Most Western Shoshone bands lived in harsh environments such as the Great Salt Lake area (Goshutes) and Death Valley (Panamints). Their territory stretched from Death Valley through central Nevada into northwestern Utah and southern Idaho. Most Western Shoshones today live on a number of reservations within their aboriginal territory. They also live in nearby and regional cities and towns.
Apo, the sun, was a principal deity. Anyone could obtain supernatural powers through dreams and visions, although medicine men (bugahant) served as religious leaders. Most groups recognized three kinds of shamans: curers of specific ailments, general curers, and self-curers or helpers. Curing was effected by sucking and by the laying on of hands. In theory, men and women could both be shamans, although only men may have practiced curing. Shamans were also capable of capturing antelopes' souls and helping to drive them into corrals. Some groups may not have had shamans at all.
People used several hundred herbal remedies to cure nonsupernatural ailments such as cuts and bruises. The round dance was basic to ceremonial celebration. In some areas the dance was associated with courtship or rainmaking. Festivals were often held in times of plenty.
Groups in small winter villages were composed of family clusters and named for an important food resource or a local geographic feature. Thus, the territory and not the composition of the group was definitive. Group membership was not fixed and groups were not bands per se. Chiefs or headmen had little authority other than directing subsistence activity.
In general, the Western Shoshone adapted very successfully to a relatively harsh environment. They used sticks to beat grasses and dig roots, as well as using seed beaters of twined willow. Coiled and twined baskets were important in grass collection, as was a twined winnowing tray. Waterproof baskets allowed people to forage far from water.
Other tools and equipment included stone metates for grinding seeds; snares, traps, and dead-falls to hunt cottontails and rodents; bows of juniper and mountain mahogany; wildcat skin quivers; stone or horn arrow straighteners; and some pottery. Western Shoshones were first visited by non-Natives—the Jedediah Smith and Peter Skene Ogden parties—in the late 1820s. Other trappers and traders passed through during the next twenty years. Despite the willingness of some groups, such as the Walker party, to massacre Indians, the latter were relatively unaffected by early contacts with non-Natives.
The Mormons, who ultimately had a huge impact on the Goshute Shoshones, began arriving to stay in 1847. The white presence increased throughout the 1840s and 1850s, but the discovery of the Comstock Lode in 1857 turned the stream into a flood. By then, degradation of the natural environment was well under way. New diseases also stalked the region, severely affecting both human and animal populations. Indians responded by either retreating farther from white activity or, less often, by raiding, stealing, and begging.
The Pony Express, established in 1860, passed through the center of Western Shoshone country. Supply depots at important springs displaced Indians, which encouraged attacks and then Army reprisals. By 1860, Mormons had invaded Goshute territory, and miners and ranchers were closing in on the rest of Western Shoshone lands. Grazing, plowing, and woodcutting (piñon and juniper pine) destroyed subsistence areas and forage land. Indians began to work for settlers as wage laborers to fend off starvation. Euro-American clothing, technology, and shelter quickly replaced the traditional variety.
Federal negotiations with the Great Basin tribes began in the 1850s, in part to check sporadic violence against settlers. The first treaties with Western Shoshone groups were signed in 1863. They called for Indians to give up hostilities, settle down eventually, and receive goods annually worth a total of $50,000. In return, the settlers could stay. Significantly, the Indians never actually ceded any land.
The army soon began rounding up Indians. When no reservations near good land with water were established during the 1870s, some Shoshones joined Northern Paiutes and Bannocks in their wars of resistance. In 1879, the Shoshones refused an order to move to the Western Shoshone (Duck Valley) Reservation. Despite the extreme disruption of their lives, elements of traditional culture survived, such as religious beliefs (except among the Goshutes) and limited subsistence patterns. Most Shoshones still lived unconfined after 1900.
The percentage of Western Shoshones living on reservations peaked at fifty in 1927. Most carried out semitraditional subsistence activities combined with seasonal or other wage work in mines and on ranches and farms. In an effort to enlarge the reservation population, the United States encouraged Northern Paiutes to settle at Duck Valley. Finally, accepting the fact that most Western Shoshones did not and would not live at Duck Valley, the government created a series of "colonies" during the first half of the twentieth century.
In 1936, the Paiutes and most Shoshone groups organized the Paiute-Shoshone Business Council. Chief TeMoak and his descendents were considered the leaders of this effort. The U.S. government refused to recognize the traditional TeMoak council, however, and instead organized their own TeMoak Bands Council. This split culminated when the traditionalist-backed United Western Shoshone Legal Defense and Education Association (1974) argued that the TeMoak Bands Council did not represent Western Shoshone interests and further that the Western Shoshones never ceded their land. The courts rejected their claim in 1979 and ordered them paid $26 million in compensation. In 1985, the Supreme Court ruled that the 1979 payment legally extinguished their title to the disputed 24 million acres.