Chemehuevi (Native Americans of the Southwest)

Chemehuevitmp6C-16_thumbis Yuman for "nose-in- the-air-like-a-roadrunner," referring to a running style of the original settlers of the Chemehuevi Valley.

Measuring cloth during a government issue at the San Carlos Reservation in Arizona (1887).

Measuring cloth during a government issue at the San Carlos Reservation in Arizona (1887).

These Indians traditionally called themselves Nuwu, "the People," or Tantdwats, "Southern Men."

Location Since the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the people have lived in the Chemehuevi Valley, California (part of the Colorado River Valley east of Joshua Tree National Monument, and southwestern California. Their traditional territory was located in southwestern Utah, the Mojave Desert, and finally the Chemehuevi Valley, near the present Lake Havasu.

Population There were perhaps 500 Chemehuevis in 1600. In 1990, there were 95 Indians at Chemehuevi and 2,345 at the Colorado River Reservation (out of these, perhaps 600 identified themselves as Chemehuevi).

Language Chemehuevis spoke Paiute, a group of the Shoshonean branch of the Uto-Aztecan language family.

Historical Information

History Toward the end of the eighteenth century, the Chemehuevi and the Las Vegas band of Southern Paiutes may have exterminated the Desert Mojave. In the mid-nineteenth century, the Chemehuevi took over their territory as well as that of the Pee-Posh (Maricopa) Indians, who had been driven away by the Mojave Indians and had gone to live on the Gila River. The Mojave either actively or passively accepted the Chemehuevi. On the Colorado River, the Chemehuevi developed a crop-based economy and at the same time began to think of themselves as a distinct political entity. They also became strongly influenced in many ways by the Mojave, notably in their interest in warfare and their religious beliefs. Some Chemehuevis raided miners in northern Arizona from the 1850s through the 1870s.

In 1865 the Chemehuevi and Mojave fought each other. The Chemehuevi lost and retreated back into the desert. Two years later, however, many returned to the California side of the Colorado River, where they resumed their lives on the Colorado River Reservation, established two years earlier. Many Chemehuevi also remained in and around the Chemehuevi Valley, combining wage labor and traditional subsistence. By the turn of the century, most Chemehuevis were settled on the Colorado River Reservation and among the Serrano and Cahuilla in southern California. In 1885, after a particularly severe drought, a group moved north to farm the Chemehuevi Valley. When a reservation was established there, in 1907, the tribal split became official.

The creation of Hoover Dam in 1935 and Parker Dam in 1939 spelled disaster for the Chemehuevi. The Hoover stopped the seasonal Colorado River floods, which the Chemehuevi people had depended upon to nourish their crops. The Parker Dam created Lake Havasu, placing most of the Chemehuevi Valley under water. At that point, most Indians in the Chemehuevi Valley moved south again to join their people at the Colorado River Reservation. A government relocation camp operated on the reservation from 1942 to 1945.

By the end of World War II, 148 Navajo and Hopi families had also colonized the reservation; they, with the Chemehuevi and Mojave, became known as the Colorado River Indian Tribes (CRIT). As a result of a 1951 lawsuit, the Chemehuevi were awarded $900,000 by the United States for land taken to create Lake Havasu. The tribe was not formally constituted until they adopted a constitution in 1971. At about that time, some Chemehuevis began a slow return to the Chemehuevi Valley, where they remain today, operating a resort on their tribal lands.

Religion After migrating to the Colorado River Valley, the Chemehuevi became strongly influenced by Mojave beliefs. Specifically, they acquired both interest and skill in dreaming and in using the power conferred by dreams to cure illness and spiritual imbalance. The Chemehuevi also adopted some of the Mojave song cycles, which referred to dreams as well as mythological events.

Government Before their move to the Colorado River, the Chemehuevi had little tribal consciousness or government per se. They roamed their territory in many bands, each with a relatively powerless chief. They assumed a tribal identity toward the mid-nineteenth century. At the same time, the chief, often a generous, smart, wealthy man succeeded by his eldest son, assumed a stronger leadership role.

Customs After the early nineteenth century, the Chemehuevi burned the body and possessions of their dead, following preparations by relatives. At this time, they also adopted many Mojave and Quechan customs, such as floodplain farming, dwelling type, an emphasis on dreams, and specific war-related customs. New parents rested on a hot bed for several days. Their mourning ceremony, or "cry," in which a wealthy family gave a feast and destroyed goods, had its roots in Southern Paiute culture.

Dwellings The traditional Chemehuevi shelter consisted of small, temporary huts covered with dirt.

Diet Following their move to the river, a diet based on foods obtained by hunting and by gathering desert resources was partially replaced by crops such as corn, beans, pumpkins, melons, grasses (semicultivated), and wheat. The Chemehuevi also ate fish from the river; game, including turtles, snakes, and lizards; and a variety of wild plants, such as mesquite beans (a staple) and pinon nuts.

Key Technology Chemehuevi technology in the nineteenth century consisted largely of adaptations of Mojave items, such as reed rafts, baskets and pottery, a headring for carrying, gourds for storage and rattles, planting sticks and wooden hoes, and fish and carrying nets. They also adopted Mojave floodplain irrigation methods.

Trade In the nineteenth century, the Chemehuevi participated in the general regional trade, extending into southern California, which saw the exchange of agricultural products for shells, feathers, and other items.

Notable Arts The Chemehuevi made excellent baskets. They also learned pottery arts from the Mojave.

Transportation In addition to horses (acquired while they were still leading a nomadic existence in the desert) for basic mobility on land, the Chemehuevi used reed or log rafts for river travel, as well as large pots to hold provisions or even small children for short travels in the water.

Dress After contact with the Mojaves, men began wearing their hair in thin "ropes" that hung down the back. Generally, men and women wore double aprons. Women also wore willow-bark aprons. Both went barefoot except when traveling, when rawhide sandals were worn.

War and Weapons The Chemehuevi did not shy away from fighting. Traditional allies included the Mojave (especially), Quechan, Yavapai, and Western Apache. Enemies included the Cocopah, Pima, O’odham, Pee-Posh, and on occasion their allies, the Mojave. Warriors generally clubbed their sleeping victims in predawn raids. They also used the bow and arrow.

Contemporary Information

Government/Reservations The Chemehuevi have their own reservation in the Chemehuevi Valley, California. It was created in 1907 and contained 36,000 acres, almost 8,000 of which were subsequently lost to Lake Havasu. Most Chemehuevis live on the Colorado River Reservation, created in 1865, and are members of CRIT. This reservation contains roughly 270,000 acres. It is governed under a constitution approved in 1937 and is dominated politically by the Mojave tribe.

Chemehuevis are also represented on the Morongo, Cabazon, and Agua Caliente Reservations (Cahuilla) in California.

Economy The tribal resort on Lake Havasu provides most of the employment and income for members of that reservation. CRIT, which boasts notably low unemployment (10 percent in 1985), features an 11,000-acre farming cooperative (primarily cotton, alfalfa, melons, and lettuce), a sheep herd, a resort (Aha Quin Park), and employment with the tribe, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, numerous small and large businesses, and the local health center. Long-term leases provide further income. There are also hydroelectric, oil, and uranium resources.

Legal Status Federally recognized tribal entities include the Chemehuevi Indian Tribe of the Chemehuevi Reservation, California, and the Colorado River Indian Tribes of the Colorado River Indian Reservation, Arizona and California.

Daily Life Intermarriage on the Colorado River Reservation has tended to blur the identities of the individual constituent tribes of CRIT, with the possible exception of the Mojave, which dominate by their sheer numbers. The other tribes both concede Mojave domination and search for ways to maintain their individuality. Toward this end, a museum has been built that details the heritage of the separate tribes. The Colorado River Reservation features motorboat races and a rodeo. Children from both reservations attend public schools.

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