Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


"Shoshone" comes from the Shoshone word sosoni', which is a plural form of sonipe, a type of high-growing grass. Several tribes on the Plains referred to the Shoshones as the "Grass House People," and this name probably refers to the conically shaped houses made of native grasses (sosoni') used by the Great Basin Indians. The more common term used by Shoshone people is Newe, or "People." The name Shoshone was first recorded in 1805 after Meriwether Lewis encountered a group of "Sosonees or snake Indians" among the Crows and noted them in his diary. The Shoshones were also called the "Snake People" by some Plains Indians. The origin of the term Snake People is based on the sign, in Indian sign language, that the Shoshone people used for themselves. The hand motion made during the sign represents a snake to most signers, but among the Shoshones it referred to the salmon, a fish unknown to the Great Plains. Today, many Shoshones have adopted the term Sosoni' to refer to other groups of Shoshones besides themselves. 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.

Since the Shoshones are widespread across the West, anthropologists have divided them into three groups based on where they live: the Western Shoshones of Nevada, the Northern Shoshones of Idaho, and the Eastern Shoshones of Wyoming. The different bands of Shoshone speakers share many cultural traits. The Eastern Shoshones are the only band that has adopted a Great Plains way of life.

The prehistory of the Shoshone people– how their ancestors (the Numa) were able to occupy a large portion of the Great Basin (Nevada and Utah), in addition to the contiguous areas of Idaho and Wyoming–is a debated topic. The origin of the Numa is believed to be the southwestern corner of the Great Basin. By 1500 Shoshones had crossed the Rocky Mountains and begun their expansion toward the northwestern Plains. By 1700 a group of Shoshones had moved into the Southern Plains and eventually developed their own identity as the Comanches. The current location of the Eastern Shoshones in central Wyoming is the result of a period of intense warfare from 1780 to 1825 against the Blackfeet, Crows, and Assiniboines.

The Eastern Shoshones divided themselves into two groups, based on geographical location and primary food resource. Shoshones living in the Green River and Wind River valleys of Wyoming were known as the Buffalo Eaters (Guchundeka') or the Sage Grass People (Boho'inee'). Shoshones living in the Rocky Mountains and Lake Yellowstone areas were known as the Sheep-eaters (Dukundeka') or the Mountain People (Doyahinee').

The subsistence cycle of the Eastern Shoshones in the winter involved the tribe breaking into bands, each loosely associated with a particular mountain or valley. In early spring these bands reunited in the Wind River valley before going to the bison grounds for the spring hunt. After the spring hunt, most Eastern Shoshones spent their early summer in the Wind River valley. Then, in late June and early July, the intertribal rendezvous (or trade fair) was held at Fort Bridger. After the fair the Shoshones broke up into family groups until the fall bison hunt, when the tribe would come together one last time before the winter.

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. Fish caught during the spring and early summer were the second most important resource. Elk, mule deer, beaver, jackrabbit, and mountain sheep were also important sources of protein. Berries were either eaten raw, made into soup, or mixed with dried, powdered meat and fat to produce pemmican. Also, roots were eaten after being baked in earthen ovens.

Shoshone arts and industries exploited wood resources, animal products such as leather, sinew, bone, and minerals such as obsidian, flint, steatite, and slate. Leather working was done mostly by women, except for bowstrings, shields, drums, and rattles, which men produced. Iron, only available through trade, became an important material used in making arrow and spear points as well as knives.

The roles of men and women in Shoshone society were strictly regulated. Women were traditionally in charge of plant gathering, butchering and preparing bison, household chores, crafting items such as tipis and clothing, and child care. Men were in charge of hunting, warfare, and the political and economic decisions for the tribe.

The tribal chief (daigwahni) was an older man who had distinguished himself in warfare and possessed supernatural power. The chief controlled collective hunts and the tribe's movements. During times of warfare a special war chief was chosen. There were two Shoshone military societies: the Yellow Brows and the Logs. The Yellow Brows were young warriors who were the advanced forces in battle, whereas the Logs were older men who brought up the rear. These military societies also acted as a police force when the tribe gathered together.

The Shoshone religion is based on belief in supernatural power (boha) that is acquired primarily through vision quests and dreams. A shaman (boha gande) is a person who uses supernatural power to cure others and also leads special group ceremonies, especially at "Round Dances." The Eastern Shoshones also adopted two pan-Indian religions, the Sun Dance and the Native American Church. The Sun Dance was introduced to the Eastern Shoshones by a Comanche named Yellow Hand around 1800. Originally the Eastern Shoshones had rejected the missionary activities of the peyote religion of the Comanches, but the Native American Church gained influence after it was reintroduced by Arapahos in the early part of the twentieth century.

In 1868 the Shoshones of the Plains ceded their ancestral lands and were placed on a reservation in the lee of the Wind River Range of Wyoming. The Wind River Reservation now extends over 2,268,000 acres and is shared by Eastern Shoshones (who live mainly in the west and northwest) and Arapahos (who live mainly in the east and southeast). The Shoshone population on the reservation was 1,185 in 1988, following years of out-migration in response to dire poverty and high unemployment rates.

Christopher Loether

Idaho State University

Shimkin, Demetri. "Eastern Shoshone." In Handbook of North American Indians, edited by William C. Sturtevant, 11:308–35. Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution, 1986.

Trenholm, Virginia Cole, and Maurine Carley. The Shoshones: Sentinels of the Rockies. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1964.

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