Cultural History - Paiute


According to the archeological evidence, the Paiute-Ute people arrived into southern Nevada from California about 1000 C.E. They were part of an expansion of "Numic" speaking peoples into the Great Basin - the Paviotso went into the north, the Shoshone into the central, and the Paiute-Ute into southern areas. Soon after, the Paiute-Ute moved eastward into the plateau and canyon country along what would be the Arizona-Utah border. A group that would become the Ute moved further east into Colorado.

The Paiute found two groups of people already occupying the area. The Western Ancestral Puebloans (also called Anasazi) had lived there since about 300 C.E. and the Fremont culture from about 900 C.E.. They built rectangular, masonry houses, made fine pottery, grew corn, hunted, and gathered wild foods, especially pinyon pine nuts. The Paiute coexisted with these two other cultures for about 200 years. The Ancestral Puebloan and Fremont communities began to decline about 1150 C.E. and were gone from the area by 1250 C.E.

It is not known why the Ancestral Puebloan and Fremont people left but it is possible that the Paiute may have hindered trade or disrupted the life of these people in some way. Later events support this theory. The Hopi Indians carried the Ancestral Puebloan culture into historic times and they were often at war with the Paiute during the 18th and 19th centuries - the root of the conflict being the continued Paiute expansion into Hopi lands on the East Side of the Colorado River.

Paiute Culture

The Paiute lived in small communities of related families and farmed the fertile lands around springs and along rivers. They grew corn, squash, pumpkins, beans, and sunflowers. They planted crops and dug irrigation ditches using only a pointed or shovel shaped digging stick. They also made long expeditions to hunt deer and rabbits and to gather great quantities of grass seed and pine nuts. The women were in charge of the gathering but the men joined in to help. The women wove basket tools to gather and process the seed, and huge burden baskets to carry it back to their village. The Franklin/Bunte book, The Paiute, describes their culture in detail: their religious, coming of age, and marriage ceremonies, extensive kinship system, and death customs. The Paiute did not have a strong group or tribal identity but saw themselves as members of many "bands" - groups of extended families that lived in and used the resources in one large area.

Anglo Contact with the Paiute

Since many of the Paiute bands lived along the only natural route around the canyon country from east to California, every expedition from Dominguez/Escalante to John Wesley Powell to John C. Fremont passed through their lands and came into contact with them. Many explorers apparently met the Paiute in temporary camps set up while gathering wild food far from their main communities. They were dismayed at what they perceived as the Paiute's poverty and lack of culture. Some explorers were derisive and considered the Indians barely human. John Wesley Powell, on the other hand, was fascinated. The Paiute he found near the Grand Canyon were the only people he met that had almost no previous contact with Europeans, and were still living in their traditional ways. He studied and photographed them extensively.

Mormons Arrive in Paiute Lands

When the Mormons began moving south from Salt Lake City in the 1850s there were 14 main groups, or bands, of Paiute. Ironically, the industrious Paiute helped the Mormons set up their colonies throughout southern Utah. Often the Mormon settlers simply displaced the Paiute farmers and set up their own farms on the Indian's irrigated fields. As laborers, the Paiute readily learned to use tools, horses, and oxen that allowed farming on what must have seemed an unbelievable scale. The Mormon settlers were under strict orders from Brigham Young to establish peaceful relations with the Paiute. Paiute people were accepted into the communities, given jobs, surplus food, and protection.

Dr. Franklin details the complex story of the different Utah Paiute bands and their attempts to live in the Mormon towns, and then the struggle to become independent again on lands of their own. Many of the bands disappeared during the first fifty years of Mormon settlement. The Indians often died of European diseases or were absorbed into other Paiute bands in the new towns. It took over one hundred years for the Paiute bands to gain reservations and federal recognition as tribes.


    Franklin, Robert and Pamela A. Bunte - The Paiute, Chelsea House, New York, NY, 1990

Further Readings

  • Franklin, Robert and Pamela A. Bunte - The Paiute, Chelsea House, New York, NY, 1990
  • Bunte, Pamela A. and Robert J. Franklin - From the Sands to the Mountain: Change and Persistence in a Southern Paiute Community, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, NE, 1987
  • Euler, Robert C. - The Paiute People, Indian Tribal Series, Phoenix, AZ, 1972
  • Whiteford, Andrew Hunter - Southwestern Indian Baskets, School of American Research Press, Sante Fe, NM, 1988

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