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Plateau, Great Basin,
and Southwest Tribes

Plateau Tribes


Nez Percé

Living in Oregon, Washington, and Idaho, the Nez Percé were noted horsemen, who supplemented their diet of salmon, plants, and roots by hunting large game like buffalo and elk. Villages were established along rivers or streams, and the tribe lived in longhouses surrounding the seat lodge and village council building.

The Nez Percé were first encountered by Lewis and Clark on their expedition in 1805. The tribe helped Lewis and Clark in their exploration of the Northwest Territory. As white settlement of the northwest grew, the Nez Percé began to come into conflict with settlers. In 1863, a treaty with the U.S. severely reduced their lands, but some members of the tribe, led by Chief Joseph, refused to relocate. This led to the Nez Percé War of 1877. The tribe was defeated by the U.S. Army and forced onto a reservation in Washington.

  Chief Joseph
Nez Percé leader, Chief Joseph


The Yakima were hunter-gatherers in central Washington who subsisted on seasonal plants, hunting, and fishing. Because of the varied climate, the tribe lived in teepees or mat houses during the summer months and pit houses dug into the ground during the winter months. Their main forms of transportation were dugout canoes and horses.

When the Yakima began to encounter settlers, they resisted giving up their land. They went to war against the U.S. in 1855 when the government tried to place the tribe onto a reservation. The Yakima battled until 1858, when they could no longer ward off the settler encroachment into their territories. They were forced to surrender and moved onto a reservation.

  Plateau Tribes map  

Great Basin Tribes


The Paiute's great expanse of territory included parts of Oregon, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, and California. Much of their land had a harsh, desert climate, so in order to survive, the Paiute lived in small villages centered around lakes or wetlands well supplied with fish and wildlife. As hunter-gatherers, they harvested seasonal, native plants and hunted rabbits and pronghorn. The Paiute's homes were temporary brush shelters, which made it easy to move from place to place to follow game and food supplies.

The Paiute had little contact with Europeans until the 1840s. As settlers came into their region, they brought with them new diseases and guns, and also stretched the area's meager food resources. The 1860s Gold Rush and white settlement of land in the newly opened territories created conflicts with the tribe. Most frequently, settlers would raid Paiute villages or harm tribe members in their quest for land, food, or other resources. After battling settlers unsuccessfully, the Paiute were removed from their territory by the U.S. government in 1874.

  Paiute man fishing
Paiute man fishing


The Shoshone comprised three main groups: the Northern, who used horses, inhabiting Utah and Idaho; the Western, who did not use horses, living in Nevada; and the Eastern or Wind River, living in Wyoming. First encountered by Lewis and Clark in 1805, the Shoshone managed to barely survive as hunter gatherers in varied, difficult terrain and climates. They traveled, seasonally harvesting plants and hunting for animals.

Sacagawea, a Shoshone woman, assisted Lewis and Clark as they explored the difficult, mountainous terrain in Shoshone territory. As settlers began to occupy Shoshone lands in the 1860s, more and more conflicts arose as the groups fought over meager resources. The Shoshone were forcibly removed from their lands to a reservation in 1905.

  Great Basin Tribes map  


Hunter-gatherers, the Ute lived in Colorado and Utah. They hunted a variety of game and gathered seasonal plants. The Ute often celebrated and participated in religious ceremonies centered on elements of nature. They were environmentally responsible, not over-hunting or taking more from the land than they needed for survival.

When the Spanish brought horses to the Ute, their lifestyle changed since the animals allowed them more mobility. As Mormon settlers moved into their area, they introduced the tribe to farming. Over time, the Utes turned to raiding white settlements and trading with settlers as a way of life. After a number of conflicts with settlers, the U.S. government forcibly removed the Ute from their territory and placed them on a reservation in 1869.

  Map of Ute tribe  

Southwest Tribes


Forced into the desert southwest of New Mexico and Arizona, this nomadic tribe survived by following wild game, hunting mainly buffalo and deer, and gathering wild fruits. They used dogs, and later horses, as pack animals and lived in buffalo or deerskin teepees or wickiups — short, rounded huts made of twigs and mud — which could be moved easily and quickly.

Known for being physically tough, the Apache were forced into becoming fierce fighters as Europeans advanced into their lands. The Apache turned to raiding in order to survive when New Mexico became a Spanish colony. With colonists using Apache resources, stealing goods and livestock and reselling it became the tribe's only means for survival. The Apaches fought bitterly for their land and were defeated by the U.S. military in the Indian Wars of 1848. Upon defeat, the Apaches were forced into reservations.

  Southwest Tribes map  


One of the largest tribes in Arizona and New Mexico, the Navajo farmed (beans, corn, and squash), hunted (deer, elk, and antelope), and gathered wild vegetables. They lived in small villages in homes made from wooden sticks, tree bark, and mud, called hogans. The Navajo became well known for their weaving and pottery, which they learned from neighboring tribes.

The tribe came into contact with Spanish settlers in the early 1600s. The Navajo raided the settlers' livestock, acquiring horses, sheep, and goats. These animals greatly improved life for the Navajo because they could be used for travel, clothing, food, and as trade goods. As more settlers moved into their territory in the mid-1840s, tensions increased as the Navajo continued to raid settlements. The conflict escalated during the 1860s and the U.S. government held 9,000 Navajos captive at Fort Sumner, New Mexico. The Navajo were released in 1868, but had signed treaties giving up their land and were relocated to a reservation.

  Cañon de Chelly in northeastern Arizona.
Cañon de Chelly in northeastern Arizona.


The Pueblo live in the harsh climate of Arizona and New Mexico, establishing permanent apartment-like dwellings made of stone and adobe. They were built in terraced stories with access through a trap door on the roof to protect them from enemies. Agriculturally based, these farmers grew corn, cotton, and melons in irrigated fields near river bottoms. They also hunted deer, antelope, and rabbits and occasionally ventured on large hunting parties in search of buffalo. Each village was self-governing, run by a chief. The Pueblo were known for their outstanding skills in making pottery and baskets and also for using native materials to weave cloth and clothing.

The Spanish were the first Europeans to encounter the Pueblo in the 16th century. The Pueblo tried to resist Spanish encroachment on their territory, but were unsuccessful. In 1598, the Spanish began establishing missions in Pueblo villages in order to convert them to Christianity. Although several thousand did convert, Pueblos were able to keep their traditional culture intact while living under Spanish rule and overthrew Spanish control in 1680. In 1692, the Spanish reconquered the tribe.

  Drawing of a Pueblo jar
Drawing of a Pueblo jar

Image credits: Northwestern University Library, Edward S. Curtis's The North American Indian: The Photographic Images, 2001 and Florida Center for Instructional Technology (FCIT) at USF.

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