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American Indians--How they Governed Themselves

Paiute couple

A Paiute man - "Jim" - and his wife.

Before contact with the whites, Utah's American Indians did not have formal kinds of government. Today, Indians tribes are considered sovereign nations, and they have tribal governments. But tribe members are still citizens of and subject to the laws of the United States and Utah.

The book A History of Utah's American Indians gives some examples of how the different tribes governed themselves before the coming of Euro-Americans:


Paiutes generally lived in small groups consisting of three to five households. These groups might be part of larger groups. They held council meetings with males and the old women of the group making major decisions.

The leader of each community was called a niave. He was not a decision-maker. Instead, he gave advice and suggestions. He led by example and by consensus, and he worked to carry out the decisions made by the council.

Ute man

Tavaputs, a Ute leader in eastern Utah.

Northern Ute

Utes also lived in small family groups. The Utes as a whole had no central political structure, just their shared identity of being Utes. The groups consulted wise men and women for direction. Or they might choose a chief who would direct a certain activity (such as a hunt).

When groups grew larger, leaders would arise, but could only lead as long as people chose to follow. Again, the leader's only authority was to give suggestions. Several leaders had great influence, such as Sanpitch, Sowiette, Wakara, Santaquin, Tabiuna, Black Hawk, and Kanosh.

Because of the 1937 Indian Reorganization Act, the Utes formed a new government, with a constitution and a tribal council system.

Shoshone man

Washakie, Shoshone leader.


Shoshones also lived and migrated in groups of extended families. For winter and at other times, these groups would gather in larger groups. Large bands might have a head chief. For instance, Washakie was a head chief, and he had beneath him sub-chiefs over bands of 300-400 people.

In 1987, the Northwestern Band of Shoshones formed a constitution and held elections for a seven-member tribal council and tribal chair.


Like other Indians, the Goshute people lived in small camps. Although families might gather together in the winter, the Goshutes had no strong tribal organization or central leader. Each band chose a local wise man as a leader, but he didn't have political power, only the power to make suggestions.

Goshute couple

A Goshute couple.

Leaders were chosen to lead certain events, such as cooperative hunts that would last a couple of weeks.

In 1858, the Indian superintendent met with the Goshutes and had them elect a chief. In 1940, the Confederated Tribes of the Goshute Reservations adopted a constitution and set elections for the council, who elected the chair. The council oversees education, irrigation, health, economic development, law enforcement, social servicees, finances, and land management. The Skull Valley Band of Goshutes has a similar council and chair.


Navajo woman

"Grandma Cly," a leader of her large family in Monument Valley.

Like other groups of American Indians, Navajos didn't have overall leaders before they adopted an Anglo-type system of government to fulfill federal requirements. Some leaders of different bands of Navajos have become a part of history, such as Hoskaninni, Ba'ililii, K'aayelii, Manuelito, and Naabaahni.

White businessmen interested in developing oil on the Navajo reservation asked the federal government to set up a "business council" of Navajos to approve oil leases. This was the forerunner of the Navajo Tribal Council of today. There are also 110 "chapters," or local governments, of the Navajo Nation today.