutting the native economy, sending Native American children to distant boarding schools, and suppressing native religions in favor of Christianity. Beginning in the 1840s, for instance, private-property laws favoring Euro-American mining, ranching, and farming interests either destroyed or privatized most native food-gathering areas.
The Indians of the Great Basin tried to resist colonization. Mounted bands of Ute, Shoshone, Shoshone-Bannock, and Northern Paiute fought with ranchers and attacked wagon trains in attempts to drive the intruders away. The struggle culminated in several local wars and massacres in the 1850s and ’60s. After 1870 the tribes were forced onto reservations or into small groups on the edges of Euro-American settlements. The Indians who kept their land had to abandon most of their traditional hunting and gathering activities in favor of farming and ranching. Many who were forced off their land worked under the settlers on farms and ranches.
Ghost Dance Movement
The Great Basin peoples were perhaps most successful in resisting religious assimilation. In 1870 and again in 1890, so-called Ghost Dance movements started among the Northern Paiute of western Nevada. Both movements began with prophets who announced that the dead would be resurrected, whites would be ousted, and Indian lands, food supplies, and way of life would be restored. The ceremonies emphasized peace, forbidding war against Indians or whites.
Nevertheless, as the Ghost Dance of 1890 spread to the Plains, the message changed from one of peace and renewal to one of destruction. Particularly among the Sioux, ghost dancing was seen as a means to annihilate the colonizers. The alarm this caused among whites ultimately led to the massacre of 200 Sioux at Wounded Knee, S.D. In the Great Basin, however, the movement’s original message endured into the 21st century.
The Indian Reorganization Act, passed by the U.S. Congress in 1934, led to the establishment of local elected tribal councils for the reservations in the Great Basin. These councils have since developed a number of tribal businesses, including ranching, light industry, and tourism. They have also sought to reclaim ancestral lands through the courts.
In 1950, for instance, the courts found that the Ute tribe had been illegally defrauded of land in the 1800s. Although the courts did not give the Ute title to the land, they did award the tribe more than 30 million dollars.
In the 1950s several bands of Ute and Southern Paiute—like many other Indian groups in the United States—faced termination. Under this government policy, they lost federal recognition of their Indian status and thus their eligibility for federal support of health care and other services. Although most bands fought this process, some did not regain federal status until the 1980s. Others continued to fight for recognition and land well into the early 21st century. The Western Shoshone, for instance, turned to the international court system in their efforts to regain their traditional lands.
- The economic history of the fur trade: 1670 to 1870. (n.d.). https://eh.net/encyclopedia/the-economic-history-of-the-fur-trade-1670-to-1870/
- Encyclopedia of the Great Plains | Wounded Knee Massacre. (n.d.). Plains Humanities Alliance | Center for Great Plains Studies | Nebraska. https://plainshumanities.unl.edu/encyclopedia/doc/egp.war.056
- Great Basin Indians. (n.d.). Britannica Kids. https://kids.britannica.com/students/article/Great-Basin-Indians/480464
- Indian Reorganization Act (1934). (2017, March 3). Living New Deal. https://livingnewdeal.org/glossary/indian-reorganization-act-1934/