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Paiute women and children in Yosemite Valley 1891.
Total population
6,300 (1990)[1]
Regions with significant populations
United States (Arizona, California,
Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, Utah)

Northern Paiute language,
Southern Paiute language, English


Native American Church, Sun Dance, traditional tribal religion,[2] Christianity, Ghost Dance

Related ethnic groups

Bannock, Mono, Timbisha and Kawaiisu

Paiute (pronounced /ˈpaɪjuːt/, sometimes written Piute) refers to two related groups of Native Americans — the Northern Paiute of California, Nevada and Oregon, and the Southern Paiute of Arizona, southeastern California and Nevada, and Utah.


Origin of name

The origin of the word Paiute is unclear. Some anthropologists have interpreted it as "Water Ute" or "True Ute." The Northern Paiute call themselves Numa (sometimes written Numu) ; the Southern Paiute call themselves Nuwuvi. Both terms mean "the people." The Northern Paiute are sometimes referred to as Paviotso. Early Spanish explorers called the Southern Paiute "Payuchi" (they did not make contact with the Northern Paiute). Early Euro-American settlers often called both groups of Paiute "Diggers" (presumably because of their practice of digging for roots), although that term is now considered derogatory.

Language and Culture

The Northern and Southern Paiute both speak languages belonging to the Numic branch of the Uto-Aztecan family of Native American languages. Usage of the terms Paiute, Northern Paiute and Southern Paiute is most correct when referring to groups of people with similar language and culture and should not be taken to imply a political connection or even an especially close genetic relationship. The Northern Paiute speak the Northern Paiute language, while the Southern Paiute speak the Ute-Southern Paiute language. These languages are not as closely related to each other as they are to other Numic languages. The Bannock, Mono, Timbisha and Kawaiisu people, who also speak Numic languages and live in adjacent areas are sometimes referred to as Paiute. The Bannock speak a dialect of Northern Paiute, while the other three people speak separate Numic languages, with Mono being more closely related to Northern Paiute, Kawaiisu being more closely related to Ute-Southern Paiute, and Timbisha being more closely related to Shoshone.

Northern Paiute

Captain John, Leader of the Yosemite-Mono Lake Paiutes

The Northern Paiute traditionally have lived in the Great Basin in eastern California, western Nevada, and southeast Oregon. The Northern Paiute's pre-contact lifestyle was well adapted to the harsh desert environment in which they lived. Each tribe or band occupied a specific territory, generally centered on a lake or wetland that supplied fish and water-fowl. Rabbits and pronghorn were taken from surrounding areas in communal drives, which often involved neighboring bands. Individuals and families appear to have moved freely between bands. Pinyon nuts gathered in the mountains in the fall provided critical winter food. Grass seeds and roots were also important parts of their diet. The name of each band came from a characteristic food source. For example, the people at Pyramid Lake were known as the Cui Ui Ticutta (meaning "Cui-ui eaters"), the people of the Lovelock area were known as the Koop Ticutta (meaning "ground-squirrel eaters") and the people of the Carson Sink were known as the Toi Ticutta (meaning "tule eaters.")

Chief Winnemucca – Chief of the Paiutes. He was also named Poito.

Relations among the Northern Paiute bands and their Shoshone neighbors were generally peaceful. In fact, there is no sharp distinction between the Northern Paiute and western Shoshone. Relations with the Washoe people, who were culturally and linguistically very different, were not so peaceful.

Sarah Winnemucca - Paiute writer and lecturer

Sustained contact between the Northern Paiute and Euro-Americans came in the early 1840s, although the first contact may have occurred as early as the 1820s. Although they had already started using horses, their culture was otherwise largely unaffected by European influences at that point. As Euro-American settlement of the area progressed, several violent incidents occurred, including the Pyramid Lake War of 1860, Owens Valley Indian War 1861-1864[3], Snake War 1864-1868 and the Bannock War of 1878. These incidents generally began with a disagreement between settlers and Paiutes (singly or in a group) regarding property, retaliation by one group against the other, and finally counter-retaliation by the opposite party, frequently culminating in the armed involvement of the U.S. Army. Many more Paiutes died from introduced diseases such as smallpox. Sarah Winnemucca's book "Life Among the Piutes"[4] gives a first-hand account of this period, although it is not considered to be wholly reliable.

The first reservation established for the Northern Paiute was the Malheur Reservation in Oregon. The federal government's intention was to concentrate the Northern Paiute there, but its strategy did not work. Because of the distance of that reservation from the traditional areas of most of the bands, and because of the poor conditions on that reservation, many Northern Paiute refused to go there, and those that did soon left. Instead they clung to the traditional lifestyle as long as possible, and when environmental degradation made that impossible, they sought jobs on white farms, ranches or cities and established small Indian colonies, where they were joined by many Shoshone and, in the Reno area, Washoe people. Later, large reservations were created at Pyramid Lake and Duck Valley, but by that time the pattern of small de facto reservations near cities or farm districts often with mixed Northern Paiute and Shoshone populations had been established. Starting in the early 20th century the federal government began granting land to these colonies, and under the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 these colonies gained recognition as independent tribes.

Wovoka – Paiute spiritual leader and creator of the Ghost Dance

Northern Paiute tribes

These are federally-recognized tribes with significant Northern Paiute populations:

Notable Northern Paiutes


Estimates for the pre-contact populations of most native groups in California have varied substantially. Alfred L. Kroeber thought that the 1770 population of the Northern Paiute within California was 500. He estimated their population in 1910 as 300.[5] Others [6] put the total Northern Paiute population in 1859 at about 6,000.

Southern Paiute

Southern Paiutes – Moapa - Las Vegas Paiutes wearing traditional Paiute basket hats. Paiute cradleboard and rabbit robe

The Southern Paiute traditionally lived in the Colorado River basin and Mojave Desert in northern Arizona and southeastern California including Owens Valley,[7] southern Nevada and southern Utah. The Utah Paiutes were terminated in 1954 and regained federal recognition in 1980. Many of these Paiutes traded with coastal tribes; for example. tribes of the Owens Valley have been proven to trade with the Chumash of the Central Coast, based upon archaeological recovery at Morro Creek.[8] A band of Southern Paiutes at Willow Springs and Navajo Mountain, south of the Grand Canyon, reside inside the Navajo Indian Reservation. These "San Juan" Paiutes were recognized by the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1980.

First European contact with the Southern Paiutes occurred in 1776 when Fathers Silvestre Vélez de Escalante and Francisco Atanasio Domínguez chanced upon them during their failed attempt to find an overland route to the missions of California. Even before this date, the Southern Paiute suffered from slave raids by the Navajo and the Utes, but the introduction of Spanish and later Euroamerican explorers into their territory exacerbated the practice. In 1851, Mormon settlers strategically occupied Paiute water sources, which created a dependency relationship. However, the Mormon presence soon ended the slave raids, and relations between the Paiutes and the Mormons were basically peaceful. This was largely because of the diplomacy efforts of Mormon missionary Jacob Hamblin. But there is no doubt that the introduction of European settlers and agricultural practices (most especially large herds of cattle) made it difficult for the Southern Paiutes to continue their traditional lifestyle.

Southern Paiute communities are located at Las Vegas, Pahrump, and Moapa, in Nevada; Cedar City, Kanosh, Koosharem, Shivwits, and Indian Peaks, in Utah; at Kaibab and Willow Springs, in Arizona; Death Valley and at the Chemehuevi Indian Reservation and on the Colorado River Indian Reservation in California. Some would include the 29 Palms Reservation in Riverside County, California.

Southern Paiute tribes

Numaga, chief of the Paiutes during the Pyramid Lake Paiute War. He was named the “Peace Chief”.

Notable Southern Paiutes

Pah Ute War

The Pah Ute War, also known as the Paiute War, was a minor series of raids and ambushes initiated by the Paiute and which had an effect on the development of the Pony Express. It took place from May through June 1860, though sporadic violence continued for a period afterward.

See also


  1. ^ Pritzker, 224
  2. ^ " Northern Paiute - Religion and Expressive Culture ". Countires and Their Cultures. (retrieved 8 Dec 2009)
  3. ^ The California Military Museum; California and the Indian Wars, The Owens Valley Indian War, 1861-1865
  4. ^ Sarah Winnemucca Hopkins, 1883
  5. ^ Kroeber, p.883
  6. ^ Fowler and Liljeblad, p.457
  7. ^ W.C. Sturtevant, 1964
  8. ^ C.M. Hogan, 2008


  • Fowler, Catherine S. and Sven Liljeblad (1978) Northern Paiute. In Great Basin, edited by Warren L. d'Azevedo, pp. 435-465. Handbook of North American Indians, William C. Sturtevant, general editor, vol. 11. Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
  • Hogan, C.Michael (2008) Morro Creek, ed. by A. Burnham [1]
  • Kroeber, A. L. (1925) Handbook of the Indians of California. Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin No. 78. Washington, D.C.
  • Pritzker, Barry M. A Native American Encyclopedia: History, Culture, and Peoples. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. ISBN 978-0195138771.
  • Sturtevant, William C. (1964) Handbook of North American Indians, Smithsonian Institution, U.S. Govt. Printing Office, Washington DC

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