Copyright © by Toucan Valley Publications, Inc. | Source Citation

(Panamint, or Koso)

Location: Central California along the eastern border, at the base of the Sierra Nevadas (Inyo County)

Language: Uto-Aztecan family

1770 estimate:
1910 Census: 100

The California Shoshone are a part of the Great Plateau people who lived in what is now Nevada, Wyoming, and Colorado.  They are also known as the Panamint or Koso Shoshone.


The area where the California Shoshone lived was mostly desert, and included Death Valley.  They were bounded by the high Sierra Nevada Mountains on the west, and by more desert to the east and south.  To the north were the Owens Valley Paiute.  Their neighbors to the west, on the other side of the mountains, were the Tubatulabal.  The boundaries between the various groups may have changed from time to time.

There were only a few places in the desert where people could live, where a spring or a small stream provided water.  These spots were mostly in the foothills of the Coso, Argus, Panamint, and Funeral Mountains.  Groups of families lived together.

These small groups usually moved around a lot from the spring through the fall, looking for food.  They lived in their more permanent settlements mostly in the winter.  The location of the permanent settlement, however, might change depending on where the best fall crop of food was found.  Which families were in the group also changed some from year to year, as a family might travel a different direction in search of food and so end up with another group.  The position of village leader was an informal one, with the leader having little authority.


Because they moved around during so much of the year, the Shoshone built rather temporary houses.  The most substantial house was made for the winter.  It had a frame of poles set in a cone shape and fastened together at the top with rawhide thongs or cord.  The frame was covered with slabs of bark when it was available, or with brush.  Sometimes a row of stones around the outside kept the poles firmly in the ground.

Natural caves were also used as homes, when they were available.  In their summer camps, the people raised shelters made with poles and brush, to keep off the hot sun.

The sweathouses used by the men were large enough for them to stand up.  Earth was packed over grass to make the covering for the wood framed sweathouse.  A fire built in the center of the sweathouse made the air hot enough that the men sweated.  This helped to keep their skin clean.


Pine nuts took the place of acorns for the Shoshones, who had few oak trees in their area.  The nuts were gathered in the early fall, when each family tried to harvest enough to last them through the winter.  A long hooked pole was used to pull down the pine cones.  The pine nuts and other foods were stored in safe places, sometimes in small caves or niches in the rock, close to the winter settlement.

Seeds from many grasses and plants were gathered in the summer.  The seeds were roasted to dry them out, and then ground into a flour which could be stored for later use.  In the desert, mesquite pods were plentiful.  The bean from the mesquite was pounded to make flour, from which flat cakes were baked. 

There were not a lot of fresh green plants available for the desert people, and those few that they could find (such as clover) had to be boiled and squeezed to get out the bitter salts from the desert soil.  Some other plant foods for the Shoshone were several kinds of cactus, some gourds, and the agave plant. Buds from the yucca tree were roasted on an open fire and eaten.  The prickly pear cactus could be dried in the sun, after the thorns were removed, and kept for the winter. 

Plant food was very important in their diet, as  it was difficult for the California Shoshone to get meat.  Once in a while a hunter would bring down a mountain sheep.  Groups sometimes got together to hunt antelope, but the California Shoshone had to travel quite a distance to be a part of these antelope drives.  Small game such as rabbits, ground squirrels, gophers, rats,  lizards, and a few kinds of birds (dove, mockingbird, sage hen, duck and quail) were more common fare for the Shoshone.  


Shoshone men and women wore clothing made from deer or rabbit skins, when the skins were available.  Women used skins to make long skirts for winter, or bark and grass to make shorter skirts for summer.  Men often wore just a strip of deerhide around their hips, or they went without any clothing.  Even in winter, clothing was scanty.  When needed for warmth, a robe made of animal fur was worn over the shoulders, or used as a blanket.  Rabbitskin fur was most commonly used to make the robes.

Women wore woven caps to protect their heads from the straps of carrying baskets.  The caps were made from strips of sage bark or willow.  When the weather was cold or the trail was rough, both men and women wore moccasins on their feet.  They made the moccasins from animal fur, or from twined sagebark stuffed with fur or grass. 

Shoshone men and women pierced their ears so they could wear ear ornaments.  They made necklaces of shell beads and small pieces of bone.  Some had tattooing on their faces, done with wood charcoal.


The California Shoshone made baskets in much the same manner as the groups living in the valleys west of the mountains.  They used both twining and coiling methods.  Water baskets were especially important to them.  With water being scarce, they were careful not to waste it.  Coiled baskets were made from bundles of grass held around a single branch of new wood.  The coils were sewn together with fibers from the willow tree.  The baskets were decorated with patterns in black made with bulrush roots soaked in ashes, and with red patterns made from the yucca root.

Hunting was done by means of traps made from poles and cord, as well as with bow and arrow.  The bow was made of juniper wood, short, and sinew-backed.  The bowstring was sinew (animal tendon) or wild hemp. The arrows were made of willow and hardwood.  Hemp was used to make cord, which was then fashioned into nets.  Nets were used for catching small game, and for carrying things.


Though their culture is that of the Great Basin Shoshone, the California Shoshone also had contacts with the groups living on the western side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.  They had some trade contacts with the Tubatulabal, and through them with the Yokuts of the central valley of California.  The Shoshone had a source of salt in Saline Valley, which they could trade for other goods.


Festivals were held to celebrate a good pine nut crop or a successful hunt.  The usual dance at these festivals was the Round Dance, performed by both men and women.  The Round Dance was also done as part of the Mourning Ceremony, held once each year in remembrance of those in the group who had died during the past year.  Some Shoshone people used a four-holed flute made from elderberry wood to make music at their festivals.  Musical bows and whistles were also used.  Ceremonial dress included skirts made from strings of soft baby eagle feathers.

Go to Top