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What is the Shoshone Tribe?

By Bethney Foster
Updated May 17, 2024
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The Shoshone tribe is made up of several groups of indigenous people whose ancestors occupied lands in what is now the western United States. There are nine different Shoshone tribes, and each lives on its own reservation. An estimated 1,000 Shoshone still speak their native language in addition to English. There are about 10,000 Shoshone in the U.S., and their reservations are located in California, Idaho, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming.

Early Europeans often referred to the Shoshone tribe as “Snake Indians,” but "Shoshone" translates to “The Valley People” in the Uto-Aztecan language spoken by the Shoshone. The Shoshone tribe was a nomadic, hunter-gatherer tribe that traveled and occupied parts of what became Arizona, Oklahoma, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Wyoming and Oregon. Sacagawea, the Native American woman who accompanied the Lewis and Clark expedition and whose image has been featured on a U.S. coin, was a member of the Shoshone tribe.

The Shoshone tribe had three distinct divisions, and the total population probably was more than 10,000 at its greatest. The Eastern and Northern Shoshone tribes lived in tipis, and the Western Shoshone tribe, which didn’t rely as much on hunting and subsisted on a diet that largely was plant-based, built wickiup houses. The traditional clothing of Shoshone women included deerskin dresses, and babies were carried in cradleboards on the their backs. Men wore breechcloths, leggings and buckskin shirts. Both men and women wore their hair in long braids, and facial tattoos were common.

The Shoshone religion was based in dreams, visions, animal spirits and a creator called Appah. Facing the sun, the Shoshone people sang a prayer to Appah each morning. Dance was a large part of the Shoshone religious rituals, and many were performed as a means of asking the spirits for help. Shamans led these rituals and dances, and they also were called upon to heal the sick and to perform rites.

By 1845, the population of the Shoshone tribe was estimated to be about 4,500, with losses attributed to disease and warfare brought by European settlers. The greatest number of Shoshone casualties in a single battle with the U.S. government came in 1863 in what is called the Bear River Massacre. Between 350 and 500 Shoshone were trapped and killed by soldiers at their winter encampment. The land where the massacre occurred is now owned by the Northwestern Shoshone and is a memorial. The last of the “Indian wars” in the northwestern U.S. was fought in 1879 and involved 300 members of the Shoshone tribe.

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Discussion Comments
By honeybees — On Sep 28, 2011

When my kids were working on a home schooling history project, we studied the Shoshone tribe. Both of my kids were fascinated learning about their culture and customs.

I think it is important for kids to learn about native American history. There are many Indian tribes that still exist in our country today, and many people are not even aware of them.

When we took a trip out west, we had to chance to stop at one of their reservations. Seeing this and experiencing it in person really made a bigger impact than just reading about in in books or online.

By KaBoom — On Sep 28, 2011

@Azuza - Yeah, 1,000 out of 10,000 really isn't very many.

I find it interesting that this tribe liked to use facial tattoos. Culture difference about tattoos are always really intriguing to me. For instance, having at least one or two tattoos is pretty common among younger people these days. It's not rebellious or scandalous at all!

However, most people choose to get tattoos in places that can be covered up with clothing. It's my understand that the only people who really get tattoos on their faces these days are criminals who don't hold down a regular job. That's a far cry from the Shoshone face tattoos.

By Azuza — On Sep 27, 2011

I find it very sad that only 1,000 out of 10,000 Shoshone still speak their native language. I feel like language is a very big part of culture, so hopefully the people that still speak the language are trying to teach it to their children also.

Or, if not, hopefully some steps are being made to at least preserve the language. Even if it's no longer in use, at least they could have a record of it. In this digital age, it shouldn't be that hard to completely preserve the language for future study.

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