Shoshonean Indians

Shoshonean Family, Shoshonean People, Shoshonean Nation. The extent of country occupied renders this one of the most important of the linguistic families of the North American Indians. The area held by Shoshonean tribes, exceeded by the territory of only two families – the Algonquian and the Athapascan, – may thus be described: On the north the south west part of Montana, the whole of Idaho south of about lat. 45° 30′, with south east Oregon, south of the Blue Mountains, west and central Wyoming, west and central Colorado, with a strip of north New Mexico; east New Mexico and the whole of north west Texas were Shoshonean. According to Grinnell, Blackfoot (Siksika) tradition declares that when the Blackfeet entered the plains south of Belly River they found that country occupied by the Snake and the Crow. If this be true, south west Alberta and north west Montana were also Shoshonean territory. All of Utah, a section of north Arizona, and the whole of Nevada (except a small area occupied by the Washo) were held by Shoshonean tribes. Of California a small strip in the north east part east of the Sierras, and a wide section along the east border south of about lat. 38°, were also Shoshonean. Shoshonean bands also lived along the upper courses of some of the streams flowing into the San Joaquin. Toward the broken southern flanks of the Sierras, Shoshonean territory extended across the state in a wide band, reaching north to Tejon Creek, while along the Pacific the Shoshoni occupied the coast between lat. 33° and 34°.

From the wide extent of country thus covered, and its varied climatic and topographic features, the habits of the peoples occupying it might be expected to vary considerably, and such is indeed the case. The Hopi, in particular, differ so widely from the rest that they have little in common with them but linguistic affinity. On the north and along the entire east border of the territory, where lived the Shoshoni, Bannock, Ute, and Comanche divisions, their habits were essentially those of the hunting Indians generally. None of them cultivated the soil, and all derived the larger part of their subsistence from the pursuit of large game. The Comanche alone can be said to have been buffalo Indians, though buffalo were pursued more or less by all the tribes mentioned. Horses early became abundant among them. In general character they were fierce and warlike.

To the west of the Rocky Mountains, in Idaho, west Utah, Arizona, Nevada, California, and Oregon, the Shoshoneans were of a different character. The country occupied by many of them is barren in the extreme, largely destitute of big game, and of such character generally as to compel its aboriginal inhabitants to resort to humble methods of procuring subsistence. Rabbits and small game generally, fish, roots, and seeds formed the chief support of these tribes, among which were included the representatives of the family that possessed the rudest and simplest culture. It was chiefly to these tribes individually and collectively that the opprobrious name of “Diggers” was applied. These are the tribes, also, which were called by the settlers and by many writers, Paiute. Representing as a class, as they undeniably do, a culturally low type of Indian, they were by no means so low as many writers of repute have asserted. They have been represented as closely approaching the brutes in their mode of life, and, like them, of passing the winter in a semitorpid state in holes in the ground, from which they crawled forth in spring to eat grass upon hands and knees. Of all men they have been said to be the lowest. Such pictures of their condition are nonsensical. They are not true of them today, when, decimated in numbers and with tribal organization broken up, the remnants of many of the tribes have been forced to a precarious and parasitic mode of livelihood obtained from the whites. Still less are they true of their former condition when living under their own social organizations. The inhospitable nature of their country compelled them, it is true, to a less adventurous and humbler mode of life than their eastern brethren, who possessed a more richly endowed country. However, they made and used bows and arrows, basketry, and in parts pottery; and, more important than all, a number of the tribes, as the Paiute of Corn Creek, Utah, the Gosiute of Utah, the Chemehuevi of the Rio Colorado, and some of the Nevada tribes, practiced a rude agriculture.

The Hopi of north east Arizona, who had made further progress toward civilization than any other of the Shoshonean tribes, had become true village Indians. Long contact and probably considerable blood-amalgamation have given them the physical type of their neighbors of the south west, and have made them an integral part of the well-defined and highly specialized Pueblo culture. They derive their subsistence mainly from agriculture, and are skilful potters and weavers.

Over the wide expanse of territory above indicated the Shoshoneans were split into a number of major divisions, each composed of numerous bands speaking a great number of related dialects.

On linguistic grounds, as determined by Kroeber, it is found convenient to classify the Shoshonean family as follows:

For the smaller divisions see under the several subordinate heads.

The genetic relationship of the Shoshonean languages with those of the Piman and Sonoran group, and of the Nahuatl or Aztec group in Mexico, was investigated by Buschmann in the middle of the last century. Powell has since regarded the Shoshonean group as constituting a distinct family, but others, including Brinton, Chamberlain, and Kroeber, have maintained that it is only part of a larger family, which they have designated Uto-Aztekan.


Alberta Canada,

Hodge, Frederick Webb, Compiler. The Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico. Bureau of American Ethnology, Government Printing Office. 1906.

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