The role of moral outrage in the Northern Paiute Wars of the mid-19th century

Michael Allen Gualtieri
Dept. of Anthropology, University of Oregon
August, 2006


By the 1850s, economic and ecological pressures associated with white settlers were an ongoing source of Northern Paiute resentment and hostility, and small- scale guerilla raiding and looting of white emigrants were recurrent events. In early summer, 1860, these hostilities came to a head in the Pyramid Lake War, touched off when a large, motley group of white attackers were routed, run down, and killed by a ready, well-coordinated force of Northern Paiute and Shoshoneans camped at Pyramid Lake. Although economic and ecological pressures were the most obvious flash-points, I show that this and subsequent actions are more fully understood in light of Paiute outrage at moral violation by whites. Particularly, the Northern Paiute became increasingly apprehensive that Euroamericans were violating puha ---a symbolic construct representing transcendental power. puha was a "helping" presence pervading and personifying physical objects and animals, and also associated with certain classes of people---viz. children. Interactions with puha were circumscribed by a set of reciprocal prescriptions, and the Euroamerican violation of these was particularly troubling. In this regard, a massacre of Native children at Rolfe's Ranch in California and the abduction of two children on the Carson River were seen as attacks on puha itself. These violations threatened fundamental Paiute values, angered the spiritual powers, and could not be tolerated. Because violations of puha were sacred matters, they activated the collective forms of Paiute social organization deployed during transcendental ceremony. These occasions were customarily directed by shamans, and it was shamans who organized the collective resistance of the Pyramid Lake War. From that point on, organized violence in Nevada and eastern Oregon appears to have assumed a broader dimension, which was a substantive departure from pre-1860 "guerrilla" raids, and more closely aligned with the social organization appropriate to sacred action. Thus, the distinct character of the Pyramid Lake War was shaped by moral outrage at the violation of puha , and organized on pre-existing forms of collective sacred action used to mediate puha relations. Ultimately, these developments---as well as the transcendental character of events prior to the war---suggest a moral-sacred aspect of late-stage Paiute militarism.