American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
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Chemehuevi

"Chemehuevi" is Yuman for "nose in the air like a roadrunner," referring to a running style of the original settlers of the Chemehuevi Valley. These Indians traditionally called themselves Nuwu, "the People," or Tantáwats, "Southern Men." Chemehuevis spoke Paiute, a group of the Shoshonean branch of the Uto-Aztecan language family.

Since the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, these 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.

Toward the end of the eighteenth century, the Chemehuevis and the Las Vegas band of southern Paiutes may have exterminated the Desert Mojaves. In the midnineteenth century, the Chemehuevis took over their territory as well as that of the Pee-Posh (Maricopa) Indians, who had been driven away by the Mojave Indians and who had gone to live on the Gila River. The Mojaves either actively or passively accepted the Chemehuevis. On the Colorado River, the Chemehuevis 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 Mojaves, 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 Chemehuevis and Mojaves fought each other. The Chemehuevis lost and retreated to 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 Chemehuevis 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 Serra-nos and Cahuillas 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 Chemehuevis. The Hoover stopped the seasonal Colorado River floods, which the Chemehuevi people had depended on 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 Chemehuevis and Mojaves, became known as the Colorado River Indian Tribes (CRIT). As a result of a 1951 lawsuit, the Chemehuevis 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.

Before their move to the Colorado River, the Chemehuevis 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 midnineteenth century. At the same time, the chief, often a generous, smart, wealthy man succeeded by his eldest son, assumed a stronger leadership role.

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 Chemehuevis 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 piñon nuts.

 

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