A Brief History of Nevada’s Indigenous Paiute Tribe

A tribal member takes part in the 25th Annual Paiute Tribe Pow Wow in Las Vegas
A tribal member takes part in the 25th Annual Paiute Tribe Pow Wow in Las Vegas | © Yaacov Dagan / Alamy Stock Photo
Josh Bell

The Southern Paiute people have called the Las Vegas area home since long before white settlers arrived. Here, we look at how their unique history and heritage shaped southern Nevada, and their role in the region today.

The world’s largest legal marijuana dispensary? That’s the Southern Paiute’s. A golf resort just outside Las Vegas with three championship golf courses designed by World Golf Hall of Fame architect Pete Dye? That’s the Southern Paiute’s, too. The largest cigarette retailer in the United States? Also proudly owned by the Southern Paiute. And how about the most popular place to buy (and set off) fireworks in southern Nevada? Yep, you guessed it – it belongs to the Southern Paiute. The indigenous tribe may be few in number, but they continue to make a major impact in Las Vegas and the surrounding area.

The Southern Paiute tribe has made its home in the land we now call Nevada as far back as 1100. They’re one of four Native American tribes who have tribal lands in Nevada, along with the Northern Paiute, the Washoe and the Western Shoshone, and today there are federally recognized bands of Southern Paiute people in Las Vegas and Moapa, as well as a Paiute band in Pahrump, all of which are in the greater Las Vegas area.

The Paiute Tribe Pow Wow takes place every year in Las Vegas

Although they share some similarities in language with the Northern Paiutes, both their culture and their language are distinctive. Southern Paiute people are traditionally especially skilled at making intricately woven baskets, which are created for everyday use but also provide insight into the tribe’s domestic life and history. A recent exhibit of Southern Paiute crafts at the Clark County Museum in Las Vegas was titled The Beauty of Purpose, expressing the duality of these beautiful but functional pieces.

Early Southern Paiutes sometimes came into conflict with other tribes, including the Navajo, Ute and Hopi, but mostly lived in peace. The tribe first encountered European settlers in 1776. From the 1860s onwards, they suffered, with much of their land taken from them by Nevada’s early Mormon settlers and the silver miners who flocked to the state at the end of the 19th century.

Tribal members participate in the 25th Annual Paiute Tribe Pow Wow

Like indigenous people all over North America, the Southern Paiute were victims of violence, disease and a deliberate attempt to stamp out their culture and customs. Yet, although their numbers are far from what they once were (membership in the Las Vegas Band currently numbers just 56, and the Moapa band’s population was 238 as of 2010), recent years have seen a resurgence of pride in Southern Paiute heritage and traditions.

Today, the Southern Paiute tribes in the Las Vegas area operate a number of successful businesses while also preserving and celebrating their ancient customs. The Las Vegas Paiute Resort at Snow Mountain features those three championship golf courses, the first of which opened in 1995, and frequently hosts top-notch golf tournaments. In downtown Las Vegas, the Las Vegas Band runs the Tribal Smoke Shop, and with the legalization of medical and recreational marijuana in Nevada, in October 2017 the Las Vegas Paiutes opened the NuWu Cannabis Marketplace.

At nearly 16,000 square feet (1,500 square meters), NuWu is the largest marijuana dispensary in the world, open 24 hours and offering drive-through service, in true Las Vegas style. NuWu (which translates to “we, the Southern Paiute people”) has been featured on Jimmy Kimmel Live and has partnered with local professional soccer team the Las Vegas Lights. “Cannabis is the economic future of the tribe,” former tribal chairman Benny Tso told Cannabis Now in April 2019, a few months after the opening of a second dispensary on the tribe’s Snow Mountain land.

The Southern Paiute continue to honor their traditions at the annual Paiute Tribe Pow Wow

On the Moapa River Indian Reservation, the Moapa Paiutes operate the Moapa Paiute Travel Plaza, which is a frequent destination for road-trippers headed to the Valley of Fire State Park and anyone looking for the best fireworks to celebrate the Fourth of July. The 10,000-square-foot (930-square-meter) fireworks facility also includes a launch pad covering more than 40 acres, free to use for anyone who buys fireworks at the Travel Plaza.

The Las Vegas and Moapa Bands also honor Southern Paiute traditions with annual powwows. For the past 29 years, the Snow Mountain Pow Wow has attracted indigenous performers, craftspeople and spectators from across the US and Canada to the three-day event, held annually over Memorial Day weekend at the Snow Mountain Reservation. The Southern Paiute Veterans Association holds its annual powwow at Southern Paiute Veterans Memorial Park on the Moapa River Reservation.

Tribal members wear traditional dress at the 25th Annual Paiute Tribe Pow Wow

There are nowhere near as many Southern Paiute people today as there were before the arrival of white colonists, but the Southern Paiute continue to honor the traditions of their ancestors by bringing their heritage into all of their modern ventures. “In essence, we need to get back to being caretakers of this Earth and loving each other, regardless of our skin color, our creed,” Las Vegas Band tribal leader Chris Spotted Eagle told the Las Vegas Review-Journal in 2016. For the Southern Paiute, those values remain strong.

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