Paiute (sometimes written Piute) refers to two related groups of Native Americans — the Northern Paiute of California, Nevada and Oregon, and the Southern Paiute of Arizona, southeastern California and Nevada, and Utah. The Northern and Southern Paiute both spoke languages belonging to the Numic branch of the Uto-Aztecan family of Native American languages.
Usage of the terms Paiute, Northern Paiute and Southern Paiute is most correct when referring to groups of people with similar language and culture and should not be taken to imply a political connection or even an especially close genetic relationship. The Northern Paiute speak the Northern Paiute language, while the Southern Paiute speak the Ute-Southern Paiute language. These languages are not as closely related to each other as they are to other Numic languages.
The Bannock, Mono, Timbisha and Kawaiisu people, who also speak Numic languages and live in adjacent areas are sometimes referred to as Paiute. The Bannock speak a dialect of Northern Paiute, while the other three people speak separate Numic languages, with Mono being more closely related to Northern Paiute, Kawaiisu being more closely related to Ute-Southern Paiute, and Timbisha being more closely related to Shoshone.
The origin of the word Paiute is unclear. Some anthropologists have interpreted it as "Water Ute" or "True Ute." The Northern Paiute call themselves Numa (sometimes written Numu) ; the Southern Paiute call themselves Nuwuvi. Both terms mean "the people." The Northern Paiute are sometimes referred to as Paviotso. Early Spanish explorers called the Southern Paiute "Payuchi" (they did not make contact with the Northern Paiute). Early Euro-American settlers often called both groups of Paiute "Diggers" (presumably because of their practice of digging for roots), although that term is now considered derogatory.
Relations among the Northern Paiute bands and their Shoshone neighbors were generally peaceful. In fact, there is no sharp distinction between the Northern Paiute and western Shoshone. Relations with the Washoe people, who were culturally and linguistically very different, were not so peaceful.
Sustained contact between the Northern Paiute and Euro-Americans came in the early 1840s, although the first contact may have occurred as early as the 1820s. Although they had already started using horses, their culture was otherwise largely unaffected by European influences at that point. As Euro-American settlement of the area progressed, several violent incidents occurred, including the Pyramid Lake War of 1860 and the Bannock War of 1878. These incidents generally began with a disagreement between settlers and Paiutes (singly or in a group) regarding property, retaliation by one group against the other, and finally counter-retaliation by the opposite party, frequently culminating in the armed involvement of the U.S. Army. Many more Paiutes died from introduced diseases such as smallpox. Sarah Winnemucca's book "Life Among the Piutes gives a first-hand account of this period, although it is not considered to be wholly reliable.
The first reservation established for the Northern Paiute was the Malheur Reservation in Oregon. The federal government's intention was to concentrate the Northern Paiute there, but its strategy did not work. Because of the distance of that reservation from the traditional areas of most of the bands, and because of the poor conditions on that reservation, many Northern Paiute refused to go there, and those that did soon left. Instead they clung to the traditional lifestyle as long as possible, and when environmental degradation made that impossible, they sought jobs on white farms, ranches or cities and established small Indian colonies, where they were joined by many Shoshone and, in the Reno area, Washoe people. Later, large reservations were created at Pyramid Lake and Duck Valley, but by that time the pattern of small de facto reservations near cities or farm districts often with mixed Northern Paiute and Shoshone populations had been established. Starting in the early 20th century the federal government began granting land to these colonies, and under the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 these colonies gained recognition as independent tribes.
The Southern Paiute traditionally lived in the Colorado River basin and Mojave Desert in northern Arizona, southeastern California, southern Nevada, and southern Utah. The Utah Paiutes were terminated in 1954 and regained federal recognition in 1980. A band of Southern Paiutes at Willow Springs and Navajo Mountain, south of the Grand Canyon, reside inside the Navajo Indian Reservation. These "San Juan" Paiutes were recognized by the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1980.
First European contact with the Southern Paiutes occurred in 1776 when Fathers Silvestre Vélez de Escalante and Francisco Atanasio Domínguez chanced upon them during their failed attempt to find an overland route to the missions of California. Even before this date, the Southern Paiute suffered from slave raids by the Navajo and the Utes, but the introduction of Spanish and later Euroamerican explorers into their territory exacerbated the practice. In 1851, Mormon settlers strategically occupied Paiute water sources, which created a dependency relationship. However, the Mormon presence soon ended the slave raids, and relations between the Paiutes and the Mormons were basically peaceful. This was largely because of the diplomacy efforts of Mormon missionary Jacob Hamblin. But there is no doubt that the introduction of European settlers and agricultural practices (most especially large herds of cattle) made it difficult for the Southern Paiutes to continue their traditional lifestyle.
Southern Paiute communities are located at Las Vegas, Pahrump, and Moapa, in Nevada; Cedar City, Kanosh, Koosharem, Shivwits, and Indian Peaks, in Utah; at Kaibab and Willow Springs, in Arizona; Death Valley and at the Chemehuevi Indian Reservation and on the Colorado River Indian Reservation in California. Some would include the 29 Palms Reservation in Riverside County, California.
The Pah Ute War, also known as the Paiute War, was a minor series of raids and ambushes initiated by the Paiute and which had an effect on the development of the Pony Express. It took place from May through June 1860, though sporadic violence continued for a period afterwards.