The Indigenous Peoples of North America: Part 5 – The Great Basin


One of the more famous Native Americans from the Great Basin is none other than the Shoshone Sacagawea herself. Between 1804 to 1806, she served as a guide and interpreter for the Lewis and Clark Expedition where she traveled thousands of miles to the Pacific Ocean along with her husband Toussaint Charbonneau and their infant son Jean Baptiste. She is said to have died from an illness in 1812.

Between the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada is an area known as the Great Basin which is mostly a high and rocky desert land encompassing states like Nevada, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, California, Arizona, Utah, Oregon, and New Mexico. However, since they lived in a region that was so inhospitable, they were among the last groups to encounter European influence due to nobody wanting to live there. Sure there was Sacagawea, but she wouldn’t have served as a guide for Lewis and Clark if she wasn’t kidnapped by Hidasta Indians first. Nevertheless, the first white people who settled in this area were the Mormons in Utah starting in 1847 since there were no other white people around. Notice how I put emphasis on the word “white.” Since the Great Basin tribes didn’t have to worry much about white people displacing them until Mormon arrival, they have maintained stronger cultural and linguistic ties to their heritage than a lot of Native Americans in the lower 48. During the 19th century, they were leading proponents of cultural and religious renewals such as the Ghost Dance as well as introducing peyote to the world (to the glory of stoners everywhere for that “Rocky Mountain High”). You might see these people in westerns, by the way even though you might not be aware of it.


Most of the Great Basin consists primarily of high arid desert though few rivers and bountiful lakes do exist (but are dependent on mountain snow for water). It’s a very inhospitable environment, which explains why these Native Americans in this region were among the last to deal with white settlers. Ironically, this is where Las Vegas is located.

Location: Between the Rocky Mountains and Sierra Nevada covering southern Oregon and Idaho, part of Montana, Nevada, eastern California, western Wyoming and Colorado, and most of Utah.

First Peoples: Original peoples might’ve arrived as early as 12,000 years ago possibly arriving from the south. Great Basin Desert Archaic Period was between 9000 B.C.E. to 400 while the Fremont Culture came around 1-1300 who were hunter gatherers as well as agriculturalists. Numic speakers were said to arrive as early as the 11th century and are the ancestors of the Western Shosone as well as the Northern and Southern Paiute tribes. Aside from the Fremont culture, very little of their lifestyle has changed (from a pre-contact standpoint).

Environment: Mostly high elevation consisting high mountains, deep canyons as well as bountiful lakes along with few rivers and streams dependent on mountain snow (which is a major reason this area is threatened by climate change and has experienced drought). And most of these rivers in the region usually disappear into the sand. Lowest valleys are 3,000-6,000 feet above sea level while the mountain ranges can be about 8,000-12,000 feet. Climate is variable with summers with temperatures rising over 100 degrees Fahrenheit and winters with temperatures falling to 20 below zero. Rainfall can vary dramatically from year to year. But at lower elevations, evaporation is generally high while precipitation is generally low. Can be a barren wasteland of desert, salt flats, and brackish lakes. Definitely not a place hospitable to human habitation and it’s no wonder that it was the last part of the US lower 48 to be explored and settled by whites.


Despite mostly living in the desert with little precipitation, Native Americans in the Great Basin had a more plant based diet. Here we see a group of Great Basin women gathering wild rice from their canoes.

Subsistence: Mostly hunter-gatherer subsistence though some do engage in agriculture yet not to viable level of subsistence. Lived on roots, nuts, seeds, cactus, berries, wild rice, insects, as well as small game and birds. Hunted bison, deer, elk, antelope, and sheep as well as fished. Some groups grew corn, beans, and squash but only in a limited capacity and not without irrigation. Had a mostly plant based diet.


The standard winter dwelling for the Great Basin Native Americans was the wikiup. This was a conical 10 feet high and 10-15 feet in diameter house made from brush, bark, grass and/or tule over pinion and/or juniper pole frames. Sometimes these were covered in skins.

Housing: Season and location often determined type of shelter. Brush windbreaks were commonly built during the warm weather. Winter houses were typically conical wikiups at about 10 feet high and 10-15 feet in diameter as well as built of brush, bark, grass, and/or tule over pinion and/or juniper pole frames. Some northern groups covered these houses with skins. Doorways generally faced east. Caves were also used along with log and earthen hogans and even teepees.

Shoshone Indian Tribes

While the Great Basin Native Americans wore buckskin outfits during the winter, they wore very little or next to nothing during the summer. Mostly because even high desert summers could be unbearably hot.

Clothing: People in this region usually wore very little except in the coldest weather. In winter, men and women wore fur or twined bark breechcloths, moccasins, and leggings. Women often wore twined sagebrush bark or willow hats and long gowns. Clothing also included fur robes and rabbit skin blankets worn as capes.

Transportation: I guess these people usually walked. Though some tribes might’ve made canoes from animal skins and other materials.

Society: Mostly nomadic with mostly decentralized social and economic organization. Largest estimated population is said to be about 50,000-60,000. Basic unit was the camp or extended family that was autonomous and self-governing by consensus with the oldest male being the most influential. Bands tended to be small with the largest desert bands having no more than 30 and other areas with up to 100. And they were usually near water sources as well as have fluid membership. Yet, they’d also have links through blood relationships, marriage relationships, adoptions, and friendships. In regions of greater productivity, some related family clusters would form semipermanent winter villages where they could share information about resources, observe ceremonies, share mythological tales, and trade. Headmen usually presided over these winter villages where they delivered speeches on and coordinated subsistence activities. But such authority was tenuous among the egalitarian Shoshone. Trade was frequently practiced that the first regional trade routes appeared as early as 5000 B.C.E. and the region was part of a major network.


Unlike many Native American culture areas, there was no set family or marriage structure among the Great Basin peoples. Post marital residence simply depended on the available food supplies and divorce usually happened with one partner returning to their parents (which happened frequently). Polygamy, cousin marriage, and marrying a dead spouse’s siblings for recently widowed also existed. Not to mention, children were put to work as soon as they were old enough while elderly who couldn’t keep up with the group were simply put to pasture.

Family Structure: Family camps usually consisted of parents, children, grandparents, aunts, uncles, or cousins. Men mainly hunted while women cooked, gathered plants, made clothes, and looked after children. However, men and women were seen as equals and were free to engage in sexual exploration leading to a trial marriage. There was instruction on abortion and contraception. And divorce was simply a matter of one partner returning to their parental camp (which happened frequently). Northern Paiute and Shoshone tribes practiced fraternal polyandry where a woman would marry set of brothers. Yet, there were some instances of polyandry involving male cousins or men not related to each other at all. Sororal polygyny also existed. Cross cousin marriages weren’t uncommon among these people either as well as the practice of widows and widowers marrying their dead spouse’s sibling. There was no set pattern for postmarital residence with availability of food supplies being the determining factor. Children were put to work as soon as they were old enough to help. As for death rites, this might either consist of the individual being buried with their possessions or the possessions destroyed. Old people who couldn’t keep up with the group or could no longer produce their share of the food supply were occasionally abandoned.

chemheuvi-group-6x4image copy

Great Basin basketry is one of the best known out of the North American indigenous. One Nevada Washoe woman named Dat So La Lee would become celebrated for her craftmanship during the “basket craze” of the early 20th century.

Practices: Animism, shamanism, dance, music, Ghost Dance, Bear Dance, peyote, basketry, pruning, controlled burning, pottery, storytelling, rock art, Sun Dance, and petroglyphs.

Tools and Weapons: Nets, traps, snares, flaked stone knives, bows and arrows, fish hook and line, basket traps, harpoons, weirs, digging sticks, drills, clubs, seed grinding slabs and handstones, and spears.

Notable Tribes: Paiute, Shoshone, Ute, Bannock, Coso, Kawaiisu, Mono, Goshute, Timbisha, and Washo.

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