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Lakes Basin


History of Tribal Lands in the Lakes Basin

Archaeological evidence shows that around 9,000 years ago, native peoples once lived on the shores of prehistoric lakes in the Great Basin. These people hunted large animals, such as mammoths and elk. They were skilled in weaving fibers of willow, tule, and sagebrush to make baskets, rope, and traps for small animals. The descendants of these people became Paiute, Ute, and Shoshone Indians that occupied much of the western United States. Before contact with Europeans, these tribes ate roots, seeds, salmon, and waterfowl. In the mid-1800's, the discovery of gold and the draw of the Oregon Trail led to the arrival of European settlers to tribal lands. The tribes, once nomadic and able to live frugally off the land, now had competition for resources.

The arrival of the horse to the Great Basin in the late 1800's proved advantageous to the Paiutes, who often used them on raids of white settlements to make ends meet. These attacks prompted the U.S. government to establish a military station to protect stagecoach lines. Lieutenant-Colonel Charles McDermit, charged with overseeing the sub-district of Nevada, spent much of his time trying to maintain peace between the tribes and white settlers. In 1865, McDermit was killed in an ambush near the fort, compelling the U.S. government to send in reinforcement troops. The fort was named McDermit(t) in honor of the late Lieutenant-Colonel.

The mission of the fort at that time was to protect a growing white population from Indian raids, but also to offer food, clothing, medical care, and work to the groups of Indians settling in the area. The fort was closed in 1886 after the Bannock War, during which Paiute, Bannock, and Shoshone tribal members fled reservations in Idaho and Oregon to escape the inhumane conditions caused by overcrowding and mismanagement by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. After months of bloodshed on both sides of the conflict, the tribes surrendered, ending one of the last militant protests of the reservation system by Indian tribes.

In the 1930's, the Wheeler-Howard Act, or the Indian Reorganization Act, gave the Paiute and Shoshone tribes in southeastern and south-central Oregon to create tribal governments based on the American political system. Still, the tribes were forced, often involuntarily, onto reservations that were much smaller, and often much more inferior, than the lands they had once occupied.

The Paiutes that settled near the town of Burns, descendants of the Wadatika band of Paiutes, once occupied a territory that included 52,500 square miles stretching from the Cascade Mountains to what is today Boise, Idaho. In 1928, the tribe was given the Burns city dump, about 10 acres. In 1935, that area was expanded to 771 acres. During this time, the tribe petitioned the U.S. government to return the 1.8 million acres taken from them. After more than thirty years of negotiations, the tribe was ultimately compensated for the 1890 value of the land, amounting to less than $800 per person. The tribe was legally recognized by the U.S. government in 1968, and in 1972 gained title to their reservation land. The Paiutes and Shoshones that settled in the southeast corner of Oregon ratified a tribal constitution in 1936, and purchased 32,000 acres of land by 1940.

For more information on the history of the Lakes Basin tribes, visit these sites:

Authored by Caitlin Bell, Science Writer, Oregon Explorer