Cocopah (Native Americans of the Southwest)

Cocopahtmp6C-19_thumbfrom the Mojave kwi-ka-pah.

The Cocopah called themselves Xawil Kunyavaei, "Those Who Live on the River."

Location The traditional home of the Cocopah is near the Colorado River delta. Presently, many tribal members live in northwestern Mexico and on a reservation near Somerton, Arizona.

Population There may once have been as many as 5,000 Cocopahs. In 1993 there were 712, excluding at least 200 Mexican Cocopahs living in Baja California and Sonora.

Language Cocopahs spoke River Yuman, a member of the Hokan-Siouan language family.

Historical Information

History Ancestors of the Cocopah probably migrated from the north during the first millennium. By 1540 the Mojave and Quechan Indians had forced them down the Colorado River, to a place where they farmed 50,000 acres of delta land, made rich by the annual spring floods. The Cocopah encountered Spanish soldiers and travelers during the mid-sixteenth century but remained in place and relatively unaffected by contact with the Europeans until U.S. dams stopped the Colorado from flooding in the late nineteenth century.

In 1853, the Gadsden Treaty separated the four bands of Cocopah: Two remained in Mexico, and two moved north to near Somerton, Arizona. By the mid-1800s, with the cessation of warfare with their ancient enemies, the Quechans, the Cocopah lost a certain sense of purpose. A generation of men obtained employment as river pilots and navigators along the Colorado River, whetting their appetite for American goods and foods. Riverboat traffic ended when the railroad reached Yuma in 1877. In 1905, an accidental diversion of the Colorado River (the Salton Sea debacle) led to the Cocopahs’ final displacement. Lacking strong political, religious, or social leadership, they quickly fell further into disintegration and impoverishment.

Thanks mainly to the work of Frank Tehanna, the U.S. government established a reservation in 1917 for Cocopahs and some Quechans and Pee-Posh. The government then almost completely abandoned them for the next 60 years. By the end of World War II, fewer than 60 Cocopahs remained on the desolate reservation; the rest lived elsewhere, generally in even worse poverty. In the 1960s, the tribe organized and won electricity and improved housing. It built its first tribal building and rewrote its constitution.

In 1986, the tribe received an additional 615 acres, now known as the North Reservation. In the 1970s and 1980s, the tribe made improvements in education as well as other social and cultural programs. That period also witnessed a revival of crafts such as beadwork and the development of fine arts.

Religion The Cocopah creation myth, like that of other Yumans, mentions twin gods living under the waters who emerged to create the world. Cocopahs revered the sun. They believed that life is directed by dreams in nearly every regard and relied on the dreams of shamans for success in war and curing.

Most ceremonies, including karuk, a six-day mourning rite featuring long, "dreamed" song cycles, centered around death. The onset of puberty was also an occasion for ceremonies.

Government The Cocopah traditionally maintained little political leadership. They lived in small settlements, or rancherias, of 10 to 12 families. Society was organized into clans, with each clan having a leader. Other quasi officials included dance and war leaders and funeral orators. Leadership was generally determined by experience, ability, and, as with everything else, dreams.

Customs The Cocopah cremated their dead, including their possessions, following a special rite. Relatives cut off their hair in mourning, and the name of the dead person was never spoken. Marriage and divorce ceremonies were informal. Deer-bone blades hung on cords from the arms were used to wipe off perspiration. Dogs were kept as pets.

Dwellings Originally concentrated in nine rancherias, the Cocopah built two different types of homes. In winter they built conical, partially excavated (later four-post rectangular) structures, covering the walls of sticks with earth. In summer they built oval-domed, brush-covered huts. They also used a circular, unroofed ramada for dwelling and/or cooking and small granaries with elevated floors for storing food.

Diet Corn, beans, black-eyed peas, pumpkins, and later melons were planted, usually in July. Gathered food, such as the seeds of wild saltgrass, roots, fruits, eggs, and especially mesquite, were also important, as was fish (such as mullet and bass) from the river and the Gulf of California. Wild game included deer, boar, and smaller animals. Much of the food was dried and stored for the winter. In general, the women gathered and cooked food, and the men hunted.

Key Technology The Cocopah planted seeds in holes rather than rows in order to preserve topsoil. They used pottery (jars, seed-toasting trays), crude baskets, fire drills, vegetable-fiber fishing nets, clubs and bow and arrow for warfare, stone and wooden mortars, and stone and clamshell tools. Their musical instruments included a scraped and drummed basket, gourd rattles, and cane flutes and whistles. They also used small earthen dikes for irrigation.

Trade Trade contacts stretched west to the Pacific, northwest to northern California, northeast to much of Arizona, and southeast well into the Sonoran Desert.

Notable Arts Women made pottery that was mostly utilitarian, as was the basketry (made by men and women and used for storage, carrying, and cradles). In later historic times the Cocopah also learned loom weaving.

Transportation Cottonwood dugouts (the larger ones featured clay floors) or tule or brush rafts were used for river travel. Large baskets were used to transport small items or children on the river.

Dress Men wore tanned skin loincloths. Women wore bundles of feathers or willow-bark skirts in front and back. For both, clothing was minimal. People wore rabbit-skin robes or blankets in cold weather. Both men and women painted their faces and bodies for ornamental and ritual purposes. Men wore shell ornaments in pierced ears. Sandals were made of untanned skins. Men wore their hair long and braided. In the early twentieth century they tucked it under a bandanna. Women wore their hair long and straight, with bangs.

War and Weapons Warfare united the Cocopah. They observed formalized war patterns and respected special war leaders. They prepared for war by dreaming, fasting, and painting their bodies and underwent purification rituals upon their return. Traditional enemies included the Mojave and the Quechan; allied peoples included the O’odham, Pee-Posh, and Pai. Their weapons were the war club, bow and arrow, lance, and deerskin shield.

Contemporary Information

Government/Reservations The Cocopah Reservation (established in 1917, roughly 1,700 acres) is located near Somerton, Arizona. The tribe adopted a constitution and elected a tribal council in 1964.

Economy A few people practice subsistence farming, but most Indians work off-reservation for wages. Much land is leased to non-Indian farmers. The Cocopah Bend recreational vehicle park provides numerous public recreation facilities. There are also a bingo hall and casino on the reservation. Unemployment peaked at around 90 percent in the 1970s. Tourists buy fry-bread and crafts such as beadwork and reproductions of ceremonial clothing.

Legal Status The Cocopah tribe is a federally recognized tribal entity. In 1985, the tribe received 4,000 acres in land claims settlements. American Cocopahs are working to restore dual citizenship for their kin in Mexico.

Daily Life Most Cocopahs speak their language. They still burn and otherwise dispose of the possessions of their dead and perform the mourning ceremony. Children attend public schools. A small health clinic on the reservation attempts to cope with the people’s numerous health problems. Local housing, formerly grossly substandard (consisting of cardboard hovels as late as the 1970s), is now generally considered adequate. Elders may live in special housing on the reservation. After at least a thousand years of living on the river, the Cocopah are effectively no longer river people.

Next post:

Previous post: