Location The Mojave traditionally lived in the Mojave Valley and along the northern lower Colorado River. Today, Mojave Indians live primarily on the Fort Mojave Reservation (Arizona) and on the Colorado River Indian Reservation (Arizona and California).
Population Roughly 20,000 Mojaves lived along the river in the early sixteenth century. Their number was reduced to 3,000 by 1770. The 1990 census showed roughly 600 Indians living at Fort Mojave (of a tribal enrollment of 967) and roughly 2,350 Indians living on the Colorado River Reservation, a majority of whom identified themselves as Mojave.
Language Mojaves spoke River Yuman, a member of the Hokan-Siouan language family.
History Ancestors of the modern Mojave Indians settled the Mojave Valley around 1150. These people farmed soil enriched from sediment left by the annual spring floods. The Mojave may have encountered non-natives as early as 1540. Although they served as scouts for Father Francisco Garces’s Grand Canyon expedition in 1776, among others, they generally resisted Spanish interference and maintained their independence.
Contact with non-natives remained sporadic until the nineteenth century. At about that time they began raiding Anglo-American fur trappers. They also allowed a band of Paiute Indians called the Chemehuevi to settle in the southern portion of their territory. The Mexican cession and discovery of gold in California brought more trespassers and led to more raids. In 1857, the Mojave suffered a decisive military loss to their ancient enemies, the Pima and Pee-Posh (Maricopa) Indians. Two years later, the United States built Forts Mojave and Yuma to stem Mojave raiding. By this time, however, the Mojave, defeated in battle and weakened by disease, settled for peace.
Mojave women carried babies on the hip, never on the back. This 1903 photograph by Edward S. Curtis emphasizes the simplicity of the Mojaves’ desert life.
In 1865, the Mojave leader Irrateba (or Yara Tav) convinced a group of his followers to relocate to the Colorado River Valley area. The same year, Congress created the Colorado River Reservation for "all the tribes of the Colorado River drainage," primarily the Mojave and Chemehuevi. Roughly 70 percent of the Mojaves had remained in the Mojave Valley, however, and they received a reservation in 1880. This split occasioned intratribal animosities for decades.
The early twentieth century was marked by influenza epidemics and non-Indian encroachment. The first assimilationist government boarding school had opened at the Colorado River Reservation in 1879. Legal allotments began in 1904. Traditional floodplain agriculture disappeared in the 1930s when the great dams tamed the Colorado River. During World War II, many U.S. citizens of Japanese heritage were interned on the Colorado River Reservation: For this operation the United States summarily appropriated 25,000 acres of Indian land.
For 19 years after the war, until 1964, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) opened the reservation to Hopi and Navajo settlement (tribal rejection of this rule in 1952 was ignored by the BIA). Now all members of four tribes call the reservation home, having evolved into the CRIT (Colorado River Indian Tribes) Indians, a difficult development for the few remaining Mojave elders. In 1963 a federal court case guaranteed the tribes title to federal water rights. They received a deed to the reservation the following year.
Religion The Mojaves believed, as did all Yumans, that they originally emerged into this world from a place near Spirit Mountain, Nevada. Dreaming was the key to Mojave religious experience. Dreams were seen as visits with ancestors. There were omen dreams and, more rarely, great dreams, which brought power to cure, lead in battle, orate a funeral, or do almost anything. However, dreams were considered of questionable authenticity unless they conferred success. Dreams permeated every aspect of Mojave culture. They were constantly discussed and meditated upon. Shamans had the most elaborate great dreams, which were considered to have begun in the womb. Shamans could cause disease as well as cure it, a situation that made for a precarious existence for them.
The Mojaves performed few public ceremonies or rituals. Instead, they sang song cycles for curing, funerals, and entertainment. The cycles consisted of dreams and tribal mythology and were accompanied by people shaking rattles and beating sticks on baskets. A complete cycle could take a night or more to sing, and the Mojave knew about 30 cycles, each with 100-200 songs.
Government Positions of authority such as subchiefs or local leaders derived from dreaming or oratory. Hereditary chiefs in the male line did exist, although with obscure functions. Despite their loose division into bands and local groups, the Mojave thought of themselves as a true tribe; that is, they possessed a national consciousness, and they came together for important occasions such as warfare.
Customs Men planted the crops and women harvested them. Leaders addressed the people from rooftops in the morning about proper ways of living. Hunters generally gave away what they killed. Both men and women tattooed and painted their bodies. The dead were cremated, and their possessions and homes were also burned after a special ceremony during which mourners sang song cycles. No formal marriage ceremony existed: Marriages were arranged by the couple, and divorce was easy and common. Women carried babies on the hip, never on the back. Mojaves often traveled widely for trade and fun, covering up to 100 miles by foot in a day.
Dwellings Bands and families lived in scattered rancherias, or farms. In warm weather they lived in flat-roofed, open-sided structures. Cold weather dwellings were low and rectangular, with roofs of thatch-covered poles; sand and earth or river mud were piled over the exterior. Doors faced south against the cold north winds. The people also used cylindrical granaries with flat roofs.
Diet Crops such as corn, beans, and pumpkins (and wheat and melons after the Spanish arrived) constituted 50 percent of the Mojave diet. They also caught fish; hunted game such as rabbits and beaver with bows and arrows, traps, or deadfalls; and gathered wild foods. Mesquite beans in particular were a staple, used for food, drink, flour (pith from pods), shoes and clothing (bark), hair dye, instruments (roots), glue (sap), fuel for firing pottery, and funeral pyres.
Key Technology Mojaves used reed rafts to cross the river; headrings for carrying; gourds for storage of seeds and water and, with wooden handles fastened with greasewood and arrowweed, for rattles; bows and arrows; planting sticks and wooden hoes; and assorted pottery and baskets. They also caught fish using drip and drag fish nets, traps, and basketry scoops.
Trade Mojaves traded agricultural products with tribes near the Gulf of California and the Pacific Ocean for shells and feathers. They also acted as brokers between a number of tribes for various indigenous items.
Notable Arts Men and women working together made coiled pottery, dull red when heated, in an open wood fire. In more recent times Mojaves were known for making glass beadwork.
Transportation Reed or log rafts were used for long river trips. Also, swimmers used "ferrying pots" to push food or small children ahead of them while they swam.
Dress Men and women wore loincloths; women also wore willow-bark aprons. Both went barefoot except when traveling, when they wore badger-hide sandals. Rabbit-skin blankets and robes kept them warm in winter. Both sexes wore their hair long; women’s hung loose, and men rolled theirs into strands. Both tattooed their chins and painted their faces.
War and Weapons The Mojaves were fierce fighters. A warrior society (kwanamis) led three different fighting groups: archers, clubbers, and stick (or lance) men. In addition to those three types of weapons, they also used deer-hide shields, mesquite or willow bows, and arrows in coyote or wildcat quivers. War leaders experienced dreams conferring power in battle. Traditional enemies included the Pima, O’odham, Pee-Posh, and Cocopah; allies included the Quechan, Chemehuevi, Yavapai, and Western Apache. The Mojave often took girls or young women as prisoners, giving them to old men as an insult to the enemy.
Government/Reservations Most Mojave Indians live on two reservations. The Colorado River Reservation (1865), containing roughly 270,000 acres, has an active tribal council (1937) and several subcommittees. The Fort Mojave Reservation (1870), within sight of Spirit Mountain and on ancestral lands, contains 32,697 acres, exclusive of about 4,000 acres in Nevada. Each reservation has its own tribal council. Both contain extremely irrigable land. Mojaves also live on the Fort McDowell Reservation in Arizona (24,680 acres, 765 population in 1992). The last traditional Mojave chief died in 1947.
Economy Farming remains important on the Colorado River Reservation, where unemployment stood at 10 percent in 1985. An 11,000-acre farming cooperative produces mainly cotton, alfalfa, wheat, melons, and lettuce. Tourism is also important: Facilities include a marina, resort (the Aha Quin Park), gift shop, and restaurant. Motorboat races are held in the spring and a rodeo in November. Some people herd sheep or work for the BIA or the public health service. Long-term leases provide significant income, as do numerous large and small businesses, such as a 10-acre recycling plant that opened in 1992.
Although agriculture (primarily cotton) remains important at Fort Mojave, that reservation is harder to irrigate successfully because it contains a checkerboard of private lands. Unemployment there hovers around 50 percent. There are plans to build a huge residential and commercial development, including a casino, in the Nevada part of the reservation. Fort Mojave also leases some land and caters to a small tourist trade. Some opportunities exist in and around the reservation for wage labor.
Legal Status The Colorado River Indian Tribes and the Fort Mojave Indian Tribe are federally recognized tribal entities. The latter has the status of a sovereign Indian nation.
Daily Life Both groups of Mojaves still cremate their dead and mourn them with some of the old songs and ceremonies. Few other myths or song cycles are remembered. Although many Mojaves are Christians, over half speak their native language. The Fort Mojave Reservation maintains a police force and court system. A hospital at CRIT struggles to provide adequate health care. The tribes support education with scholarship funds as well as land donations. A tribal museum helps to preserve the cultural heritages of the individual Colorado Indian tribes. Children attend public schools. Both communities are fighting a proposed "low-level" radioactive waste dump for nearby Ward Valley, an environmentally sensitive area on ground sacred to local tribes.