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Who Are the Shoshone-Paiute?

By Amy C.
Updated May 17, 2024
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The Shoshone-Paiute are Native Americans who can trace their ancestry to a number of related tribes indigenous to the land that today comprises southern Idaho and northern Utah in the United States. Members belong primarily to the Western Shoshone and Northern Paiute tribes, though the group also includes some other, more minor, tribal designations. Together these people were granted the land known as the Duck Valley Indian Reservation, which spans more than 400 square miles (about 1,036 square km) of land straddling Idaho and Nevada. Before European settlers arrived, the Native Americans in this region were primarily hunter-gatherers who existed more or less peacefully with each other. They lived in settlements governed by tribal chiefs and did not have a lot of interactions with each other.

As the United States’ federal government began to take shape, however, these people were nearly all displaced, and the government created a reservation where they all could live together. Despite some resistance from tribal leaders at the outset, the reservation today operates as a mostly harmonious blending of people from various backgrounds and tribal identities. Farming and agriculture is still an important part of the lifestyle and economy at Duck Valley, but modern schools and amenities have put it on par with most other farming communities in the U.S. in terms of resources and opportunities.

Brief History

Shoshone-Paiute history traces back thousands of years to a time when the United States was untouched by and largely unknown to settlers from Europe and elsewhere. In the earliest times, the land was worked and traveled by various tribes. In the region that is today Idaho, Nevada, and eastern Oregon, people of the Shoshone and Paiute tribes occupied distinct spaces and didn’t always interact with each other. They had some similarities when it came to how they lived, typically in simple structures built into the land, and how they sustained themselves, namely through hunting and cultivating the land; when it came to organization and governance, though, they were entirely distinct.

Land became an increasing scarcity once the movement known as “Western Expansion” took place in the United States. During this time, settlers from New England and elsewhere on the east coast began moving west, looking to build out cities and expand the government. In most respects, the settlers’ interests conflicted directly with those of the tribal leaders; for many years, there was a lot of strife and discord surrounding everything from land rights to educational benefits and privileges.

Effect of Reorganization

At first, the main goal of most American leaders seemed to be to force tribal people to integrate into the societies forming around them. In many cases the government removed children from their tribal homes and sent them to boarding schools where they would learn English, among other things; there were also a number of prohibitions against tribal gatherings.

Views began changing in the early 1920s. By 1934, the government had passed the Wheeler-Howard Act, also known as the Indian Reorganization Act, to provide certain protections for recognized tribes. Among other things, the act required that land be set aside for tribal use, and also allowed registered tribes to become autonomous nations with independent governance structures. At least initially, the Western Shoshone and Northern Paiute were considered distinct; only later were they grouped together.

Duck Valley Reservation

Duck Valley Indian Reservation was originally created for the Western Shoshone tribe in 1877 by President Rutherford B. Hayes in accordance with Captain Sam, a Shoshone leader. In 1886, President Grover Cleveland expanded the reservation for use by the Northern Paiute people as well. Although the boundary of these lands was artificially demarcated, Duck Valley is considered to be within the original territories of both the Shoshone and Paiute ancestors.

By most estimates the land has been inhabited for about 15,000 years. Like many Native Americans, the Shoshone and the Paiute lived as hunter-gatherers until the time of contact with Europeans. The Shoshone and Paiute tribes, however, also maintained several stable villages within what are now the states of Nevada, Idaho, and southeastern Oregon.

Modern Life and Governance

Modern life on the Duck Valley Indian Reservation does not necessarily resemble traditional Shoshone and Paiute hunter-gatherer existence. Leaders do try to maintain certain traditional tribal activities and customs, but in most practical senses the region is not that different from other nearby communities. Residents live in modern houses, attend regular schools, and make use of all sorts of technology. Perhaps the most distinctive thing about the land is that it isn’t governed by the United States, but rather by tribal elders and elected officials.

The combined Shoshone-Paiute tribes maintain their own business council and government. The community has its own housing authority, health and human services department, education, and law enforcement, and is in all respects a self-sustaining community. Ranching and farming are the major industries, though the Shoshone-Paiute also earn revenues from granting fishing and hunting permits to visitors. Tribal membership is estimated at more than 2,000, nearly all of whom live on the reservation.

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