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‘Shoshone Indian and his Pet Horse’ (1858-1860) by Alfred Jacob Miller.

The Nomadic Survival Tactics of the Shoshone Tribe


The Shoshone Tribe would better be described as a nation or a people than a tribe. They are scattered over a big area in three main groups in three states, Nevada, Idaho, and Wyoming, with their roots being in the far West of the United States.

The Western Shoshone tribe lives in Nevada, the Northern Shoshone band lives in Idaho, and the Eastern Shoshones live in Wyoming. The three different groups share many cultural aspects, but the Eastern Shoshone had a different way of life, that of the Plains, according to an article about the Shoshone people in the Encyclopedia of the Great Plains.

The Shoshone call themselves Newe, which means “People.” The name Shoshone comes from their word sosoni, which is a kind of grass that grows tall. Other tribes on the American Plains called them the Grass House People, probably a reference to the conical houses made of sosoni grass that they built in the Great Basin of Nevada and Utah.

A Western Shoshone basket bowl. (CC0)

A Western Shoshone basket bowl. (CC0)

Some Plains natives also called the Shoshone the Snake People. The sign for snake in Indian sign language is the same sign the Shoshone use for salmon. Salmon were unknown to the people of the Great Plains.

5,000 Shoshone Language Speakers

“The Shoshone language is spoken by approximately 5,000 people across Nevada, Idaho, and Wyoming. It belongs to the western branch of the Numic group of Uto- Aztecan languages,” states the encyclopedia article, written by Christopher Loether of Idaho State University.

There is some speculation and debate about how the ancestors of the Shoshone, the Numa, came to live across such a large part of Nevada, Utah and contiguous areas of Wyoming and Idaho. Originally, anthropologists speculate, they lived in the southwestern corner of the Great Basin.

Indian Encampment, Shoshone Village (1860) by Albert Bierstadt. (Public Domain)

Indian Encampment, Shoshone Village (1860) by Albert Bierstadt. (Public Domain)

But they crossed the Rocky Mountains by 1500 AD and expanded northward to the Great Plains. Around 1700, one group of Shoshone people inhabited the Southern Plains and became the Comanches.

The Eastern Shoshones ended up in central Wyoming after wars with Blackfeet, Crows, and Assiniboine from 1780 to 1825.

Male and Female Roles in Shoshone Society

In Shoshone society, men hunted, made war, and made the economic and political decisions. The women gathered the plants and butchered and prepared the bison that was so important to their lives. Women also did other household chores and crafted clothing and their tipis. The women also provided child care.

The encyclopedia says, “Bison meat played an extremely significant role culturally and economically in the lives of the Eastern Shoshones, accounting for about 50 percent of their diet at the height of the Plains horse culture in the 1700s.”

But the Shoshone also fished and hunted elk, mule deer, mountain sheep and jackrabbit, all of which provided protein for their diets. Berries could be made into soup or pemmican. Pemmican, which is known to many other tribes, is dried, powdered meat mixed with fat and berries. The Shoshone also ate roots, which they baked in earthen ovens.

Pemmican ball. (Jen Arr/CC BY 2.0)

Because the men hunted and the women gathered, marriage was important not just for emotional and conjugal support, but also because the husband and wife worked as an economic unit (hunting and gathering), according to the site Shoshone Tribe by Jennifer Nelson.

Horses and Shoshone Way of Life

On another webpage of Shoshone Tribe, it says the horse, acquired from the Spanish in the 16th century, became vitally important. The Shoshone became more mobile, could carry heavier loads and moved more efficiently in hunting bison. Ms. Nelson writes:

“Horses also gave the Shoshone power over other Native Tribes by increased territory and trade opportunities. Horses allowed the Shoshone to expand their territory into what is now Canada and successfully push back the Blackfeet tribes in the North. Shoshone traded horses with neighboring tribes in the Northwest including the Blackfeet, Nez Perce, Cayuse, Spokan, and Bannock tribes.”

‘Buffalo hunt on the Southwestern plains’ (1845) by John Mix Stanley. (Public Domain)

‘Buffalo hunt on the Southwestern plains’ (1845) by John Mix Stanley. (Public Domain)

The industry and arts of the Shoshone involved working with wood, animal products of bone, leather, sinew, and minerals of flint, slate, and obsidian. Most leather work was done by women. But the men made leather bowstrings, rattles, drums, and shields. Iron was important, but it was available to the Shoshone only through trade.

The Shoshone chief usually was an older man who was battle-hardened and who was thought to have supernatural powers. The chief decided the tribe’s movements and controlled collective hunts.

If there was war, a second, special war chief was named. The two Shoshone military societies were the Logs, older men who took up the rear, and the Yellow Bows, young warriors who went in front. These societies also provided policing when the tribe came together.

Rabbit Tail, a Shoshone scout. (Public Domain)

Shoshone Religion

Ms. Nelson says religion varied among the Shoshone. The people may not have religious leaders, but “individuals in the tribe will seek out supernatural connections through visions and dreams.” As Ms. Nelson writes:

“The Shoshone had a wide range of religious beliefs and practices. Some bands believed the sun created the heavens and the earth while others attribute life to the mythological characters Coyote or Wolf or a spirit called ‘Our Father.’”

 The encyclopedia says Eastern Shoshone adopted the Sun Dance and the Native American Church.

Top image: ‘Shoshone Indian and his Pet Horse’ (1858-1860) by Alfred Jacob Miller. Source: Public Domain

By Mark Miller

Mark Miller's picture


Mark Miller has a Bachelor of Arts in journalism and is a former newspaper and magazine writer and copy editor who's long been interested in anthropology, mythology and ancient history. His hobbies are writing and drawing.

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