Paiute (sometimes written as Piute) refers to two related groups -- Northern Paiute and Southern Paiute --of Native Americans speaking languages belonging to the Numic branch of the Uto-Aztecan family of Native American languages. The use of the name "Paiute" for these peoples is misleading - The Northern Paiute are more closely related to the Shoshone than to the Southern Paiute, and the Southern Paiute are more closely related to the Ute than to the Northern Paiute. Usage of the terms Paiute, Northern Paiute and Southern Paiute is most correct when referring to groups of people with similar language and culture, and should not be taken to imply a political connection or even an especially close genetic relationship.
The origin of the word Paiute is unclear - some anthropologists have interpreted it as "Water Ute" or "True Ute". The Northern Paiute call themselves Numa (sometimes written as Numu). The Southern Paiute call themselves Nuwuvi. Both terms mean "the people". Early Spanish explorers called the Southern Paiute "Payuchi" (they did not make contact with the Northen Paiute). Early Euro-American settlers often called both groups of Paiute "Diggers" (presumably due to their practice of digging for roots), although that term is now considered derogatory. The Northern Paiute are sometimes referred to as "Paviotso".
The Bannock, Mono, Panamint and Kawaiisu people who also speak Numic languages and live in adjacent areas are also sometimes referred to as Paiute.
The Northern Paiute traditionally lived in the Great Basin in eastern California, western Nevada, and southeast Oregon. The Northern Paiute's pre-contact lifestyle was well adapted to the harsh desert environment in which they lived. Each tribe or band occupied a specific territory, generally centered on a lake or wetland which supplied fish and water-fowl. Rabbits and Pronghorn were taken from surrounding areas in communal drives, which often involved neighboring bands. Individuals and families appear to have moved freely between bands. Pinyon nuts gathered in the mountains in the fall provided critical winter food. Grass seeds and roots were also important parts of their diet. The name of each band came from a characteristic food source. For example, the people at Pyramid Lake were known as the Cui Ui Ticutta (meaning "Cui-ui eaters"), the people of the Lovelock area were known as the Koop Ticutta (meaning "ground-squirrel" eaters) and the people of the Carson Sink were known as the Toi Ticutta (meaning "tule eaters").
Relations among the Northern Paiute bands and their Shoshone neighbors were generally peaceful. In fact the distinction between the Northern Paiute and Western Shoshone is not sharp. Relations with the Washoe people, who were culturally and linguistically very different, were not so peaceful.
Sustained contact between the Northern Paiute and Euro-Americans came in the early 1840s, although the first contact may have been in the 1820s. Although they had already started using horses, their culture was otherwise largely unaffected by European influences at that point. As Euro-American settlement of the area progressed, several violent incidents occurred including the Pyramid Lake War of 1860 and the Bannock War of 1878. These incidents took the general pattern of a settler steals from, rapes or murders a Paiute, a group of Paiutes retaliate and a group of settlers or the US Army counter-retaliates. Many more Paiutes died from introduced diseases such as small pox.
The first reservation established for the Northern Paiute was the Malheur Reservation in Oregon. The federal government's intention was to concentrate the Northern Paiute there, however its strategy didn't work. Due to the distance of that reservation from the traditional areas of most of the bands, and due to the poor conditions on that reservation, many Northern Paiute refused to go there and those that did soon left. Instead they clung to the traditional lifestyle as long as possible, and when environmental degradation made that impossible they sought jobs on white farms, ranches or cities and established small Indian colonies, where they were joined by many Shoshone and, in the Reno area, Washoe people. Later, large reservations were created at Pyramid Lake and Duck Valley, however by that time the pattern of small de facto reservations near cities or farm districts often with mixed Northern Paiute and Shoshone populations had been established. Starting in the early 1900s the federal government began granting land to these colonies, and under the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 these colonies gained recognition as independent tribes.