Native American Tribes of the Great Basin and California

Contributor: Suzanne Riordan. Lesson ID: 13204

The Great Basin tribes roamed a vast area in the western U.S., and the California tribes were spread across the Golden State. Learn about them here, and make a museum display of their tribal artwork.


United States

learning style
Auditory, Visual
personality style
Beaver, Golden Retriever
Grade Level
Middle School (6-8)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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If someone dropped you off in the middle of the desert, could you survive? 

  • Would you know which plants were safe to eat? 
  • Would you know which could be eaten raw and which had to be cooked?

Look at these pictures and see if you can tell.

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Some of the tribes in this lesson were experts at surviving in the mountains and deserts of Nevada and California.

They ate pine tree nuts, jojoba, agave, mesquite pods, cactus fruits, manzanita berries, elderberry, juniper, acorns, and much more! It became an essential part of their tradition to gather, process, and eat these items with their families.

Learn more about these clever and resourceful people!

The tribes of the Great Basin and California learned to use their resources wisely.

The Great Basin people traveled around for food and learned to survive in harsh environments. At the same time, the tribes of California had more abundant resources and were able to establish their villages.

Take a look at the areas where these tribes lived.

map showing Northwest tribe area

Throughout this lesson, write down what you learn about the homes, food, skills, natural resources, languages, and culture of the Great Basin and California tribes. You'll use this information later in the Got It? section!

Great Basin Tribes

The Great Basin tribes lived in areas of Colorado, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, Idaho, and Oregon! That's a lot of land.

Learn a little about the Washoe, Western Shoshone, and Northern and Southern Paiute in this video.

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Now, look at a few of these tribes in more detail!


Washakie (Shoots-the-Buffalo-Running), a Shoshoni chief

The name Shoshone comes from their word shoshoni, which means tall grasses. They sometimes made their homes from these grasses, so other tribes called them the Grass House People. They were also sometimes called the Snake Indians.

The Shoshone were a huge tribe divided into three groups or bands, shown on this Great Basin map. The Northern Shoshone lived in southern Idaho. The Eastern Shoshone lived in Wyoming. The Western Shoshone lived in Nevada and northern Utah.

The groups of Shoshone were further divided and named by their main food source, such as Salmon-eaters or Sheep-eaters, or by where they lived. The Bruneau Shosone lived by the Bruneau River, for example.

The Shoshone were hunter-gatherers who gathered enough food through the summer to last throughout the winter. They made beautiful baskets, pottery, and jewelry.

Watch the following video to learn more about Shoshone beadwork.

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The state of Utah gets its name from the Ute Tribe, but no one seems to know for sure where the name Ute originated. It may come from an Apache word meaning high up.

Watch a portion of the following Rocky Mountain PBS video to learn about the Ute Tribe.

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The name Paiute means true Ute, and they are related to the Ute Tribe.

The Paiute Tribe traveled the Great Basin for food. They were divided into two groups: the Northern Paiute and the Southern Paiute.

Remember to take notes as you watch the following video to learn more.

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All the tribes of the Great Basin, except the Washoe, speak the Numic language.

Watch the video below to hear the numbers 1-20 in this language.

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California Tribes

Early on, there were native tribes all over California, as shown on this map.

map locating the main tribes native to California before Europeans' arrival

These tribes spoke 80 to 90 different languages belonging to about 20 different language families!

They were originally hunter-gatherers but later developed a system of agriculture. The California natives developed a process of maintaining the forests through controlled fire. This means they would burn the underbrush and grass to prevent larger fires later and bring about new plant growth.

Life changed greatly for the tribes of the southern California area with the arrival of the Spanish and for the northern tribes with the Gold Rush.


A Pomo Dancer (Kal-si-wa, Rosa Peters)

The Pomo lived north of San Francisco Bay. They had abundant resources and always had plenty of food. They fished the ocean, lakes, and rivers and hunted in the forest.

They also gathered wild berries and plants and used acorns for food! They ground them into a powder and poured hot water to make a paste. The paste was then cooked and made into a sort of pudding.

The Pomo wore very little clothing because of the warm climate. They lived in small villages, and they built different kinds of houses depending on where they lived. Near the forest, they built houses of redwood bark. Closer to the river, they made dome-shaped houses covered with dried grass.

In the center of the village, a dance house was built for special gatherings and ceremonies.

Like many Native tribes, the Pomo became excellent basket-makers. This is an example of a beautiful Pomo basket.

Pomo basket

There are several Pomoan languages spoken by various groups in this area.

Watch the video below to hear a tribal elder speak the Eastern Pomo language.

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Historians think the Kumeyaay people have been in southern California for over 10,000 years! As the seasons changed, they moved around from the seaside to the mountains and then to the desert, using all the various natural resources.

Watch the video segments below to learn about the Kumeyaay people. They're one of the tribes we mentioned at the beginning of the lesson who knew how to survive in any environment, including the desert!

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Rafael, a Chumash who shared Californian Native American cultural knowledge with anthropologists in the 1800s

The Chumash lived along California's southern and central coasts. They built boats from wooden planks called tomols. They navigated the ocean and traded with other tribes.

The Chumash ate a lot of seafood and hunted sea animals such as seals, otters, and porpoises. They used seashells to make beads that were used for money and traded with other tribes.

The Chumash Tribe was the first that Spanish explorers met upon entering California.

They had large houses and, unlike other native tribes, slept in raised beds rather than on the ground.


Yurok means downriver people, and their lives revolved around the Klamath River. They were hunter-gatherers and, of course, fishermen.

They lived in northwestern California and did not move around like other tribes. Rather, they lived in houses like the one pictured here in permanent villages near the Klamath River.

Yurok Nation plank house

The Yurok are unique because they were never forced to leave their traditional lands. Their reservation includes the original villages they established. But, sadly, they lost most of their population through diseases brought by the Europeans.

Watch the video below to learn about their attachment to the Klamath River.

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Now that you've learned so much about the tribes of California and the Great Basin move to the Got It? section to organize these facts and play a matching game!

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