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ETHNONYMS: Cocapa, Cocopah, Cucapá, Kokwapá

The Cocapa are a Yuman language-speaking group in the lower Colorado River region and its delta in southwestern Arizona and southeastern California, and northwestern Sonora and northeastern Baja California Norte in Mexico. The Cocopa continue to maintain their identity as an ethnic group, although many elements of their material culture have disappeared in the delta because of upstream diversions and dam construction. The U.S. Cocopa have a tribal council consisting of five members and a chairman with jurisdiction over the Cocopah Indian Reservation. One group of Mexican Cocopa still lives in the area of the Hardy River in Baja California Norte. Others live in Sonoramost of these very conservative Indians being in Pozos de Arvizu. There were about eight hundred Cocopa living in the United States and Mexico in 1980.

Contact with Europeans began early with Hernando de Alarcón and Melchior Diaz noting a heavy Indian population at the river mouth in 1540. There was intermittent contact with Spanish missionaries, with the Cocopa resisting at least one attempt at missionization. After the Gadsden Purchase in 1853, which put the international boundary in the middle of the Cocopa territory, the Cocopa became heavily involved in the river trade until the end of the nineteenth century. In 1917, a reservation was established near Somerton, Arizona, but little happened with the government until 1961 when development programs began. Similar programs exist in Mexico. Most Cocopa are now trilingual in Cocopa, English, and Spanish.

The Colorado River provided ample moisture, particularly with the summer floods. During the winter months food was scarce. After the floodwaters receded the Cocopa planted maize, squash, and beans, some of which was irrigated. Prior to 1900, mesquite was probably the most important wild food, supplemented by screw beans, cattail pollen, tule roots, and grass seeds. Animals hunted included deer, wild boar, rabbits, dove, quail, and duck. American Cocopa can no longer count on fish as a food owing to a lack of river access, but Mexican Cocopa still rely on them heavily.

The Cocopa have patrilineal, exogamous, nonlocalized, nonautonomous clans or lineages. Each is associated with a particular totem (plant, animal, natural phenomenon). Leaders are selected for their ability to speak well and to be counselors to the people. Elaborate rites and ceremonies were associated with death and the dead, with cremation of the body and personal possessions usually being involved. Cremation of the corpse is now illegal in Mexico, but still followed in the United States.


Gifford, Edward Winslow (1933). The Cocopa. University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology, 31(5), 257-334. Berkeley.

Kelly, William H. (1977). Cocopa Ethnography. Anthropological Papers of the University of Arizona, no. 29. Tucson, Ariz.: University of Arizona Press.

Williams, Anita Alvarez de (1983). "Cocopa." In Handbook of North American Indians. Vol. 10, Southwest, edited by Alfonso Ortiz, 99-112. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution.