The Pai Indians, who traditionally considered themselves one people, probably descended from the prehistoric Patayans of the ancient Hakataya culture. Thirteen bands of Pais originally ranged in northwest Arizona along the Colorado River, hunting, farming, and gathering. By historic times, three subtribes had been organized: the Middle Mountain People, the Plateau People, and the Yavapai Fighters. Each subtribe was further divided into several bands, which in turn were divided into camps and families.
Traditional political authority was decentralized. The headmen of both a camp (roughly twenty people) and a band (roughly eighty-five to 200 people) led by fostering consensus. They served as war chiefs and spokespeople when necessary. The position of headman was occasionally hereditary but more often based on personality and ability. There was little or no tribal identity until the early twentieth century, when the Hualapais created a fledgling tribal council. In the 1930s they adopted a constitution and elected their first tribal president.
Occasionally the Hualapais grew the standard American crops (corn, beans, and squash) near springs and ditches. Corn was made into mush, soup, and bread; pumpkins were dried in long strips. In the main, however, they obtained their food by hunting and gathering, leaving their summer camps to follow the seasonal ripening of wild foods. The women gathered piñon nuts, cactus and yucca fruits, agave (mescal) hearts, mesquite beans, and other plants. The men hunted deer, antelope, mountain sheep, rabbits (in drives), and small game. Meat was dried and stored in skin bags. The Hualapais also ate fish.
The Hualapais were part of an extensive system of exchange that stretched from the Pacific Ocean to the Pueblos. Shell decorations and horses came from the Mojaves and the Quechans. Rich red ocher pigment was a key trade item, as were baskets and dried mescal and dressed skins. Meat and skins went for crops; lima beans for Hopi peaches.
Although the Pais encountered non-Natives in 1540, or perhaps as late as 1598, neither the Spanish nor the Mexicans developed Hualapai country, which remained fairly isolated until the 1820s. Around that time, a trail was blazed from the Rio Grande to California that led directly through Pai country. After the Mexican cession (1848), Hualapais began working in white-owned mines. With Anglo invasions and treaty violations increasing and the mines ever exploitative, the Hualapais, in 1865, met violence with violence. A warrior named Cherum forced a key U.S. retreat but later scouted for his old enemy. Later, the United States selected Hualapai Charley and Leve Leve as principal chiefs because they were amenable to making peace. The Hualapai War ended in 1869.
Because the eastern Pais played a minor role in the war, they were allowed to return home afterward; it was at this juncture that the two "tribes," Hualapais and Havasupais, became increasingly separate. The army forced the Hualapais who failed to escape to march in 1874 to the Colorado River Reservation. There, the low altitude combined with disease and poor rations brought the Hualapais much suffering and death. When they filtered back home several years later, they found their land in non-Native hands. Still, they applied for and received official permission to remain, and a reservation was established for them in 1883.
The reservation consisted of 1 million acres on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, a fraction of their original land. Before long, overgrazing by non-Indians had ruined the Native food supply, and ranchers and cattlemen were directly threatening the Indians with physical violence. A series of epidemics struck the Hualapais. Most Hualapais lived off the reservation, scrambling for wage work and sending their children to Anglo schools. As the Hualapais formed an underclass of cheap, unskilled labor, their way of life began to vanish. The railroad depot at Peach Springs became the primary Hualapai village, but the railroad brought only dislocation, disease, and some jobs. Their new condition strengthened their differences with the still isolated Havasupais.
The Hualapais began herding cattle in 1914, although their herds were greatly outnumbered by those of non-Natives. Extensive prejudice against the Indians diminished somewhat after World War I, out of respect for Indian war heroes. Through the midtwentieth century the Hualapais retained a strong sense of their culture, although economic progress was extremely slow up to then.