Southern Paiutes lived and continue to live in southwest Utah, southern Nevada, northwest Arizona, and southeast California. The San Juan Paiutes lived east of the Colorado River. Southern Paiute territory encompasses a great environmental diversity, including canyons and high deserts of the Colorado Plateau and the Great Basin. The entire early nineteenth-century Paiute population was roughly 7,500. Southern Paiute languages belong to the Southern Numic (Shoshonean) branch of the Uto-Aztecan language family. Their languages and those of the Northern Paiutes were mutually unintelligible.
Shamans provided religious leadership; they cured and conducted ceremonies such as the girls' puberty rite. They could be men or women, although women were more often considered evil. Power dreams, perhaps dreamed in a special cave, also provided instructions and songs.
Disease was attributed to sorcerers, a ghost-inspired poisonous object (necessitating the removal of the object by sucking), or soul loss (cured by the shaman's recapturing the soul). The mourning ceremony, or cry, was undertaken by wealthy relatives of a recently deceased person (in the past three months to a year) so they could eat and sleep well. It was a feast at which many items were destroyed.
Camp groups were composed of one to ten or fifteen households, many of whom were related. They were led by a headman as well as by the best hunters and gatherers. Headmen served in an advisory capacity. This position tended to remain in the family and among men but did not necessarily pass from father to son (except for the Chemehuevis and Las Vegas).
The basic social unit was the nuclear family. Each group generally gathered food, hunted, and camped together. Each was associated with a specific though nonexclusive geographic territory.
People married early; girls might be pre- or postpubescent. Most marriages were monogamous. Gender-determined rituals over infants' navel stumps underscored the priority placed on hunting for men and industry in domestic chores for women. Both new parents observed postpartum behavior and food restrictions.
Meat that a boy killed was given away to the elderly until he reached puberty. Puberty rites for both sexes included bathing, body painting, hair trimming, and physical endurance. Relatives prepared a corpse, then underwent behavior and food restrictions. Most groups cremated their dead. The dead person's possessions were burned or buried, and his or her house was torn down and moved. Some groups occasionally killed a relative as company for the deceased. There was a permanent taboo on using the name of the dead.
Springs were considered inheritable private property. People commonly gambled on traditional hand and other games such as shinny (a variation of hockey), four-stick, hoop-and-pole (in which an arrow is shot through a rolling hoop), and target. Other games included ring and pin as well as athletic contests.
Southern Paiutes migrated seasonally, following the food supply. Their diet was based on hunting, gathering, and some agriculture (mostly corn, beans, and squash, using floodplain or ditch irrigation). Tobacco patches and grasslands were burned to encourage growth.
Women gathered wild plants, including goldenrod and grass seeds, roots, pine nuts, yucca dates, cactus fruit, agave, nuts, juniper berries, mesquite, and screwbean. Grasshoppers, caterpillars, ant larvae, and insect grubs were also eaten. Seeds were parched, ground, and eaten as mush or as bread. Men hunted small game, the major source of protein, with the assistance of spirits and/or shamans. Rabbits were especially important. They were hunted individually or driven communally into 100-yard-long nets. Big game included deer, antelope, and mountain sheep. Some groups fished occasionally.
The Southern Paiutes encountered a Spanish expedition in 1776 but adopted neither horses nor much else of Spanish culture. However, diseases and some material items may have preceded actual contact. Some groups were practicing agriculture before 1800.
By 1830, the trail established by the first Spanish explorers was in heavy use. The increased traffic depleted the area's natural resources. The trail also facilitated raiding and trading parties by both Indian and non-Native peoples. Mounted Utes and Navajos, and later Spanish expeditions and American trappers were engaged in raiding for and trading in Southern Paiute slaves. Starving Southern Paiutes sometimes sold their children for food. One effect of this situation was the Paiutes' self-removal from areas that were economically productive but close to slave raiders. The loss of a significant percentage of their young also contributed to the population reduction that was well under way by this time.
Mormon settlers arrived in 1847. At first participants in the slave trade, they had it legally abolished by the mid-1850s (although they continued to "adopt" Indian children). However, their practice of establishing settlements and missions on the best land, thereby depleting Native resources and squeezing the Indians out, soon left the latter as beggars. Many Mormons alternated between seeing Indians negatively, as did most Americans, and positively, because of a perceived connection to biblical Israelites. About the same time, the Chemehuevis split off and moved down the Colorado River.
Some groups retaliated against whites by raiding their settlements. In a move to head off violence, six Mormon Southern Paiute headmen agreed in 1865 to move their people to the Uintah and Ouray Reservation, the home of their Ute enemies. The treaty remained unratified, however, and was later abandoned. By the 1870s roughly 80 percent of Southern Paiutes had died as a result of starvation and disease (Southern Paiute death rates exceeded birth rates well—in some cases, halfway—into the twentieth century). Survivors had begun the process of acculturation, gathering into larger camps and working in the new white towns.
By executive order, a reservation (Moapa) of roughly 3,900 square miles was established in Nevada for the Southern Paiutes in 1872. Although few Indians moved there, it was expanded in 1874 with the idea that Southern Paiutes would be turned into farmers and ranchers. Soon, however, the reservation was greatly reduced in size. When promised federal support was not forthcoming, conditions began rapidly to deteriorate.
Meanwhile, Indians in southern Utah were either seeking wage work or trying desperately to hold on in their traditional locations. In the late 1880s, after a local white rancher persuaded the government to remove the Shivwits from their lands, the Shivwits Reservation was established in southern Utah. Though it was later expanded, the land was never good enough to support the population, even without the inevitable conflicts over water and range rights. Many residents eventually moved away. Several small Mormon-affiliated farming communities had also been established by 1885.
Several reservations were created for the Southern Paiutes in the twentieth century (although one, the San Juan Paiute Reservation, was returned to the public domain shortly after an oil company expressed interest in the parcel). In the mid-1950s, the Utah Paiutes (Shivwits, Indian Peaks, Koosharem, and Kanosh bands) were removed from federal control (terminated), although policy dictated that this would not happen until the people were ready and willing to take care of themselves. (The groups were restored in 1980.) The immediate effects of this action included a tremendous loss of the modest land base (through individual allotment sales and non-payment of taxes), greater impoverishment, exploitative leases to non-Indians, removal of health services, and greatly increased social problems. When people tried to hunt rabbits again for survival, they discovered that many animals had been poisoned by fallout from the Nevada nuclear test site. Perhaps not surprisingly, many people left the reservation during these years.
In 1965, Southern Paiutes were awarded $8,250,000 (27 cents an acre) as official compensation for their aboriginal land. The bands used their shares in different ways, but nearly all provided for some direct per-capita payments as well as long-term concerns. New federal programs during this time also helped lift many Indians out of dire poverty and provide them with decent housing. During the 1960s, many people were poisoned with the insecticide DDT as a result of government and farmer spraying. Women basketmakers, who pulled willow twigs through their teeth, were especially hard hit.