Southern Paiute boy by wikiup shelter
Southern Paiute boy in front of wickiup shelter.

Photo Credit: J. Willard Marriott Digital Library

by Josh LaMore

The Demise of the Paiute’s Way of Life

The new Mormon settlements in southwestern Utah rapidly brought an end to the Paiute’s traditional way of life. Their new settlements sat on vital Paiute hunting and gathering grounds and in the surrounding areas, livestock grazing destroyed many of the plants that were a staple of the Paiute diet. Paiutes were also denied access to their cultivating grounds near water sources, leaving them with areas mostly unfarmable.
In a very short time, the Paiute way of life was forever changed. By 1880, conditions were so desperate for the Paiutes that settler Jacob Hamblin explained to John Wesley Powell that thare [sic] is nothing left for them to depend upon but beg or starve.”[1]
During these hard times, they nearly passed from existence. It is estimated that when early Spanish explorers first arrived in 1776, there were close to ten thousand Southern Paiutes in areas of Cedar City and Panguitch. But, due to disease, the loss of their farmlands, native plants, and water sources, the Paiute population was reduced by 90 percent after only 25 years of interaction with Mormon settlers.[2]


As time went on, new challenges for the Paiute people arose. Most staggering was the 1954 Termination Law (Public Law 762), promoted by Utah Senator Arthur V. Watkins. Under this law, the Paiutes were no longer federally recognized as a tribe and thereby stripped of all their land, government support, and provisions, including loss of federal tax protection, health and education benefits, or agricultural assistance.”[3] They were forced to survive in a foreign culture with drastically different beliefs and laws. As a result, [n]early one half of all Tribal members died … [due to] lack of health resources and lack of adequate income.”[4] Also, since the tribe had little to no economic resources to pay property taxes, they lost approximately 15,000 acres of former reservation lands.”[5]

Southern Paiute man in ceremonial dress.
Southern Paiute man in Ceremonial Dress.

NPS Photo

Restoration of Federal Status

After fighting to restore their federal status for nearly 10 years, legislation was finally signed by President Carter, restoring federal recognition of the Paiute bands of southwestern Utah, on April 3, 1980. Although they only received 4,800 acres of land from the original 15,000 lost[6] and a meager federal trust fund, the Cedar, Indian Peaks, Kanosh, Koosharem, and Shivwits constituent Bands that make up the Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah are making a comeback. Since the restoration, there have been significant improvements in Paiute health care, economic development, education, and the preservation of their cultural heritage and way of life.

As of 2014, the ever progressing Paiute Health Department has successfully established 4 health care centers, providing high quality preventive and primary health care to patients regardless of their ability to pay.”[7] The health department has also created preventative programs such as nutrition workshops, youth wellness activities, exercise programs, as well as counseling, mental health, and substance abuse services.[8] In large part because of these efforts, the tribe’s population as of 2015 has grown to 918 members.[9]

Education become a major priority for the tribe once federal and trust fund support was reinstated. This is because many couldn’t afford to make education a priority without outside support.[10] In fact, after the restoration, it became a rarity for a Paiute child to drop out of school. Now, a large percent of Paiutes go on to pursue higher education or training program opportunities.[11]

Young Paiute child in ceremonial dress.
Young Paiute child leading a woman in ceremonial dress.

NPS Photo

Walking In Both Worlds

It remains vital to the Paiutes that they “walk in both worlds.”[12] In other words, it is important for the next generation to be both economically secure (which requires working in United States’ culture), and live the Paiute way. To help maintain this balance, cultural programs, such as Paiute youth summer camps, powwows, and oral history preservation are helping to document, preserve, share, and continue the Paiute language and way of life. Plans are also in the works “to build and operate a Tribal Cultural Center and Museum.”[13]

The Paiutes Will Survive

The Paiutes have overcome insurmountable challenges and devastation as a people. Their long struggle to preserve the Paiute way and flourish continues. But they will not give up. Instead, they celebrate their achievements, promising that while “[t]he struggle is long and difficult… the Paiute will survive.”[14]

Last updated: March 7, 2018