Member of an American Indian people living in the Great Basin region of Oregon, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, and California. They are divided into two branches of the Uto-Aztecan linguistic family, a language family of Central America and western North America: the Northern Paiute speak a Western Numic dialect, and the Southern Paiute of the Colorado Plateau, Utah, share Southern Numic origins with the Ute. The Paiute did not use horses, and had a nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle until they were placed on reservations in the 19th century. The majority now live on reservations scattered throughout the Great Basin, where agriculture, ranching, and tourism provide their main income. They number about 9,700 (2000).
The Northern Paiute migrated over a wide area, gathering wild plant foods such as mesquite, and hunting small game. Mescal, a small spineless cactus, was collected in the mountains during spring, and roasted to produce a sweet, chewy substance. The Southern Paiute hunted larger game and the women grew maize (corn), squash, beans, and sunflowers in their summer camps. They lived in small family groups in crude conical wickiups (tepees), but sometimes came together to form loose bands. Paiute women produced coiled and woven basketry, including bottles that were covered in pitch to produce watertight carriers. Clothes were woven from plant fibres, or made from animal skins. Unlike other American Indian peoples, Paiute men often grew beards. Their religion was based on spirit animals, in particular the wolf and coyote. Sacred sites include Pyramid Lake in Nevada.
The Southern Paiute migrated to the western Colorado Plateau in about AD 1100. Their first recorded contact with European explorers took place in 1776, but they were left alone until 1826–27 when Jedediah Smith, a US fur trader, established an overland route to California through their territory. White settlement on their traditional foraging and camping grounds hindered their nomadic lifestyle, and they were placed on various reservations in the 19th century. In Utah their culture was also affected by the missionary activity of Mormons. Some Paiute, such as Sarah Winnemucca, worked actively to establish a peaceful coexistence with the US settlers, but most refused to accept the loss of their old ways. In the 1880s the Paiute shaman (ritual leader), Wovoka, who was believed to have access to the spirit world, initiated the Ghost Dance religion with his vision of a return to the old ways and subsequent disappearance of the white people, but the movement contributed to the Battle of Wounded Knee, and ultimately died out.
In 1954 federal recognition of four of the five Southern Paiute subgroups was terminated, and reservation lands and federal support were lost. Although their federal recognition was restored in 1980, they had suffered economic and cultural decline in the intervening years.