PAIUTE INDIANS OF UTAH
Paiutes, c. 1874
The Southern Paiutes of Utah live in the southwestern corner of the state
where the Great Basin and the Colorado Plateau meet. The Southern Paiute
language is one of the northern Numic branches of the large Uto-Aztecan
language family. Most scholars agree that the Paiutes entered Utah about
Historically, the largest population concentrations of Paiutes were along
the Virgin and Muddy rivers; other Paiutes adapted to a more arid desert
environment that centered on water sources such as springs. Both desert
and riverine groups were mainly foragers, hunting rabbits, deer, and mountain
sheep, and gathering seeds, roots, tubers, berries, and nuts. Paiutes also
practiced limited irrigation agriculture along the banks of the Virgin,
Santa Clara, and Muddy rivers. They raised corn, squash, melons, gourds,
sunflowers, and, later, winter wheat.
Paiute social organization was based on the family. Fluid groupings of families
sometimes formed loose bands, which were often named after a major resource
or geographic feature of their home territory. Paiute groups gathered together
in the fall for dances and marriages. Marriage meant the establishment of
a joint household and was not marked by ceremony. Although monogamy was
the norm, marriage variants such as sororal polygamy and polyandry were
The riverine Paiutes had influential chiefs with limited power based on
their ability to create consensus among the group. Leadership in the desert
groups was usually only task specific. Some individuals were better at hunting
rabbits, or at healing, or at twining baskets, and they organized those
The supernatural world of the Paiutes revolved around the activities of
Wolf and Coyote. Wolf was the elder brother and the more responsible god,
while Coyote often acted the role of the trickster and troublemaker. Stories
of the activities of these and other spirit animals generally were told
in the winter.
The first recorded contact between Utah Paiutes and Europeans occurred in
1776 when the Escalante-Dominguez party encountered Paiute women gathering
seeds. In 1826-27 Jedediah Smith passed through Paiute country and established
an overland route to California. Trappers, traders, and emigrants on their
way to California soon followed. The increased presence of Europeans and
their animals had serious effects on the Paiutes. The animals of the emigrants
ate the grasses and often the corn that served as food for the Paiute. The
Paiutes, especially young women and children, became commodities as mounted
Utes and Navajos raided for slaves to trade to the Europeans.
Although the Euro-American travelers posed a threat to the Paiutes, it was
the arrival of the Mormons in the 1850s that destroyed their sovereignty
and traditional lifestyle. The Mormons came to stay, and they settled in
places that had traditionally served the Paiutes as foraging and camping
areas. As a result, starvation and disease drastically reduced the Paiute
population. Between 1854 and 1858 the Mormons conducted a fairly intensive
missionary effort among the Paiutes.
The Utah Paiutes and the federal government signed a treaty in 1865, but
it was not ratified by the Senate. The first reservation for the Paiutes
was established at Shivwits, near St. George, in 1891. Other small reservations
were established by executive order: Indian Peaks in 1915, Koosharem in
1928, and Kanosh in 1929. The Cedar City Paiutes were treated as a scattered
band and lived on land owned by the Mormon Church.
A Paiute agency was established in Cedar City in 1927 by the Bureau of Indian
Affairs (BIA). Nevertheless, very little federal help was available for
the Paiutes. Paiute women worked as maids, cleaning houses and washing clothes.
Paiute men worked as section hands for the railroad, did intermittent labor
on farms, and sometimes worked small plots on reservation land.
In 1935 the Shivwits and the Kanosh Paiutes voted to accept the Wheeler-Howard
Act. Known as the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) this legislation encouraged
tribal self-governance and the protection of Indian land rights. With their
new IRA governments, they received more help than before from the federal
government. They were given $10,000 loans under the Indian Service Revolving
Credit Fund in the 1940s.
During the 1950s the Utah Paiutes became victims of the termination policy
of Congress. Although BIA documents clearly recognized that the Paiutes
were not ready to survive without the benefits of the trust relationship,
Utah Senator Arthur Watkins included them on the list of tribes to be terminated.
Without federal tax protection, health and education benefits, or agricultural
assistance, the Paiutes were reduced to a miserable existence during the
late 1950s and 1960s.
The Paiutes filed for the land that they had lost to the Anglo settlers
with the Indian Claims Commission in 1951 and were awarded 27 cents per
acre in 1965. Distribution of the award money began in 1971. In 1972 the
Utah Paiute Tribal Corporation was incorporated and 113 HUD housing units
were built at Richfield, Joseph, Shivwits, and the Cedar City area between
1976 and 1989.
Efforts toward restoration of federal status began in 1973 when petitions
were circulated among the bands calling for the federal government to again
recognize the Paiutes. This became a reality on 3 April 1980 when President
Carter signed legislation that restored federal recognition and called for
the Secretary of the Interior to present legislation for a Paiute reservation
to Congress by 3 April 1982. On 17 February 1984 the Paiutes received 4,470
acres of poor BLM land scattered throughout southwestern Utah and a $2.5
million fund from which they could draw interest for economic development
and tribal services. In recent years they have built new houses, operated
two sewing factories, and dramatically improved their health care and educational
See: Pamela Bunte and Robert Franklin, From the Sands to the Mountain:
Change and Persistence in a Southern Paiute Community (1987); Isabel
Kelly and Catherine Fowler, Handbook of North American Indians, vol.
11 (1986); Martha Knack, Life Is With People: Household Organization
of the Contemporary Southern Paiute Indians (1980); and Ronald L. Holt,
Beneath These Red Cliffs: An Ethnohistory of the Utah Paiutes (1992).
Ronald L. Holt