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ETHNONYMS: Amojave, Jamajabs, Soyopas


Identification. The Mohave were a farming people whose name for themselves, "Hamakhav," has been translated to mean "people who live along the water." In the 1970s, two thousand Mohave lived on the Colorado Indian Reservation and the Fort Mohave Reservation, both located along the Colorado River at the Arizona-California border.

Location. Aboriginally, the Mohave occupied both sides of the lower Colorado River, roughly the region along the border between the present-day states of Arizona and California. The center of their homeland was the Mohave Valley. Mild winters, hot summers, and low annual precipitation characterize the climate of this region. The central geographical feature is the Colorado River, which flows southwest through canyons and floodplains to the Gulf of California. Before the river was dammed in the twentieth century it overflowed its banks each spring, depositing rich silt on the floodplains cultivated by the Mohave. Cane and arrowweed and cottonwood and willow groves grew along the river bottoms. Rabbits were common at the lower elevations inhabited by the Mohave, while large game such as deer were scarce.

Demography. The Mohave numbered about 3,000 in 1770, 4,000 in 1872, and only 1,050 in 1910. The dramatic population loss at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries was due to disease and poverty stemming from their subjugation by the U.S. government in 1859. The population had increased to 1,500 by 1965 and to 2,000 in the 1980s.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Mohave speak a dialect of the Yuman language, which is classified in the Hokan-Siouan language family.

History and Cultural Relations

The ancestors of the Mohave are believed to have migrated to the Mohave Valley from the Mohave Desert well before European contact, perhaps as early as a.d. 1150. First White Contact was with Spanish explorers in 1604, but from that time until the 1820s the Mohave remained relatively free from and unchanged by European influences. In the 1820s European-American trappers and traders entered the Mohave country, and their encounters with the Mohave were sometimes violent. In 1858 the Mohave attacked a wagon train of White settlers in response partly to intrusions into their territory. A year later they were dealt a disastrous defeat by federal troops. They subsequently were relocated to the Colorado Indian Reservation, established in 1867, and the Fort Mohave Indian Reservation, established in 1880.

The Mohave were allies of the Quechan and Yavapai, but enemies of the other River Yuman peoples, the Halchidhoma, Maricopa, and Cocopa. The Pima and Papago were also counted as traditional enemies. During the nineteenth Century the Mohave engaged in a long period of warfare with their enemies, which came to an end when they were defeated by the Pima and Maricopa in 1857.


Mohave dwellings consisted of open, pole-framed ramadas for use in warm weather and low, log-framed, thatch-roofed houses covered with a layer of sand for use in the winter. Settlements were neighborhoods of dispersed homesteads situated above the floodplains where crops were planted. Generally, settlements were several miles apart from each other.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Mohave planted maize, beans, pumpkins, and melons. The rich silt deposited on their farmlands by spring floods made crop rotation and fertilization unnecessary. The basic farming tools were a planting stick with a wedge-shaped point and a slightly curved wooden weed cutter. Fish were the primary source of animal protein in the diet and were caught with nets, weirs, and scooplike baskets. Deer, rabbits, and other animals, hunted with bow and arrow, and gathered beans, seeds, and fruits supplemented the diet. In recent times the Mohave have practiced irrigation farming and earned income from leases of their reservation lands.

Industrial Arts. Industrial arts were not well developed. They made crude willow twig sieves, scoops, and baskets for use in fishing. Coiled pots of clay tempered with sandstone were also manufactured. These were fired in open wood fires and used as water jars, cooking pots, platters, plates, and bowls. The Mohave also built crude reed rafts for crossing rivers.

Trade. The Mohave participated in an extensive trade network that brought them abalone shells from native peoples in southern California, cotton cloth from the Pueblos to the east, and deer meat from their Walapai neighbors in return for agricultural produce.

Division of Labor. Men cleared land for planting and women harvested the crops; both men and women participated in planting and cultivation. Women were also responsible for collecting wild foods, food preparation, and making baskets, and men were responsible for hunting and fishing, working skins and making skin clothing, making tools and weapons, and building houses.

Land Tenure. Farmland belonged to those who cultivated it. Land could be sold and could be appropriated if unused simply by clearing it and beginning cultivation.


Kin Groups and Descent. Patrilineal exogamous clans existed, but they were without leaders and played no role in the ceremonial life of the Mohave. Clan names had totemic import, but totemic taboos were either insignificant or lacking. Descent was patrilineal.

Kinship Terminology. Mohave kinship terminology followed the Hawaiian system.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Marriage involved neither formal ceremony nor significant property transaction. Clan exogamy prevailed in the choice of spouse, but beyond that individuals were free to arrange their own marriages. Polygynous marriages were permitted, but not common. Postmarital residence was either matrilocal or patrilocal, depending on personal preferences and individual circumstances. Divorce was a simple affair, involving only the separation of the couple at the will of either partner.

Domestic Unit. The nuclear family was the basic unit of Mohave economy and society. Extended family members sometimes cooperated in farming activities.

Inheritance. No personal property was inherited since Personal possessions were burned at death. In the twentieth Century land was loosely inherited through the male line. Theoretically, daughters had a claim on their father's land as well, but rarely exercised it.

Socialization. Parents were indulgent and permissive with their children; discipline was mild and rarely physical. The young were allowed considerable sexual freedom and were encouraged to enjoy sexual pleasures. As knowledge and skills were thought to be obtained from dreams, education and instruction were informal. Girls were secluded for a short period of time at their first menstruation; dreams during this period of seclusion were considered to be important omens.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Mohave settlements constituted local groups or neighborhoods, the cores of which were Patrilocal and bilocal extended families. Women occupied a relatively high status in day-to-day life, but in the religious realm they held a distinctly subordinate position.

Political Organization. The Mohave were loosely organized into three regional groupings or bands, each composed of several local groups. A head chief, whose position was inherited patrilineally, existed; however, he exerted little authority. Other influential men in Mohave society were war leaders, Religious leaders who were the managers of entertainment and festivals, and shamans, each of whom gained prominence and influence through dreaming. Below the head chief were subchiefs of the various regional bands and, below them, local group leaders who gained influence through dreaming and demonstration of oratorical skills.

Social Control. Scorn and ridicule was heaped on those whose dreams proved false when their enterprises failed. Shamans who consistently failed in their charge to cure the sick or who were suspected of witchcraft might be put to death.

Conflict. Disputes often occurred when the periodic river flooding obliterated property boundary markers. Such disputes were sometimes settled in pushing matches or stick fights on the contested property.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. A deity named Mastamho was believed to have been responsible for the creation of the land and teaching the people how to live. When his work was complete, Mastamho transformed himself into a nondeity fish eagle. Other supernaturals were few and were not worshiped nor the object of prayer. Dreaming and dream interpretation were the foundation of Mohave life. Dreams were believed to be the source of knowledge, skills, courage, success in love and war, and shamanistic power. Dreams were of two types: omen dreams, which foretold the future, and great dreams, which were the source of power and were obtained by select individuals before birth and rediscovered in adolescence. During the nineteenth century many Mohave converted to Christianity.

Religious Practitioners. The main religious leaders were men who organized feasts and celebrations and performed ceremonies believed to strengthen the solidarity of the tribe.

Ceremonies. Religious ceremonies were limited to the recitation of dreams and the singing of song cycles received in dreams. In the singing of song cycles ceremonial paraphernalia consisted of gourd rattles and baskets used as drums for accompaniment.

Arts. Pottery was painted with a yellow ocher applied with a small stick. Tattooing was a common practice, as was face painting, especially among the women. Both sexes were Commonly tattooed with lines or rows of dots down the chin, and women sometimes added lines across their cheeks and forearms. Since the close of the nineteenth century Mohave women have sold decorated pottery and animal figurines to tourists in Needles, California, near the Fort Mohave Reservation.

Medicine. Illness was believed to derive from a number of sources, including contact with aliens, dreaming, loss of one's soul, ghosts, and sorcery, in addition to physical wounds from arrows and poisonous animals. Illnesses were cured by shamans who were specialists in specific types of illness and who possessed the ability to cure by means of power obtained in "great dreams". Shamans were also believed to be capable of causing disease and death through sorcery.

Death and Afterlife. Funeral ceremonies consisted of the cremation of the deceased and his or her possessions, Speeches concerning the deceased, and the singing of song Cycles. Wailing accompanied the approach of death and cremation. In addition, mourning ceremonies consisting of ritual reenactments of warfare were held to honor important Warriors and chiefs. Mentioning of the names of the dead was taboo. The Mohave believed that after death the soul or ghost of the deceased remained for four days before journeying to the land of the dead, where it was greeted by the souls of deceased relatives and underwent a series of cremations and transformations after which it ceased to exist.


Castetter, Edward F., and Willis H. Bell (1951). Yuman Indian Agriculture: Primitive Subsistence on the Lower Colorado and Gila Rivers. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

Dutton, Bertha (1976). The Rancheria, Ute, and Southern Paiute Peoples. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.

Kroeber, Alfred L. (1953). Handbook of the Indians of California, 726-780. Berkeley: California Book Co.

Stewart, Kenneth M. (1983). "Mohave." In Handbook of North American Indians. Vol. 10, Southwest, edited by Alfonso Ortiz, 55-70. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution.


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MOHAVE. The Mohaves are the northernmost of three culturally related groups living along the lower Colorado River. All three speak related Yuman languages. Traditional Mohave territory extends roughly forty-five miles upriver and seventy-five miles downriver from the modern city of Needles, California. To their south, in the area of the Colorado-Gila confluence, are the Quechans; farther south, straddling the modern international boundary, are the Cocopas. (Between 1827 and 1829 a fourth

Yuman group, the Halchidhomas, were driven out of the area between the Mohaves and the Quechans and absorbed by groups to the east.) The Mohaves are probable descendents of the more widespread ancient culture known archaeologically as Hakatayan or Lowland Patayan. Their own origin narratives declare this river region has always been their home, anchored by the sacred Spirit Mountain nearby.

They briefly met Spaniards in 1604, and again in 1776. In the late 1850s, after three decades of encounters with various white expeditions, the U.S. Army built Fort Mohave in their territory and subjugated them. Factionalism erupted in the 1860s and divided the Mohaves into two groups now on two separate reservations: Fort Mohave (just north of Needles, California) and, about forty miles south, the Colorado River reservation. Mohave population in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was estimated at between three and four thousand.

Like their lower Colorado Yuman relatives, the Mohaves traditionally maintained a strong sense of tribal identity despite their scattered and shifting settlement pattern and flexible leadership. They mounted tribal military campaigns, for example, sometimes allied with Quechans.

Their livelihood was linked to the Colorado: they farmed corn, beans, and pumpkins in the rich silt deposited during spring flooding. They lived as scattered extended families under sunshade shelters close by their family farm plots. Low, earth-covered winter houses squatted on elevations above the floodplain. Besides their crops, the Mohaves relied heavily on wild mesquite and screw-bean pods, which they ground into meal for gruel or baking. The pods became even more vital when there was no spring flooding. Fish were an important source of animal protein; deer and rabbit were less significant.

The scattered families were loosely clustered into larger settlements or rancherias, usually separated from one another by about four or five miles. Each rancheria in turn belonged to one of three larger named geographical subdivisions of the tribe. The tribe also included about twenty patrilineal clans, each of which had some totemic affiliation with an animal or plant (for example, frog, corn, or snake). The clans were exogamous, but their other functions remain unknown; they were not localized groups. Leadership was not highly structured; each rancheria recognized one or more leading men whose wise actions and generosity revealed their personal dream power. This informal civil leadership may or may not have included some members of a separate special category of benevolent orator-ritualists, who were endowed with extraordinary dream power. The title of tribal chief recognized by whites may not have been traditional. Especially skilled and courageous warriors belonged to a category of brave men. Other statuses included shamans, capable of curing or harm, and singers; all required power dreams.

The dominant theme of the Mohave worldview emphasized spiritual power derived from dreaming and from war. Individual spiritual power came from dreams whose specific content followed general scenarios and whose significance was publicly pondered (and sometimes under-scored in long song cycles). Evidently a collective tribal spiritual power waxed and waned; victories over traditional enemies (including principally Yuman-speaking Maricopas to the east and Cocopas to the south, as well as Halchidhoma, Pima, and Tohono O'odam groups) were a primary means of increasing the tribal power.

War parties were of two types: small-scale surprise raids and larger tribal campaigns. In tribal wars the opposing lines drew up to fling verbal insults at each other before loosing arrows and closing for hand-to-hand combat with heavy wooden clubs and short staffs. In the post-contact period, at least, these larger battles were not usually ignited to seize more territory. (The expulsion of the Halchidhomas was a qualified exception.) The small raids were more frequent, and evidently launched by younger men seeking to build their reputations and spread consternation among the enemy.

The most elaborate tribal ritual commemorated the deaths of prominent people during the preceding year or so. Its scenario portrayed successive phases of an epic war expedition as well as cremation segments of the origin narrative.

About 1,175 people live on the modern Fort Mohave Reservation, on a land base of 23,699 acres in Arizona and 5,582 acres in Nevada; 15,000 of these are under cultivation. The Colorado River Reservation includes about 2,400 people representing four ethnic groups: the Mohaves (the most numerous); the Chemehuevis; and Navajo and Hopi families who were moved on to the land in 1945. About 84,500 of the reservation's 278,000 acres are cultivated. Both reservations feature casinos.


Kroeber, Alfred L. Handbook of the Indians of California. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1925. American Ethnology Bureau Bulletin 78 (1925). Reprinted by Dover Publications, New York (1976).

Kroeber, Alfred L., and Clifton B. Kroeber. A Mohave War Reminiscence, 1854–1880. Vol. 10, University of California Publications in Anthropology. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press (1973).

Stewart, Kenneth M. "Mohave." In Handbook of North American Indians. Edited by William C. Sturtevant et al. Volume 10, Southwest, edited by Alfonso Ortiz. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1983.

Wallace, William J. "The Mohave Indians of the Lower Colorado River." In The Native Americans 2d edition. Edited by Robert F. Spencer, Jesse D. Jennings et al. New York: Harper and Row, 1977.

Robert L.Bee

See alsoTribes: Southwestern .

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Mohave (indigenous people of North America)

Mohave (mōhä´vē), indigenous people of North America whose language belongs to the Yuman branch of the Hokan-Siouan linguistic stock (see Native American languages). In the mid-18th cent. they lived on both banks of the Colorado River, in Arizona and California. They then numbered some 3,000. The Mohave were semisedentary farmers who generally cultivated bottomland along the river. They lived in low brush dwellings. Most of the Mohave now live on the Colorado River Reservation in Arizona, which was established in 1865. In 1990 there were close to 1,400 Mohave in the United States.

See H. Grey, Tales from the Mohaves (1970); study by A. L. Kroeber (1974).

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Mohave (river and desert, United States)

Mohave, river and desert: see Mojave.

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