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Great Basin tribes
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Great Basin tribes

The Great Basin tribes of Native Americans occupied an area of some 400,000 mile² (1,000,000 km²), between the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada, in what is now Nevada, and parts of Oregon, California, Idaho, Wyoming, and Utah. There is very little precipitation in the Great Basin area, which effects the lifestyles and cultures of the indigenous inhabitants.

While anthropologists can point to many distinct tribes, the people shared certain common cultural elements that distinguished them from the surrounding groups. All but the Washoe spoke Numic languages, and there was considerable intermingling between the groups, which lived peacefully and often shared common territories. They were predominantly hunters and gatherers.

There is evidence that the original inhabitants of the region arrived as early as 10,000 B.C., though the Numic-speaking Shoshonean peoples were relatively recent arrivals, coming as late as 1000 A.D. The first Europeans to reach the area were the Spanish, but the Great Basin was settled by Whites relatively late, and can be dated to the first Mormon settlers who arrived in 1848. Within ten years, the first reservation was established, in order to transform the native population into "civilized" Christian farmers. The process included sending children to Indian schools and limiting the reservations, especially through the Dawes Act (1886).

Because their contact with European Americans occurred so late, Great Basin tribes managed to maintain their religion and culture and were leading proponents of a native renaissance. Two Paiute prophets, Wodziwob and Wovoka, introduced the Ghost Dance in a mystical ceremony designed to reestablish the pre-contact "Golden Era," while other, similar ceremonies such as the Ute Bear Dance and the Sun Dance first emerged in the Great Basin. Similarly, the Peyote Native religion first developed here in response to deteriorating conditions, extreme poverty, and the loss of native cultures and traditions.

Conditions for the Native American population of the Great Basin were erratic throughout the twentieth century. Signs of improvement first emerged as a result of President Franklin Roosevelt's Indian New Deal in the 1940s, while activism and legal victories in the 1970s have improved conditions significantly. Nevertheless, the communities continue to struggle against chronic poverty and all of the resulting problems: unemployment; substance abuse; and high suicide rates. Furthermore, fierce debates between "traditionalist" and "progressive" faction have split communities and hindered the population from presenting a united front in determining its future.

Great Basin Tribes