Great Basin's Region

The Basin Culture

The Great Basin is a geographical term for an immense desert basin in the western part of North America. The Great Basin has the shape of a bowl: a central depression surrounded by highlands. To the east stand the Rocky Mountains; to the west, the Sierra Nevada; to the north, the Columbia Plateau; and to the south, the Colorado Plateau. The Great Basin Culture Area, where Indians shared a similar way of life, includes territory now comprising practically all of Nevada and Utah; parts of Idaho, Oregon, Wyoming, Colorado, and California; and small parts of Arizona, New Mexico, and Montana.

The Great Basin is a region of interior drainage. That is to say, rivers and streams drain from the flanking higher ground and flow into the central depression, disappearing into “sinks” in the sandy soil. The mountains block weather fronts from the ocean. Few rain clouds ever reach the Great Basin, resulting in little precipitation and high evaporation. In past ages, the region contained many large lakes; the largest lake remaining is the Great Salt Lake in what is now Utah. Because of the geological formation of the region, the Great Basin has many alkaline flats—soil with mineral salts from bodies of water that have since evaporated.

Only occasional low and long rocky uplands break up the long stretches of barren desert. Death Valley is part of the Great Basin.


This depression in the desert is the lowest point in all the Americas— 280 feet below sea level. It also has some of the most extreme temperatures, as high as 140 degrees Fahrenheit.Because of the aridity, little vegetation grows in the Great Basin. The dominant flora on the desert floor are low grasses and sagebrush, a plant that sends its roots far down into the earth for moisture. The hills have some trees that are adapted to ryness, such as juniper and piñon trees. Also because of the dryness, there is little game. The most common large mammal is the antelope, which grazes on grass and brush and which can go a long time without water. Mountain goats subsist in the rocky highlands. Jackrabbits live in the desert, as do rodents, including field mice, kangaroo rats, muskrats, gophers, and ground squirrels. Certain birds and reptiles, particularly snakes and lizards, also are suited to desert life, as are insects, such as the grasshopper.

All these creatures provided food for Great Basin Indians. The Indians also foraged and dug for edible wild plants—roots, berries, seeds, and nuts. With a few exceptions, Great Basin inhabitants practiced no agriculture in the extreme environment. Because of their foraging practices, the hunter-gatherers of the region have been referred to collectively as “Digger Indians.”Having such meager food supplies, Great Basin Indians traveled for the most part in small bands of extended families. Most lived in small, simple cone- shaped structures, made of pole frames covered with brush or reeds.


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"We are going by you without fighting if you will let us, but we are going by you anyhow!"
- Chief Joseph's warning to the defenders of Fort Fizzle in Montana.



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