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Northern and Owens Valley

Location: Northeastern and east central border of California (eastern Modoc, Lassen & Mono Counties)

Language: Uto-Aztecan family

1770 estimate:
not known
1910 Census: not known

Their territory was on the east side of the Sierra Nevada mountains, placing the Paiute with the cultures of the desert and Great Basin area of Nevada, rather than in the California culture area.  Only a small percentage of the total number of Paiutes lived in what is now California.


Paiute settlements in California were located in a strip along the east side of the Sierra Nevada mountains, reaching more than a third of the way down the state.  There were Paiutes living both north and south of the border area occupied by the Washo people.

The name Paiute may mean water Ute or true Ute.  The most northern Paiutes have been known as the Surprise Valley Paiutes.  Those just south of the Washo are sometimes called the Mono Paiute, and had some connection with the California Mono on the west side of the Sierras.  Further south, near the middle of the state, were the Owens Valley Paiute.  Though their languages were from the same language family, the Owens Valley Paiute and the Northern Paiute did not understand each other's speech.     

Northern Paiute people moved around a great deal in their search for food. The family was the only stable unit.  In the winter, a number of families would settle together for some months.  During other seasons, smaller groups of families would travel together, making camps where they found a food supply.  Those in the Owens Valley made more permanent settlements than other Northern Paiute.  Their moves to find food took them over a smaller area.  Their village sites, some with as many as 200 people,  were along streams or the Owens River.

Within the Paiute family, decisions were made by an elder family member.  When groups of families were living near each other, a leader or headman was chosen by the group.  His power was limited to advising the people and serving at ceremonies.  Among the Owens Valley Paiute, a son usually followed his father as headman.  With other Northern Paiutes, the group would choose a new leader.


For their winter or more permanent houses, the Paiute placed willow poles in a circle and either leaned them together at the top, making a cone-shaped dwelling, or bent them in a dome shape.  The poles were covered with mats woven from tule reeds, when they were available, or with bundles of long grasses tied together.  There was a smoke hole at the top, and an entry door covered with an animal skin.  In the coldest areas, the floor of the house was sometimes dug down one or two feet into the ground, for added warmth.

When the people were to be living in a place for a shorter time, they put up windbreaks and shelters made of brush, with a roof but only one or no side walls. 

Owens Valley Paiute villages had sweathouses, circular structures built over pits dug in the ground.  They were heated by a fire built inside the entrance.  The sweathouse served as a meeting place for the men.


Piņon nuts were a main food for the Paiutes in California.  The placement of their settlements depended on the supply of piņon nuts.  Though the Owens Valley Paiutes were fond of acorns, these were much harder for them to get, since they grew mostly on the other side of the mountains.  Both piņon nuts and acorns were ground into flour and cooked into a mush or baked as flat cakes.

Many types of seeds and berries were gathered.  Berries were eaten fresh, or dried and used in soups and stews.  Seeds were ground into flour and used to make mush or seed cakes.  The seeds of Indian ricegrass, wild rye, and chia were important sources of food.  In swampy areas, the roots of the wild hyacinth and other plants were used for food.  In the Owens Valley, lowland areas were purposely flooded with water in order to increase the growth of certain plants.  This irrigation was done by building a dam across a stream and digging ditches to divert the water to the area where the plants were growing.

Deer, antelope, and desert or mountain bighorn sheep were hunted with bow and arrows.   Rabbit was the most common game.  Other small animals such as marmots, ground squirrels, and porcupines were also caught using noose snares and nets.  

Birds such as grouse, ducks, and other waterfowl were hunted by the Northern Paiute, who also collected duck eggs for eating.  The Owens Valley Paiute did not do as much bird hunting.  None of the Paiute in California depended much on fish.  The Owens River had only a few small species of fish, and Owens Lake had none.   


The type of clothing depended on how far north people were living.  In colder places, clothes were made from deerskins whenever they were available.  Women wore an apron either with just one piece in the front or with a second piece in the back.  If there were no deerskins, the apron could be made of coyote, badger, or rabbit skins, or of strips of bark or bundles of grasses tied to a waistband. 

Men wore a piece of deerskin wrapped around their hips.  In colder weather, they wrapped strips of deerskin around their legs.  Rabbit skins were cut in strips and woven into robes and blankets.  Moccasins were made from a single piece of deerskin, sewn up the front.  Women wore basket caps to protect their heads from the bands of the carrying baskets that rested on the forehead.


Baskets were used by the Paiute to gather and store many kinds of food.  They used the twining method of basket-making to make carrying baskets of various sizes and trays for sifting and drying seeds.  The Owens Valley Paiute made a special basket with a narrow opening in which they kept their shell-bead money.  The shape of this basket came from the Great Basin cultures to the east, but the use--keeping shells as a sign of wealth--came from other California groups.  Some Owens Valley Paiute women also made pottery from the reddish clay, a skill learned from groups to the east of California.


The Paiutes living near Mono Lake and in Owens Valley had more friendly contact with other California groups than did the Paiutes further north.  They made the trip across the Sierra Nevada Mountains and traded with the Yokuts, Miwok, and Tubatulabal.  The Paiutes exchanged piņon nuts for the acorns that grew on the western side of the mountains.  They also got salt from the Panamint Shoshones and traded it to the Monache.  Strings of shell beads, which came originally from the people living along the sea coast, were used as money.


To celebrate the fall harvest, the people gathered for a Round Dance, where singers and dancers in special dance costumes performed.  The dances were held outdoors, in a large space with a brush fence around it.  Many Owens Valley groups came together each year for the Mourning or Cry ceremony, to remember those who had died during the past year.

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