Southern Paiute (and Chemehuevi)

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Southern Paiute (and Chemehuevi)

ETHNONYMS: Cuajala, Pah-Utes, Paiute, Numa, Yuta Payuchis


Identification. The name "Paiute" is of uncertain origin. It first appeared in the Spanish literature (Yutas Payuchis, Payuchas) in the 1770s. Other versions were recorded after U.S. expansion into the region in the 1820s. There is some uncertainty as to its application when other "Paiute" groups speaking different languages were encountered in southern California and western Nevada (Owens Valley Paiute, Northern Paiute). After a period of much confusion, some of which persists in the popular literature today, the name "Southern Paiute" was imposed in the first decade of the twentieth Century. "Chemehuevi," the name of a Southern Paiute subgroup that has developed a historically distinct identity, has an origin equally obscure. Although "Paiute" and "Chemehuevi" are used as self-designations when speaking English, the people's native name is nimi, niwi or niminci, "person," depending on dialect.

Location. Aboriginally, the Southern Paiute occupied lands north and west of the Colorado River extending from southern California through southeastern Nevada, Northwestern Arizona, and southern and central Utah. The Chemehuevi held the southernmost section. Environmentally, this vast tract is diverse, taking in lands within the Mojave Desert (low, hot, and dry), the adjacent Great Basin Desert (semiarid steppe country), and parts of the Colorado Plateau (unevenly elevated, often forested, but still semidesert).

Demography. Population figures are difficult to evaluate. A major problem is that several subgroups were terminated from federal supervision in 1957, thus deflating federal figures. There has also been migration to urban areas, further deflating figures unless people identify themselves on a general census. Reinstatement of the Southern Paiute in 1980 may have been in time for formerly terminated individuals to have been counted, but probably not with a high level of accuracy. The 1980 census figure for people on or adjacent to reserved lands is roughly 1,400. The total 1980 Southern Paiute population is estimated at 1,750. The population in 1873, approximately thirty years after settlement by non-Indians, was estimated at 2,300.

Linguistic Affiliation. The language belongs to the Numic branch of the widespread Uto-Aztecan family. It is one of two languages within the Southern Numic subbranch, forming a pair with Kawaiisu of southern California. The Southern Paiute language, including Chemehuevi, is itself a dialect of Ute, the latter term often used to designate the other member of the Southern Numic pair (Kawaiisu, Ute). There is, or better, was measurable dialect diversity. Original dialect distributions are obscured today owing to intrasubgroup marriages and language loss.

History and Cultural Relations

Linguistic and archaeological evidence suggests that the Southern Paiute expanded north and eastward to fill their present territory approximately one thousand years ago. Prior to that time, the central and eastern portions were occupied by Puebloan Anasazi groups related to archaeological Cultures in the Southwest. Although Southern Paiute-Anasazi relationships are the subject of some debate, the two peoples seem to have been different. Anasazi withdrawal from these lands is placed at roughly a.d. 1200. By the time of first Contact by Spaniards in the 1770s, the Southern Paiute were in exclusive possession of their historic territory. Trade relationships were well established with Yuman tribes to the south and west and with the Hopi to the southeast. With the Ute relationships were initially friendly, although beginning in the late 1700s, Ute raids on Southern Paiute camps for children to be sold as slaves in the Spanish and Mexican settlements of Santa Fe and Los Angeles led to enmity. This traffic continued until roughly 1850, when Mormon and U.S. interventions ended it. Mormon settlement of the area in the 1850s to 1870s brought additional hardships, reducing the area available for aboriginal subsistence drastically.

Although a reservation was established at Moapa in southern Nevada in 1872, and it was alternatively proposed to remove all the Southern Paiute there or to the Uintah Ute reservation in northeastern Utah, few people actually settled on reserved lands until after 1900. In 1903 a reservation was established at Shivwits for groups in southwestern Utah and northern Arizona, and in 1907, the Kaibab Reservation was set aside for people around Kanab, Utah. Some Chemehuevi obtained a reserve in Chemehuevi Valley in 1907, and small colonies and reserves were established at Las Vegas, Nevada, and Indian Peaks, Koosharem, and Kanosh, Utah, between 1911 and 1929.

In 1957 the federal government terminated control over several Utah Southern Paiute subgroups and their lands (Shivwits, Kanosh, Koosharem, Indian Peaks). In 1980, these same groups were reinstated, although the intervening years had resulted in the loss of over half of their lands. New lands and federal and tribal programs have improved conditions in recent years, although all admit that there is a long way to go toward economic self-sufficiency and the full Development of human potential.

Settlements. Southern Paiute territory has been divided into fifteen subareas within which groups could hunt and gather enough resources to sustain themselves. All groups moved camps according to a seasonal round of resource exploitation. Several subgroups also practiced a limited amount of horticulture. For these groups, summer camps were in proximity to fields so that irrigation and crop protection could be facilitated. Camps in all seasons consisted of a single family or a few related families with friends, roughly ten to thirty persons. Larger groups occurred during the fall pine nut harvest or at the time of communal rabbit hunts. In several subareas, individual ownership of springs determined seasonal shifts of camp groups. Winter was usually the time groups were most sedentary, camping at lower elevations in proximity to water, fuel, and stored foods. Today some Individuals know of former camping places and occasionally use them for hunting and pine nut camps.

The common winter house was conical or subconical, made of willow or juniper poles and covered with brush. The doorway faced east, and smoke from an interior fire hearth exited through a smokehole in the roof. The Chemehuevi built gabled houses like the Mohave except that the front was left open. All groups utilized temporary shelters, such as semicircular windbreaks and four-post shades. All reservation Communities have participated in housing projects since the 1970s, so that today houses are comparable to those of their non-Indian neighbors.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Given environmental differences across the whole of Southern Paiute Territory, local groups had access to different natural foods. Animals hunted included several species of small mammals, including hares and rabbits, marmots, ground squirrels, and so on. In the Mojave Desert area, the chuckawalla, tortoise, and kangaroo mouse were more common, and replaced some of these. Some groups had little access to deer or antelope; most could get mountain sheep, but numbers might be very low. Land birds were more common as a food source than waterfowl, and few ate fish. Plant products likewise differed across the region, with those in hot desert climates specializing in agave and mesquite harvesting and those in cooler areas piñon and several types of berries. All collected native seeds. More than half of the subgroups farmed at least a little, a few more intensively. Native crops included maize, beans, squash, sunflowers, and amaranth. Ditch irrigation was used in southwestern Utah and southeastern Nevada, and floodwater farming was used by the Chemehuevi along the Colorado River. Fields were small and usually planted and tended by an extended family.

Contact and the establishment of reservations changed most of these patterns. Some groups were able to do a little farming, but most shifted their attention to wage work for local ranchers or in towns. Today tribal businesses (smoke shops, grocery stores, tourist services) employ modest numbers of people, and tribal governments several more. Others continue to do wage labor in a variety of skilled or semiskilled positions. Except for dogs, there were no domesticated animals prior to European contact. Today a few people keep horses to help with ranch work or for pleasure.

Industrial Arts. Aboriginal crafts included principally basketry, pottery, and hide working. Numerous types and styles of baskets were woven for utilitarian purposes, principally food gathering and processing. All basket making was done by women in either twining or coiling. Pottery was low-fired and, except among the Chemehuevi, unpainted. Hide working was found in areas with access to large game and was principally used for clothing. Groups in other areas wore clothing of twisted and twined vegetable fibers. Today basket weaving persists principally among the Chemehuevi and San Juan subgroups, and a few women work hides for moccasins and gloves. Individuals in some areas are highly skilled in bead-work, a postcontact development.

Trade. Intragroup trade helped to even out some subsistence imbalances. Salt, found principally in Moapa territory, was distributed in all directions, including to non-Southern Paiutes. Ochers used in body painting were found on the Colorado Plateau and thus moved largely westward. Cultigens came into the region from the south, including from the Hopi, Havasupai, and Walapai, as well as Yuman groups on the lower Colorado River.

Division of Labor. Hunting was principally the activity of men in aboriginal times and plant food collecting that of women. Both sexes participated in horticulture. Wage work in the postcontact period was done about equally by men and women, with men engaged as ranch and hay hands and women as domestics. Today work activities parallel those of non-Indian neighbors at similar socioeconomic and educational levels.


Kin Groups and Descent. The primary social unit in Southern Paiute society was the nuclear or small extended family, and much the same situation obtains today. Families constituted the primary residence and subsistence units, focused as they were in some areas around privately owned springs. Larger units of several families came together in some seasons but had little permanence. An individual's personal kindred served as his or her primary means of integration within the society at large, as relatives were likely to be found beyond the local group or subarea, and even in another tribe. Mutual obligations to one's kin ensured that none went hungry or lacked a place to stay. These values are still primary in Southern Paiute households, where one is likely to find a relative or two in residence for a month or more. The elderly are foci in many such households.

Kinship Terminology. Kinship reckoning is basically bilateral, with Eskimo cousin terminology prevailing in the Native system of designation. Among those with few native Language skills, English terminology prevails.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. In theory, marriage was prohibited among any who could trace blood relationships. Young people married early, and most unions were monogamous. There was no ceremony. Some polygyny occurred, usually with sisters as co-wives. Polyandry was reported, sometimes by hearsay. The levirate and sororate were obligatory among some subgroups. Marriages were usually thought to be permanent relationships, but divorce brought no shame to either party. Children commonly went with the mother. Initial matrilocal residence often occurred, usually as a form of bride-service. Neolocal residence prevailed after a year or the birth of the first child.

Domestic Unit. The nuclear or small extended family was the former residence unit and remains so today. Many Households contain three and occasionally four generations as a temporary or permanent arrangement.

Inheritance. In aboriginal times, land was available for use to all Southern Paiutes. Resource ownership was limited to claims by families in a few subgroups to exclusive use of mesquite groves or agave-collecting areas. Springs, tanks, and potholes were also considered to be private property, so that permission to camp at them was needed. Plant resource areas often passed through female relatives and spring sites through males, but rules were not strict.

Socialization. Grandparents took a major role in child rearing, given that parents might be absent from camp during much of the day engaged in subsistence chores. Children were considered responsible from an early age (about six years), and sanctions after that time might come from any member of the group through gossip or ridicule. Parents today take a much more active role in child rearing, but in households with grandparents, they also so function. Parents and grandparents are more directive than before, but children are still largely on their own to make mistakes or not.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Given that men and women contributed about equally to subsistence, there was little status differentiation along sex lines in former times. The elderly were held in high esteem, although if food resources were scarce, they might not take a share or otherwise sacrifice themselves. Sharing still remains a primary value in most households, so that individuals rarely accumulate or hoard if family members are in need.

Political Organization. Prior to contact with Europeans, each local group had a headman or adviser, but few had Leadership positions beyond this. Men who had dreamed of Certain large game animals (usually deer, antelope, mountain sheep) were leaders of communal hunts. Headmen, usually senior males or perhaps owners of spring sites, addressed the camp group each morning, suggesting a subsistence routine. They also announced any visitors or special events. With the advent of Europeans, some who learned English early acted as go-betweens and were referred to as "chiefs" or "captains." Some, because of their skills, spoke for larger groups than might have been the case before. The authority of most was minimal, rarely going beyond that of former days. Presently reservation and colony communities are organized under the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 or the reinstatement legislation of 1980 (Paiute Tribe of Utah). Their councils are duly elected and serve specified terms.

Social Control. In former times, social control was handled within extended families on a face-to-face basis or by ridicule or, in severe cases, ostracism. Headmen attempted to get conflicting parties to agree to a solution, but they had Little ultimate power. Tribal governments today exercise control through their own police or through cooperative agreements with state, county, or city authorities.

Conflict. In former times, most Southern Paiute were peaceful and rarely engaged in fighting with each other or with neighbors. An exception may be the wars between the Chemehuevi and the Mohave, said to have resulted in the partial extermination of the latter in the eighteenth century. In the historic period, the slave trade brought troubles with the Utes, Navajos, and a variety of non-Indians. There was some raiding by Southern Paiute local groups along the Old Spanish Trail, which operated from roughly 1820 to 1850 in the central and southwestern sections of their territory. Southern Paiutes were also accused of massacring a wagon train of emigrants en route to California near Enterprise, Utah, in 1857, an event that later turned out to have as many Mormon participants as Indian. With Mormons and other settlers, accommodation was generally peaceful and remains so today. Little intermarriage has taken place across ethnic boundaries.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Southern Paiute people believe that supernatural power resides in all living things and in many nonanimate objects found in nature as well as in the sun, moon, stars, wind, and so on. Persons are free to establish a relationship with objects of power, but only doctors or shamans possess enough of it to aid in healing. Their powers (often multiple) come unsought in dreams, or they could be courted by going to certain places. Ordinary persons rarely spoke of their powers, although the community might know if they had special powers for large game animals. Special classes of anthropomorphic spirits (water babies, dwarfs, changeable beings) resided at various places. Encounters with these were considered dangerous. Today, elderly people and some younger persons believe in these spirits and in the power of living things and the earth. They may also be Christians (especially Mormons) and/or followers of the Native American (Peyote) church. There is little clear evidence that a supreme being existed in native religion, although some persons feel strongly that one did. Ethnographic description came after a long period of contact and substantial acculturation in religious views. The existence of natural and anthropomorphic spirits is well documented, and these beliefs are still active to varying degrees today.

Religious Practitioners. In aboriginal times, the principal religious practitioner was the shaman, who held power through tutelaries to cure illness. Native doctors could be either men or women. They cured the patient through a self-induced trance, during which their powers revealed the cause of the illness (ghost or object intrusion, soul loss) and the prognosis for a cure.

Ceremonies. The principal ceremony today is the Mourning Ceremony, or "Cry," related to that of southern California. The ceremony is held today as a funeral, although in former times it might occur later than the time of a person's actual death. It involves the singing of standardized song cycles, in which a singer usually specializes. Singers are few, as the work is considered a special gift. In former times, people volunteered property to be burned as a show of grief. Today, the immediate possessions of the deceased are commonly offered. A second, or Annual Mourning Ceremony might be held as an anniversary. Sometimes families with relatives deceased within the past year hold one jointly. Apart from funeral observances, celebrations were held in the spring to renew the earth or in the fall when pine nuts were harvested. The spring ceremony usually involved the Bear Dance, learned from the Ute. Pine nut harvest was an occasion for the Circle Dance, but also for offering prayers of thanksgiving for a good year. The Ghost Dance of 1890, a messianic movement begun in western Nevada, reached the Southern Paiute in that year and persisted for a time.

Arts. Aesthetic expression focused on song, recitatives, and folk tales. Songs often came in dreams, although they could be given to friends and relatives, and some were widely known. The Chemehuevi had cycles of songs, reminiscent of those of the Mohave, that often established hunt territories. Others had texted songs involving animals or natural imagery, and most were highly poetic. Recitatives occurred in the context of myths and tales, where animal actors took speaking or singing parts using stylized voices. Good narrators, most often men, might solicit help from the audience in giving these performances. Tales, sometimes told in long sequences on winter evenings, involved the adventures of animal actors in a time before people. Many of these cycles today are no longer remembered, owing in large part to language loss. Skill at singing is still much valued, and some categories of native songs have persisted.

Medicine. Diseases cured by shamans or native doctors were thought to be due to supernatural causes. Those less serious were treated by persons knowledgeable in plant remedies. Some persons today still use this pharmacopoeia, but most also depend on Western medicine. The Native American church functions in some areas in curing.

Death and Afterlife. Little is known about concepts of the afterlife, other than that ghosts and souls can remain in the vicinity and occasionally cause harm to the living. Some people feel that spirits of the deceased go underground to a world where everything is reversed. Others think that the abode of the dead is in the sky, where activities are much as in this world but done in comparative ease. Proper prayers to the spirit of the deceased were and are considered necessary to protect the living, especially children. Some of this is accomplished through the Mourning Ceremony, but others may be required. Traditional families today usually combine aspects of these older beliefs with Christian (usually Mormon) Services.


Kelly, Isabel T. (1964). Southern Paiute Ethnography. University of Utah Anthropological Papers, no. 69. Salt Lake City.

Kelly, Isabel T., and Catherine S. Fowler (1986). "Southern Paiute." In Handbook of North American Indians. Vol. 11, Great Basin, edited by Warren L. d'Azevedo, 368-397. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution.

Knack, Martha (1980). Life Is with People: Household Organization of the Contemporary Southern Paiute Indians. Ballena Press Anthropological Papers, no. 19. Socorro, N. Mex.

Laird, Carobeth (1976). The Chemehuevis. Banning, Calif.: Malki Museum Press.


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Southern Paiute (and Chemehuevi)

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Southern Paiute (and Chemehuevi)