Historic Tribes of the Great Basin

The tribal peoples now living in the Great Basin are descendents of the people who have been in the region for several hundred to several thousand years. When early explorers first entered the Great Basin, they encountered many different groups. And although there were several distinct tribes speaking various (but closely related) languages, the basic lifestyle was similar across the region.

The native people of the Great Basin knew the land intimately and understood the natural cycles. Small family groups hunted and gathered, patterning their lives to take advantage of the diverse and abundant resources. The land provided all their nutritional needs as well as materials for clothing and shelter. They hunted small and large animals, such as jackrabbits, antelope, and waterfowl; gathered pine nuts and berries; and dug roots and tubers. Enough food was harvested every summer and fall to carry them through the winters. Where the geography and climate allowed it, some also fished and farmed small plots. These were resilient, flexible, and adaptable people.

Explorers and settlers who encountered these tribes focused on their lack of material goods and labeled them as destitute, primitive, and savage. But the native people had lived off the land successfully for hundreds, even thousands, of years. Material goods would hinder their nomadic lifestyle, and remaining in one location would not allow them to take advantage of the seasonal cycles. Their lifestyle allowed them to survive in a harsh desert environment that pioneers thought of as inhospitable. The native people were craftsmen, weaving beauty into their baskets and painting their pottery. They made jewelry and told stories. They had families and religion. These were not the traits of destitute people barely scraping by, but of successful people with a rich culture.

Several distinct tribes have historically occupied the Great Basin; the modern descendents of these people are still here today. They are the Western Shoshone (a sub-group of the Shoshone), the Goshute, the Ute, the Paiute (often divided into Northern, Southern, and Owens Valley), and the Washoe.

With the exception of the Washoe, all the Great Basin tribes are Numic speaking, which means that their languages all belong to the Numic language group. They are not the same language, but are closely related. The Washoe language belongs to the Hokan family, which also includes the languages of several Californian and Southwestern tribes. Anthropologists use language to judge the relation of one people to another. Generally, the more closely related two languages are, the more closely related the people who speak them.

Last updated: February 28, 2015

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