Shoshone Food
by Joe Student

Food was probably the most important part of the Shoshone Indians’ culture.  Small groups, or “bands”, of Shoshone spent most of their time moving around to places where they could find food.  The Shoshones even named their bands after what they ate at certain times.  For example, if a Shoshone band were in a place where they could kill and eat a lot of bighorn sheep, they would be called the “Sheep Eaters”.  If they were in a place where there were lots of roots to be found, they would be called the “Root Eaters”.  There were “Squirrel Eaters”, “Sunflower Seed Eaters”, “Salmon Eaters”, and many more different names for bands of Shoshones.  The names of the bands changed with what they found at places at certain times of the year.

 The Shoshones ate all kinds of vegetables, namely roots.  They could boil these vegetables by putting hot rocks into watertight baskets full of water.  In the spring, summer, and fall, when the ground was soft, they dug the roots out of the ground with sharp digging sticks. One root that they ate a lot of was from the camas plant, which they found in the northern plains and Rocky Mountains.  The camas plant has a pretty, blue flower on a long stem.  Camas roots taste like regular potatoes.  They can be boiled, roasted, dried, baked or eaten raw.  An interesting fact is that the Lewis and Clark expedition survived almost entirely on camas roots at times during their journey.  Another root that the Shoshones ate was the morning glory.  Morning glories also have pretty flowers that vary between dark and light pink.  The morning glory roots taste more like sweet potatoes and can be baked, roasted, or boiled.  Sometimes the Shoshone ate them when they had a stomachache.  Sego root was another root the Shoshone ate. It was a bulb about the size of a walnut that could be ground into flour, cooked, or eaten raw.  The yellow flower of the sego plant looks a lot like a tulip.  Sego grows in open dry forests of the Rocky Mountains.  The sego flower is the Utah state flower.  Bitterroot was another important root in the diet of the Shoshone.  As far as other roots and vegetables go, what they ate almost always depended on the season.  During the springtime, they could find wild onions, new cattail stems, wild asparagus, and wild carrots.  During the summer, the Shoshone would gather wild strawberries, gooseberries, water lilies, and sunflower seeds.  They would use certain flowers like lupines and wild roses as medicine.  In the fall, the Shoshone picked currants, serviceberries, and buck berries.  They could get pine nuts from the piñon pine trees during this time of the year.  They would pick the nuts out of the pinecones, roast them, winnow, (or shell), them, and grind them into flour.  The Shoshone would use a flat slab of stone to put the nuts on called a “metate”, and a round grindingstone called a “mano”.  The women did most of the digging, picking, and grinding, and cooking. In the fall, the Shoshone spent a lot of time drying and grinding food and storing it baskets.  They had to do this to prepare for winter, when it was hard to find anything to eat.

The Shoshone got meat from a variety of animals in a variety of ways.  One thing that the Shoshone did was to drive grasshoppers and crickets into a ditch, where they would collect them, roast them, and grind them up into flour, which they stored in baskets.  Another thing that the Shoshone ate were jackrabbits.  They would weave giant fences out of yucca plants.  The fences were spread out in semi-circles.  There were several breaks in the fences, and in each break there was a deep pit. The young men, women and children would spread out across the land and drive the jackrabbits into the fenced area.  When the rabbits got to a break in the fence, they would fall into the pit.  An old man standing beside each pit would then club the jackrabbits.  Additionally, the Shoshone made nets that they would use to catch salmon and trout in mountain streams, and used net traps, snares, bows, arrows and spears to get other animals and birds.  If they wanted to kill a bigger animal, they would put poison on their arrowheads or spearheads.  In order to get close enough to shoot or spear the larger animals like the antelope, elk, deer, or bighorn sheep, they would have to disguise themselves in animal skins and sneak up on them.  Beginning in the 1500’s, there were some bands of Indians who had horses.  These bands could ride onto the plains and hunt buffalo.  Only a few bands of Shoshone were able to do this. In the 1700’s, the Shoshone’s enemies prevented more bands from going onto the plains.  These enemies were mainly the Blackfeet, the Atsina, and the Hidatsa.  These groups traded with French and British fur traders, who would sometimes trade rifles.  The Shoshone mostly traded with the Spanish, who wouldn’t trade rifles.  So, using rifles, the Shoshone’s enemies chased them into the mountains whenever they could.  The Shoshone always dried any leftover meat and stored it so they could eat it later.

In conclusion, food was a very important part of the Shoshone Indians’ lives.  They spent almost all their time hunting for food, gathering food, or making tools for collecting and cooking it once they found it.  They learned how to use the land in different places and how to find, prepare, and eat the fruits, vegetables and wildlife it provided during different times of the year.





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