Published on December 21, 2012 by Amy
The Indigenous peoples of the Great Basin are the Native American peoples of the Great Basin inhabited a cultural region 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 affects the lifestyles and cultures of the inhabitants. The Great Basin is a cultural classification of indigenous peoples of the Americas.
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While anthropologists can point to many distinct peoples, they 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.
Anthropologists use the terms “Desert Archaic” or more simply “The Desert Culture” to refer to the culture of the Great Basin tribes. This culture is characterized by the need for mobility to take advantage of seasonally available food supplies. The use of pottery was rare due to its weight, but intricate baskets were woven for containing water, cooking food, winnowing grass seeds and storage—including the storage of pine nuts, a Paiute-Shoshone staple. Heavy items such as metates would be cached rather than carried from foraging area to foraging area. Agriculture was not practiced within the Great Basin itself, although it was practiced in adjacent areas (modern agriculture in the Great Basin requires either large mountain reservoirs or deep artesian wells). Likewise, the Great Basin tribes had no permanent settlements, although winter villages might be revisited winter after winter by the same group of families. In the summer, the largest group was usually the nuclear family due to the low density of food supplies.
In the early historical period the Great Basin tribes were actively expanding to the north and east, where they developed a horse-riding bison-hunting culture. These people, including the Comanche, Bannock and Eastern Shoshone are often considered to be Great Plains tribes.
There is evidence that the original inhabitants of the region arrived as early as 10,000 BCE. The first Europeans to reach the area were the Spanish. Great Basin settlement by European-Americans relatively late and can be dated to the first Mormon settlers who arrived in 1848. Within ten years, the first Indian reservation was established, in order to assimilate the native population. The process included sending children to Indian schools and limiting the reservations.
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” factions have split communities and hindered the population from presenting a united front in determining its future.