Utah’s Native American Tribes

By Mo Edwards
March 08, 2023

A quick history of the Ute, Goshute, Paiute, Shoshone and Navajo people.

People have lived in Utah for a very, very long time. They were living here when mammoths roamed the mountains, over 10,000 years ago. Paleo-indians left only a few Clovis points behind but the Ancestral Puebloan and Fremont people built dwellings in the canyons of southern Utah, painting and pecking rock art as they went. Numic-speaking bands of nomadic families harvested plants and animals through the Rocky Mountains and Great Basin.

The indigenous people of Utah have adapted to every biome — desert, mountain, wetland and forest. For winter nights, the Paiute made rabbit-fur robes from pelts woven together with yucca cordage. Shoshone laced bison skins together to make the elegant and mobile tipi, perfectly suited to nomadic life. The Ute made hunting on horseback look easy. Navajo weave ceremonial baskets, or ts’aa’ from three-leafed sumac, a shrub native to the southwest. 

Today Utah is home to five groups of distinct indigenous peoples: Ute, Paiute, Goshute, Shoshone and Navajo. From these groups are eight federally recognized tribes: 

  • Northwestern Band of Shoshone Nation
  • Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation
  • Ute Mountain Ute Tribe 
  • Confederated Tribes of Goshute
  • Skull Valley Band of Goshute
  • San Juan Southern Paiute Tribe
  • Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah
  • Navajo Nation

Visit Respectfully

When visiting tribal lands, sacred sites or ancient dwellings, it is incredibly important to visit with cultural humility and respect. A few things to remember:

  • Learn local laws and customs — tribal lands are sovereign
  • Hire local guides when possible
  • Some tribal ceremonies are not open to the public. Please do not participate or attend without an invitation
  • Rock art is very sensitive to the oils in your hands. Please don’t touch!
  • Leave any cultural artifacts like pot shards, arrowheads and basketry where you found them
  • Ask for permission before you take photos of a native person or their property
  • Buy local — purchase arts and crafts directly from native artisans  

Nuche | Ute | Eastern Utah

The Utes don’t have a migration story as they have always been here. They were placed in the Yoov-we-teuh mountains by Sinauf the creator. He put them in the highest places in Utah and Colorado because he knew they were resilient. He was right. The Nuche thrived, becoming a powerful force in the Great Basin. The Uinta Mountains provided deer, elk, wild potatoes, onions and pinyon nuts as well as the occasional bison. They had everything they needed and being nomadic, they traveled light.

By the 1600s feral horses were thriving in the sagebrush valleys of Utah. The Ute took to the horse like an arrow to a bow and it wasn’t long before they had expanded their range to 225,000 square miles. On horseback, they were more powerful than neighboring tribes and used that to their advantage. But even with the mustang, they were eventually coerced out of their lands by white settlers. Most moved to the Uintah and Ouray Reservation in eastern Utah while others moved to the Southern Ute Indian reservation in Colorado. The Weeminuche band went south and became the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe.

Utah is named after the Ute tribe, although their ancestral lands went far into present-day Colorado as well as Wyoming and Idaho. The Utes are tied to the Shoshone, Paiute and Goshute through common language and culture. 

Today the Ute people dance the Bear Dance every spring. They are known for their intricate beading on tanned leather, adorning cradleboards and Powwow regalia with symbolic designs. Spiritual leaders like Larry Cesspooch are preserving Ute culture by sharing traditional stories online. 

Green River

Uinta Mountains

Ouray National Wildlife Refuge

Nine Mile Canyon

So-so-goi | Shoshone | Northern Utah

The nomadic So-so-goi or “those who travel on foot” moved with the seasons. Spring and Summer was for gathering berries and catching up on the latest gossip. Next, it was north to the Salmon River to catch and dry fish. Autumn took them east into Wyoming for buffalo and elk. Then it was time to head west to gather pine nuts, an integral part of their diet that could be toasted for a snack or ground into mush. Winter was the time for rejuvenation — hot springs, beading and storytelling. They wintered every year in the same place, the willows of the Bear River near Cache Valley. 

We know this from the oral histories of Mae Timbimboo Parry, storyteller for the Northwestern Band of Shoshone Nation. She was integral in remembering the tragic events of the Bear River Massacre where over 300 So-so-goi were killed by the U.S. Army in the winter of 1863. She advocated for the name to be changed from The Bear River ‘Battle’ to ‘Massacre’ as many of the victims were women and children. The tribe is carrying on her legacy by ecologically restoring the sacred massacre site, Boa Ogoi, and building an interpretive center to share Shoshone culture.

Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge

Bear Lake State Park

Cache Valley

Crystal Hot Springs

Utah Museum of Natural History

Boa Ogoi Interpretive Center

Newe | Goshute | Western Utah

Under the blue sky of the west desert in the Great Basin, the Newe paid close attention to the changing seasons. To survive in one of the most arid places on the continent took skill and ancestral knowledge. They knew how to collect tiny seeds from grasses, catch crickets and chase pronghorns through desolate valleys. When the rabbit brush turned yellow in the early fall, it was time to harvest pine nuts. Families met up for a few weeks to collect the buttery seeds from pinyon trees. They were then processed with hot coals and winnowing baskets until finally ground into meal.

Adoption of the horse wasn’t possible for the Goshute. If horses ate their grass seeds, the Goshute would starve. This became a problem anyway when white settlers brought horses and cattle into their territory in 1855. They had little contact with non-natives until this point as their lands were considered inhabitable. But slowly ranchers and farmers took what little water there was. Fighting broke out and the Goshutes paid dearly with their lives and their traditional way of life. The U.S. government tried forcing them onto the Uintah and Ouray Reservation, but the Goshute refused. Eventually, the Confederated Band of Goshutes reservation was established in 1912 near the Deep Creek mountains, along with the Skull Valley Reservation near Tooele.

The Goshute host an intertribal Powwow every August in Ibapah, near the border of Nevada.  

Nuwivi | Southern Paiute | Southwestern Utah

The Paiute people, or “water Ute'' lived along the Virgin and Santa Clara rivers of southwestern Utah. They were expert gatherers of bitterroot, berries, and, of course, yucca — the everything plant. Nearly every part of the yucca was used. Its heart was roasted and eaten like a cabbage. The root was mashed and used for soap. Its sharp leaves were split and rolled into cordage. The cordage was used for tying willow poles together for winter homes. Yucca was woven into baskets, although red willow was the preferred material. Storage baskets made it possible for them to spend summer in the cool high country collecting berries and pinyon nuts, then returning to the canyons for winter.

By the 1800s life was hard. As one of the last tribes in Utah to acquire horses, the vulnerable Paiutes were terrorized by raiding bands of Ute and Navajo. They had been farming corn and squash in the river bottoms for centuries, but when white settlers came for the water, the Paiutes began to lose their ancestral lands. With no government assistance or land of their own they were completely disenfranchised by the 1950s.

After many years of not being recognized as a tribe by the federal government, they finally had some of their land restored to them in 1980. The annual Restoration Gathering and Powwow celebrates the return of their rights and the unification of the Shivwits, Koosharam, Kanosh, Indian Peaks and Cedar bands into the Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah. The San Juan Southern Paiute tribe was recognized in 1989 and shares land with the Navajo Nation.

Restoration Powwow

Parowan Gap Petroglyphs

Zion National Park

Bryce Canyon National Park

Cedar Breaks National Monument

Diné | Navajo | Southeastern Utah

After Changing Woman created the Navajo people, she divided them into four clans so that they could remember who they are: The Towering House clan, One-walks-around clan, Bitter Water clan, and the Mud clan. The clan system is matrilineal. During introductions, Navajo people state their clan on their mother's side first, then their father's, then grandmother's, then grandfather's. It can be an awkward conversation for a first date, as marrying a person from the same clan is taboo (although today there are over 100 clans, which helps).

The Four Corners has been home to Diné for centuries. Navajo tradition says they came from the east across rivers and mountains to arrive in Dinéhtah, or the land of The People. Linguists think they migrated from the north as their language family is Athabascan, also spoken by tribes in Alaska and Canada. Either way, they adapted to the canyons and desert of the Colorado Plateau, growing maize in the river bottoms.

Spanish contact in the 1600s brought domesticated sheep and silver, but it was the beginning of troubled times. An uneasy pattern of trading and raiding between the Navajo, Spanish, Hopi and Apache dominated the next few centuries. In 1846, the U.S. government began a military campaign against the Navajo people, invading Canyon de Chelly and eventually forcing families to walk 300 miles to Fort Sumner, New Mexico. Thousands died during this era of suffering and starvation. With the Treaty of Bosque Redondo in 1868, the survivors were allowed to go back to their homeland, and the sovereign Navajo Nation was established. Another hundred years of assimilation and relocation programs followed resulting in the near extinction of traditional life, not just for the Navajo people but for Indigenous Americans across the United States.

Today the Navajo Nation is the largest reservation in the U.S. and has over 400,000 enrolled members. Many families raise sheep for meat and wool. They are known for their woven blankets and silversmithing. The Navajo language is making a resurgence, thanks to renewed interest in Navajo culture from younger generations. In 2013, "Star Wars: A New Hope" was dubbed over by Navajo-speaking actors, much to the delight of those learning the language.

Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park

Bears Ears National Monument

Edge of the Cedars State Park and Museum

Natural Bridges National Monument

Bluff Arts Festival