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Who are the Paiute Indians?

By Eleanor Newman
Updated May 17, 2024
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The Paiute Indians are a Native American tribe that originally settled near the Muddy River and the Virgin River in what is now southeastern Nevada in the US. The Paiute were hunter-gatherers whose spirituality centered on stories of the coyote and wolf. Paiute Indians live in reservations in parts of Nevada and Utah.

Early Paiute men hunted deer and rabbits, while women foraged for berries, seeds, roots and nuts. Some Paiute Indians lived in arid desert regions, depending on springs and water holes for their water. Others lived close to rivers and were able to grow corn, melons, squash and sunflowers using irrigation systems.

During the wintertime, the Paiute moved into dome-shaped houses to keep warm. They told stories of the trickster Coyote and more responsible Wolf to illustrate tricks of survival and correct behavior. Paiute Indians wove baskets and made their own tools and clothing.

Paiute chiefs wielded some power, but were respected for creating consensus rather than strong-arming opposing voices. The real center of Paiute society was the family. Marriages took place in the fall and were based on monogamy and mutual respect.

European explorers first made contact with the Paiute in 1776, when Fathers Dominguez and Escalante came across some Paiute women foraging for seeds. Fifty years later, Jedediah Smith blazed a trail through Paiute territory en route to California. In the next several decades, white settlers and fur trappers followed the trail looking for land and trading opportunities. The newcomers took Paiute food and crops for themselves and their oxen. Navajo and Ute Indians captured and sold Paiute women and children to the whites as slaves.

Mormon settlers were considered even more devastating to the Paiute way of life. Starting in the 1850s, Mormons moved into Paiute land and claimed it for themselves. Increased contact with white settlers brought disease to the Paiute, and the population dwindled from several thousand to several hundred. Railroads also divided Paiute land and hampered their movement.

Starting in 1865, the US government began negotiating treaties with the Paiute to move them off their land and into reservations. In 1891, the first Paiute tribes were moved to a reservation in Utah near the town of St. George. In the next several decades, the Paiute Indians ceded their lands and moved into small reservations in Utah and Nevada. Federal aid was low; many Paiute had to make a living by working as maids or as temporary laborers on farms and railroads.

In 1951, the Paiute sued the federal government for the value of the lands the tribe lost in a lawsuit that dragged on for almost 15 years. A setback came in 1954, when Senator Arthur V. Watkins of Utah pushed a bill through the US Congress that terminated federal aid to the Paiute and other Native American tribes. This policy was not reversed until 1970; the next year, reparation payments finally began.

The Paiute have taken advantage of federal aid to build new houses and improve education and health facilities. Many tribes have opened gas stations, golf courses, shops and factories to promote economic development. Unemployment still hovers around 45% in some reservations.

America Explained is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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