ETHNONYMS: Cuchano, Cuchan, Cushan, Yum, Yuma
Identification. The Quechan are an American Indian group located in western Arizona and eastern California. "Quechan," meaning "those who descended," is a shortening of the name that the Quechan believe was given to them and to other lower Colorado peoples at the time of creation on the sacred mountain Avikwame: "Xám Kwacán," meaning "those who descended by a different way" or "those who descended by way of the water."
Location. Aboriginally the Quechan lived along the lower Colorado River, north and south of its junction with the Gila River. This area lies primarily within the present states of California and Arizona. Their reservation today is a small portion of their aboriginal territory.
Demography. The population may have been about four thousand prior to contact with Spaniards in 1540. By the early 1900s there were fewer than a thousand. In 1988 the Quechan population was estimated at two thousand, about two-thirds of whom lived on or adjacent to the reservation.
Linguistic Affiliation. Quechan is classified in the Yuman subfamily of the Hokan language family. Those living in the extreme southern portions of their territory may have spoken a distinct dialect of Quechan.
History and Cultural Relations
Quechan tradition describes their creation, along with that of other lower Colorado River tribes, by their culture hero, Kukumat. After Kukumat died, his son Kumastamxo took the people to the sacred mountain Avikwame, near the Present city of Needles, California. There he gave them bows and arrows and taught them how to cure illness and then sent them down from the mountain in various directions. The ancestors of the Quechan settled along the Colorado River to the south of the Mohave. Little archaeological evidence of the Quechan past has survived the Colorado's flooding. The Quechan and some of the other lower Colorado tribes may have begun as rather small patrilineal bands that gradually grew into larger "tribal" groupings. What caused the formation of these tribes is not altogether clear; the interrelated factors probably included population increase from a generally reliable and abundant riverbottom horticulture; competition with neighboring riverine groups for control of lucrative trade routes between the Pacific Coast and cultures to the east of the Colorado (including, for a time, the great Hohokam Culture between about a.d. 1050 and 1200); and increasingly strong social bonds between small groups living next to one another along the river's banks.
In 1540 a Spanish expedition under Hernando de Alarcón was the first group of Europeans to reach Quechan territory. For the next three and a half centuries the Quechans were in intermittent contact with various Spanish, Mexican, and American expeditions intent on developing the land route between southern California and the interior to the east of the Colorado River. The Quechan controlled the best crossing point along the lower Colorado, just to the south of where it is joined by the Gila. During this time, too, warfare was endemic between the Quechan and other tribes living along the Colorado and Gila rivers. No permanent White settlements were attempted at the crossing until 1779, when Spanish settlers and soldiers arrived. In 1781, after two years of Spanish depredations, the Quechans attacked them, killing some and driving the others away. The tribe retained control of the area until the early 1850s, when the U.S. Army defeated them and established Fort Yuma at the crossing. Just across the river from the fort a small White American town soon sprang up to cash in on the increasing overland traffic between California and the East, and to the north and south along the Colorado itself.
A reservation was set aside for the Quechan on the west (California) side of the river in 1884, but most of its acreage, including some of its best farmland, was lost to the tribe by the fraudulent 1893 agreement with the U.S. government. The government restored twenty-five thousand acres of the original reservation in 1978, minus most of the best farmland taken earlier. For most of the twentieth century the tribe has been attempting to create a secure economic base for the Reservation, one to replace the relative abundance of the traditional riverbottom farming that gave out in the early 1900s.
The Quechan lived in settlements or rancherías scattered along the Colorado to the north of the Gila confluence for about sixty miles and to the southwest for about ten miles, and for about twenty-six miles eastward along the Gila itself. But the number and precise locations of these rancherías shifted from time to time, perhaps partly in response to warfare with other groups. In the nineteenth century there were six Quechan rancherías, each located on an elevated area above the river floodplain, safe from the spring floods. For much of the agricultural season from spring to fall, the people of the rancheria dispersed to family farm plots along the river-bottoms, where they lived in dome-shaped arrowweed shelters. The rancherías were gradually abandoned after the Reservation was created in 1887, and families moved within the reservation boundaries to receive individual ten-acre plots of farmland allotted to them by the federal government. Today households are scattered primarily along the main roads linking the reservation with the nearby city of Yuma, Arizona, and the smaller town of Winterhaven, California.
Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Traditionally the Quechan farmed the rich riverbottom lands, growing mainly maize, squash, and beans. The cultivated crops probably accounted for about 50 percent of the Quechan diet. The remainder came from gathered wild foods such as mesquite and screwbean pods and from river fish. Hunting was not very productive. Occasional irregularities in the river floods lent some uncertainty to the supply of cultivated foods. After White Americans developed the crossing into a transportation center, Quechans worked as unskilled wage laborers in the town or on river steamers. By the 1950s there were Virtually no Quechans still farming; they worked as wage laborers and/or received income from leasing their land allotments to non-Indian farmers. Presently the tribe leases farm acreage and operates a bingo hall and two modern trailer parks.
Industrial Arts. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries Quechan women made pottery utensils, distinctive clay dolls, and beaded shawls; only the shawls are still made. Men made tools, weapons, and gourd rattles and other ritual paraphernalia. In general the Quechans were little concerned with embellishment of material culture beyond utilitarian needs.
Trade. The Colorado River crossing in Quechan territory was along one of the main precontact trade routes linking coastal California tribes with the center of the great Hohokam culture in southern Arizona (AD. 1000-1200), and later with Pima, Pagago, and others after the Hohokam Declined. The Quechan likely acted as middlemen and/or extracted a portion of the trade goods in exchange for safe passage across the crossing. In lean years foodstuffs were traded. It is likely that control of this trade route was one of the issues in persistent intertribal warfare until the 1860s.
Division of Labor. Both men and women worked the riverbottom fields, the men doing the heavier work of clearing brush, and both sexes helped with the harvest. Several related extended family households joined forces at clearing or harvest times. Men did most of the fishing, women the gathering. Males waged war, although there were typically warrior-women accompanying each major war party. The elderly are still important economic and teaching assets in households where both parents work.
Land Tenure. Traditionally, farm plots were considered the property of the household. The household's lands were abandoned at the death of one of its adult members, and they sought unoccupied land elsewhere in the vicinity. Ownership rules were not elaborately developed, and there was no Inheritance. This changed radically after the reservation was created and the individual members of the tribe were each assigned a ten-acre allotment. As the original and successive owners died, the plots were divided, and then repeatedly reDivided, creating a major heirship crisis in some cases. The Reservation land is still held in trust and cannot be sold. Most of the plots are presently leased to non-Indian farmers.
Kin Groups and Descent. The Quechan recognize a Series of exogamous patrilineal clans. Clan functions besides regulating marriage are no longer clearly known. Each has one or more namesakes (totemic animals or plants) associated with it (such as frog, maize, snake, red ant). Some clan names are considered foreign to the Quechan, indicating Perhaps some earlier incorporation of alien groups into the tribal structure. Presently younger tribal members are only vaguely aware of the clan names and do not follow the rule of Exogamy.
Kinship Terminology. The traditional kinship terms followed the bifurcate collateral avuncular and Iroquois cousin patterns, with major terminological emphasis on age and Gender distinctions.
Marriage. Sometimes parents arranged betrothals followed by periods of gift giving and feasting. But there was apparently considerable flexibility in betrothal and marriage patterns. A man often courted a woman by playing a wooden flute outside her shelter at night, and she might invite him in to sleep with her (without having intercourse). After four nights of sleeping together, the couple was considered married. Ideally, postmarital residence was patrilocal. The typical marriage was monogamous, but polygyny was permitted. Marriages could be dissolved by either partner.
Domestic Unit. Despite the patrilocal preference, the ambilocal extended family was the predominant household unit until the 1920s, when the effects of land allotment and wage-based subsistence undermined the extended family's importance. Nuclear family households then became numerous. Yet the extended household has remained a popular option for families who have elderly relatives to care for or who want to try to ease the burden of poverty by pooling the resources of the larger household group. And even nuclear family households are frequently but a few acres away from those of close kin.
Inheritance. Until recently there was no inheritance of deceased's property; it was either destroyed (goods) or abandoned (land), lest the survivors be constantly reminded of their loss. The allotment of land and the construction of substantial housing has changed this pattern somewhat, but there is still the feeling that a deceased's personal property should be destroyed after death.
Socialization. The elders in the extended family household traditionally played a major part in the socialization of the young. Children were and are raised permissively. During their first menstruation, girls were lectured by older women about the proper adult female role; boys went through an initiation ritual in which they were made to run long distances after having their nasal septa pierced and were lectured on the ideal traits of adult Quechan males.
Social Organization. There may have been gradations of status in Quechan families, but the basis for them is not clear. Individual ritualists and leaders possessing dream power had high prestige, as did warriors of exceptional bravery. The Several rancherías were largely autonomous social units for much of the year. Quechan tribal structure became apparent during large war expeditions, harvest festivals, and major rituals mourning the death of prominent people. On the modern reservation the tribal identity has replaced most of the older ranchería identity. The elderly as a group are publicly treated with respect.
Political Organization. Most of the time the rancherías operated as autonomous political entities, each with a headman noted for his wisdom and speaking ability. He served at the will of his ranchería and was expected to be generous with his time and property. The key to leaders' effectiveness was the special power derived from dreams; this power was manifest in their performance. There were both civil leaders and war leaders. Traditionally these leadership positions were held by males. Since 1938 the tribe has been governed by an elected seven-member tribal council. Women have often been elected to the council, and the first woman tribal president was elected in 1987.
Social Control. Gossip was probably a frequently used mechanism of social control in the past; it continues to be the most popular means. Sorcery and occasionally murder were used against repeated and flagrant social deviance. Late in the 1800s a Quechan leader reportedly ordered public floggings for drunkards, but such punishment of misbehavior may not be traditional. Children were and are scolded for misbehavior, but seldom spanked. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries government superintendents, with their appointed agency police force, upheld federal law on the reservation. Responsibility for both civil and criminal cases now lies with the Imperial County, California, sheriff's office; the federal government remains the law enforcement authority for major crimes on the reservation.
Conflict. The natural lines of conflict traditionally were between rancherías, and after European contact the most serious conflicts erupted over how best to deal with Whites. Despite changes in specific issues, this has persisted as a fundamental source of political factionalism. Another is the performance of elected tribal officials. Now factions consist of clusters of close relatives.
Religion and Expressive Culture
Religious Beliefs. The elemental Quechan beliefs involve a spiritual power derived from special dreams and a continuing interaction with the souls of the dead. The dream power is bestowed by the first men, created by Kukumat but imbued with spiritual power and culture by Kukumat's son Kumastamxo. Dream power was essential for successful leaders, curers, warriors, and the various ritual specialists. There was as well a collective tribal spiritual power that was renewed and increased through war with enemy tribes. Instead of prayers or sacrifices, there were formulas and purification through smoking and abstinence that produced more or less automatic results. Protestant and Catholic doctrine has become popular, but there is still an active core of men who preserve the traditional beliefs and an even larger group who combine elements of both traditional and Christian belief. Many People had guardian spirits manifest as special voices that spoke to them from time to time. These spirits, and those of the first people, lived either on the sacred mountain Avikwame or on one of the other sacred heights in the region.
Religious Practitioners. Men with unusually potent dream power were given a special title: k w axót t . There were also individual speakers and singers who collectively possessed the knowledge of rituals.
Ceremonies. The major tribal ceremony was the kar'úk, held to honor the memory of deceased tribal members. It was conceived as a reenactment of the original mourning Ceremony following creator Kukumat's death. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries it featured carved wooden images of the deceased along with displays of new clothing laid out as offerings to the spirits of the dead. A major portion of the ritual scenario involved a battle reenactment; its climax was a large fire that consumed the ritual shelter and the offerings. Other "religious" ceremonies were more like large-scale feasts. Even abbreviated kar'úk rituals are now rarely held.
Medicine. Quechans traditionally believed disease could be caused by inadvertently ingesting a poisonous substance or by soul loss. Hostile sorcerers could cause either malady, as could the violation of a mourning, warfare, or menstrual taboo. Dream power was the source of a curer's abilities. Techniques included blowing smoke upon and massaging the patient, and sucking out the intrusive substance.
Death and Afterlife. The souls of the dead pass through four layers, each more distant from the living world. The fourth is the land of the dead, far to the south, a land of plenty and happiness, with the best times enjoyed by those killed in battle. The body is cremated along with personal effects, and others wishing to commemorate deceased relatives at the time may burn offerings of clothing as well. Spirits of some of the dead also return to receive the offerings to them burned during the kar'úk ritual. The traditional funeral ritual still predominates.
Bee, Robert L. (1981). Crosscurrents along the Colorado: The Impact of Government Policy on the Quechan Indians. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.
Bee, Robert L. (1983). "Quechan." In Handbook of North American Indians. Vol. 10, Southwest, edited by Alfonso Ortiz 86-98. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution.
Forbes, Jack D. (1965). Warriors of the Colorado: The Yumas of the Quechan Nation and Their Neighbors. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
Forde, C. Daryll (1931). "Ethnography of the Yuma Indians." University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology 28:85-278.
ROBERT L. BEE