Native People of the American Great Basin


People have been living near the caves of what’s now Oregon for at least 12,500 years. Their descendants spread throughout the mountains, forests, deserts, and plains in what’s now the western United States and southwest Canada, also known as the Great Basin and Plateau region.


Soaring mountains, river valleys, deserts, forests, and plains make up the Great Basin and Plateau regions. The rich animal and plant life provided native people with all that they needed: Women gathered wild root vegetables, seeds, nuts, and berries, while men hunted big game including buffalo, deer, and bighorn sheep, as well as smaller prey like rabbits, waterfowl, and sage grouse. These tribes especially valued salmon, and they celebrated the First Salmon ceremony each year to honor this fish’s return to freshwater rivers from the ocean.

When Spanish settlers moved into the American Southwest in the early 1600s, they tried to take control of the native peoples who lived there in large communities known as Pueblos. In 1680 the Pueblo people revolted and drove the Spanish from their land. The Spanish had to leave behind their cattle, sheep, and horses. The Pueblo people did not need the horses so they traded many to neighboring tribes living in the Great Basin and Plateau such as the Ute (YOOT), Shoshone (shoh-SHOH-nee), and Nez Perce (nes PURS). Soon these tribes became experts at breeding, trading, and riding horses. The Nez Perce tribe once owned the largest herd of horses in North America, and they’re famous for breeding the Appaloosa, a spotted horse.

The location of the Great Basin and Plateau region allowed the tribes living there to develop a trade network with Native American groups from other regions. For instance, tribes like the Pend d’Oreille (pawn duh-RAY) and Umatilla (um-uh-TIL-uh) traded hides, roots, and baskets to coastal tribes in exchange for shell beads and oils. They then traded these items to Plains tribes in exchange for buffalo robes.


Beginning in the mid-1800s, the U.S. government forced many tribes to move onto land called reservations in order to prevent conflicts with settlers, gold seekers, and others looking to make use of the rich natural resources of the region. Today some tribal members still live on reservations, and they continue to hold celebrations and ceremonies just as their ancestors did while also going to school and working modern jobs. Some, including the Klamath (KLAM-uth) and Umatilla, display their horsemanship skills at rodeos.

The people of the Great Basin and Plateau region have kept their promise to be guardians of the land: For example, the Salish (pronounced SEH-lish) tribe generates clean energy from water with the Séliš Ksanka Q’lispé Dam in Montana, the first tribally owned dam in the United States. This tribe also created 41 wildlife paths to help animals safely cross highways that run through their reservation.

<p>This Spokane man wears traditional clothing from his tribe at a powwow in <a href="" target="_blank">Washington</a>.</p>

This Spokane man wears traditional clothing from his tribe at a powwow in Washington.

Photograph by SuperStock, Alamy Stock Photo

Text and photos adapted from the Nat Geo Kids Encyclopedia of American Indian History and Culture.