American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
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Quechan

"Quechan" comes from xam kwatcan, "another going down" (a reference to their ancestral migration). Quechans are also known as Yuma Indians; Yuma is an O'odham word for "People of the River." Quechan farmers began using the floodwaters of the Colorado River for irrigation around 2,500 years ago. The Quechans lived in several small settlements, or rancherias, along the bottomlands of the Colorado River, near the mouth of the Gila. Many Quechans now live on the Fort Yuma Reservation as well as on the Cocopah Reservation with Pee-Posh and Cocopas, having once been allied with these tribes. Quechan is a dialect of River Yuman.

The Quechans were organized into patrilineal clans. Little or no status differences existed among family groups. Rancheria leaders addressed the people from rooftops on correct behavior. All possessions of the deceased, even the house, were given away or destroyed. Dung was burned to keep away mosquitoes.

Like those of all Yumans, Quechan religion and knowledge were based on dreaming. Dreams were seen as visits with ancestors. The most powerful dreamer was their religious leader. Dreams also brought power to lead in battle, to orate at a funeral, or to do almost anything. However, dreams were considered of questionable authenticity unless they conferred success. Shamans were specialists who were able to cure using supernatural powers acquired through very powerful dreams, perhaps begun in the womb. They also controlled the weather.

Quechans sang extended 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. Important Quechan ceremonies included a four-day-long girls' puberty rite and a boy's nose-piercing ceremony (at age seven, which also included racing and fasting). A mesquite harvest festival in the summer and a crop harvest festival in the fall both featured games, contests, gambling, and songs. Quechans also observed a four-day-long mourning ceremony.

All political authority among the Quechans was based on dreams, as was the authority of singers, speakers, and curers. Each rancheria had one or more headmen: Although they might meet in council to discuss tribal matters, decision making was by consensus. Other offices included the war leader and funeral orator.

Quechans considered war essential to the acquisition and maintenance of their spiritual power. They distinguished between raiding, an activity whose main purpose was to acquire horses or captives, and warfare, the purpose of which was revenge. The Mojaves were traditional allies; their enemies included the Cocopahs, Pee-Posh, and Pimas. The Quechan warrior hierarchy included the leader, then spearmen and clubmen, archers, horsepeople (after contact) with spears, and finally women with clubs. For weapons they used mesquite bows, clubs, stone knives, hide shields, and spears.

The Quechans first encountered a non-Native person in 1540, in the person of Hernando de Alarcón. Father Eusebio Francisco Kino arrived in 1698 and Father Francisco Garces in 1775. The Quechans generally resisted Spanish missions and settlements. A rebellion in 1781 ended Spanish control of a key river crossing, and the Quechans were able to continue their traditional way of life.

In the midnineteenth century, Quechans occasionally raided overland travelers (on the Southern Overland Trail, or Butterfield Route), partly in retaliation for crop thievery. The number of non-Indians passing through their territory increased greatly in and after 1849, due to the California gold rush. At that time, the Quechans provided a ferry service across the Colorado. When Anglos attempted to open a competing service, the Quechans blocked the passage. When the U.S. Army intervened to keep the passage open, the Quechans fought back, driving the U.S. forces away for a year. In 1852, the soldiers returned and built Fort Yuma, effectively ending Quechan resistance in the area. Five years later, the Quechans and their Mojave allies were defeated by the Pimas and Maricopas in the last big intra-Indian fight near the Colorado River.

In 1853 the United States established the Fort Yuma Reservation with 45,000 acres, on the California side of the Colorado. Steamship and railroad travel, as well as the town of Yuma, boomed in the following decades. Quechans worked as steamship pilots and woodcutters until railroads ended the industry and then as laborers and domestics.

By the end of the century the tribe, devastated by disease, was in a state of cultural eclipse. Factionalism also weakened the tribe, and Anglos took the opportunity to appoint Quechan leaders unilaterally. Clan and village affiliations broke down when youths were taken away forcibly to boarding school. The Quechans relinquished most of their land in 1893 and lost the best of what was left to Anglos by 1910. Upstream dams prevented natural flooding, and Quechan farmers, people of the river for centuries, found themselves in the position of having to pay for irrigation water.

Quechans lived in poverty well into the twentieth century. The mandated allotment of their land in 1912 led to endless subdivision and rendered it useless for agriculture; most was leased to non-Indians. The federal War on Poverty arrived in the 1960s, and with it new opportunities for decent housing and economic development. In 1978 the government returned 25,000 acres (minus the vital water rights) and paid for even more in the 1980s.

 

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