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Yuman (pronounced YOO-muhn). The name may have Spanish roots and come from the people’s habit of building large fires to attract rain. Umo in Spanish means “smoke.” It could also come from the Papago (now Tohono O’odham) word, yuumi. Although many different tribes of the Southwest are called by the name Yuman, the word actually refers to a branch of the Hokan language.


The Yuman once lived along the Colorado and Gila rivers, and their territory stretched from western Arizona to southern California in the United States as well as along the Baja Peninsula and into northwestern Sonora in Mexico. In the early twenty-first century most Yuman live on reservations in Arizona, Nevada, and California and on several reserves in Mexico.


In 1909 there were 3,700 Yuman. The 2000 U.S. Census indicated that 7,972 Yuman lived in the United States; many of those belonged to different tribes. A total of 9,833 people claimed to have some Yuman heritage. According to statistics from the 2000 Mexican census, 1423 Yuman resided there.

Language family


Origins and group affiliations

Though united by a common language, many Yuman tribes fought among themselves; others allied to fight common enemies. For example, the Yuma headed the Quechan League, a group that included the Mohave, Paiute, and several other tribes who fought against the Maricopa, Cocopá, and Pima. Other Yuman enemies were the Papago (now Tohono O’odham) and Apache.

In modern times Yuman languages are spoken by the following tribes: Paipai (Akwa’ala), Cocopá (Cocopah, Cucupá), Kumeyaay (Kumiai, Diegueño), Havasupai, Kiliwa (Kiliwi), Maricopa, Mohave, Walapai (Hualapai, Hualpai), Yavapai, and Quechan (formerly Yuma). Although the Cochimí language is extinct, some Kumeyaay (Kumiai) identify themselves as Cochimí.

Although many tribes are classified as Yuman, they are distinct and separate from each other, connected mainly by a shared family of languages. Over the centuries some of these tribal groups have disappeared or been absorbed into the ten tribes that exist in the early twenty-first century. For much of their history the Yuman-speaking peoples have fought with each other as well as outsiders. They were skilled warriors who had two other advantages—their isolation and the hot, arid climate. This combination deterred Europeans from colonizing tribal lands until the late 1700s. Even then, the Yuman struggled to preserve their land and culture. In modern times the tribes maintain their individuality, yet share many similar customs and traditions.

Important Dates

1540: Hernando de Alarcón first encounters the Yuman.

1687: Father Eusebio Francisco Kino establishes the first of 28 missions in Yuman territory.

1769: Junipero Serro founds the San Diego Mission.

1775: The Kumeyaay revolt and burn the San Diego Mission.

1840: The Kiliwa and Paipai burn the Santa Catalina Mission; the Spanish retaliate by killing five hundred Native Americans and forcing prisoners to work at other missions.

1850: The U.S. Army builds Fort Yuma.

1857: The Maricopa and Pima help the United States defeat the Quechan Confederacy in the Battle of Maricopa Wells.

1863: Natives lose Walapai Wars.

1872: Many Native Americans die in Skeleton Cave Massacre.

1875: The U.S. Army forces the Yavapai and Apache to march to the San Carlos Apache Reservation; 115 die along the way.

1975: The Havasupai regain 188,077 acres of former tribal land in Grand Canyon area.

1978: The U. S. government returns 25,000 acres of Quechan land to the tribe.


Earliest history

From about 700 to 1550 the Patayan, possible ancestors of the River and Delta Yuman people, occupied present-day Arizona and California. They roamed the Colorado Valley, the Grand Canyon, and Baja California, Mexico, in nomadic bands. They farmed the floodplains, but mainly relied on hunting and gathering. As a division of the Hakatayan culture, they were, along with the Mogollon, Hohokam, and Anasazi (see entry), one of the early subcultures in the Southwest.

Early European contact

Several Spanish explorers passed through Yuman territory during the 1500s, including Hernando de Alarcón who first saw the Yuman in 1540. The Europeans, however, did not establish permanent settlements in the area for more a century.

The first Spanish colonization of Yuman land began in the early 1600s. Sebastián Vizcaíno (1548–1624) arrived on the Baja Peninsula, Mexico, where eight hundred Yuman warriors waited to defend their territory. Nevertheless, Vizcaíno built a fort at La Paz, but the Yuman succeeded in driving him off. Not until 1683 did Spain again try to colonize the area. Admiral Isidro Atondo y Antillón soon deserted the settlement due to conflicts with the Natives. The next post established in 1685 was also abandoned.

Mission era

Father Eusebio Francisco Kino (1644–1711), a Jesuit, was one of the first to venture into Yuman territory and stay. He established his first mission in 1687 in present-day Mexico. Kino mapped the Baja Peninsula in 1701 and explored north of the border. During that time he encountered many tribes, including the Pima (see entry) and Yuman. He taught the Pima advanced farming techniques and founded 27 more missions in the area. Most of the missions were built by Native laborers using adobe (pronounced uh-DOE-bee; sun-dried mud made of a mixture of clay, sand, and sometimes ashes, stones, twigs, and straw).

Many Native Americans were attracted to the mission by the food, clothes, and supplies the priests offered. Some of the tribes, such as the Cochimí, readily converted to Christianity. To keep the new converts close to the church and to ensure a steady supply of labor, the priests encouraged the people to live in small settlements near the mission called rancherias. Unfortunately the close quarters caused the rapid spread of European diseases to which the Native Americans had no immunity. The worst outbreak of disease was the typhus epidemic of 1742–44, which killed about eight thousand Native Americans. This and other epidemics completely wiped out many smaller tribes and left others struggling to survive.

In 1767 the king of Spain removed all the Jesuit missionaries. Dominican missionaries came instead, and they concentrated their efforts on the Yuman tribes, particularly the Cochimí, Kiliwa, Paipai, and Kumeyaay. Almost a century after Father Kino had started his first mission, Junipero Serro (1713–1784) founded the San Diego Mission in 1769.

Mission revolts

Although some Kumeyaay in the area converted, others resented the missionaries, who were living in their territory and insisting the tribes change their lifestyle. Many also blamed the whites for the diseases that were killing their people and resented being forced to build missions. In 1775 they revolted, killing the priest and burning the mission.

Around this time the Quechan chief, Salvador Palma, embraced Christianity. He converted and asked the priest, Father Francisco Garcés (1738–1781), to establish a mission in their area. Garcés agreed and requested the necessary help from Spain, but it was slow in coming. When the group finally arrived years later, the Quechan were disappointed. They had been expecting a large settlement party with multitudes of soldiers, horses, cattle, and expensive goods. Instead two priests, twelve soldiers, and a few others arrived. The lavish gifts they had been expecting also did not arrive.

In 1780, against the advice of Father Garcés, the Spanish established two missions in the area. Palma and his people rebelled. In 1781 they burned both missions, killed most of the men, and took women and children captive. Initially at Palma’s urging, the priest’s life was spared, but a few days later he was clubbed to death.

Following the attack the Spanish military both fought and negotiated with the Quechans for the return of the prisoners. Neighboring enemy tribes, including the Pima and Maricopa, joined the fray, killing Quechans and burning their villages. A short while later the Spanish withdrew, and no missions were ever built in that area.

In other places, too, the establishment of new missions and the arrival of more Spanish settlers led to increasing hostility. In 1840, the Kiliwa and Paipai burned the Santa Catalina Mission. The Spanish retaliated and killed five hundred Native Americans. They took prisoners and forced them to work at other missions. The remaining Paipai hid in the canyons, while the Kiliwa fled to Arroyo Leon.

American presence

After the Mexican-American War (1846–48; a war fought between the United States and Mexico which led to loss of about one-half of Mexico’s national territory to the United States) the Baja Peninsula was divided. The lower half of the peninsula still belonged to Mexico, but the northern portion came under American control. The Mexican portion then split into two separate partidos (political districts), which later became Mexican states. The new governments of both countries drew borders through Yuman territory and considered tribal lands their property.

The discovery of gold in the region brought floods of miners to the area, and soon settlements sprang up around the region. The U.S. Army established Fort Yuma to protect the new arrivals from Native American attacks, and white settlement increased. Some tribes, such as the Pima and Maricopa, allied themselves with the Americans.

Yuman battles

The Quechan and Mohave (see entry) had dominated the lower Colorado River Valley for centuries. Their warriors, kwanami, fought off the Spanish as well as other tribes who entered their lands. Although they resented the Americans entering their territory, they also prospered by transporting gold seekers and their livestock across the Colorado. As more settlers moved in and cities grew, however, the tribes’ control over their traditional lands diminished.

In 1857 several hundred Quechan, Mohave, and Yavapai warriors crossed more than 160 miles (260 kilometers) of desert on foot to attack the Maricopa. The Maricopa and Pima, with aid from their American allies, fought back. The Quechan league lost more than one hundred warriors. This war, called the Battle of Maricopa Wells, was the last major battle the River Yuman fought. The Maricopa and Pima may have won, but their victory was short-lived. Two years later they were the first of the Yuman tribes to be moved to a reservation.

Several years after that white prospectors killed the Walapai leader, Wauba Yuma. The tribe took revenge, and the Walapai Wars began in 1863. After several battles the Americans defeated the Walapai in 1869, and sent them to a camp. Later they were forcibly removed to the Colorado River Reservation. Over the next year many grew sick and died, and tribe members fled back to their original homeland only to find that whites had taken over their territory. Some Walapai found jobs as miners; others were moved to a reservation in 1883.

Moved to reservations

For over a century the United States moved the various Yuman tribes from their lands onto reservations. The Maricopa and Pima were the first to be sent to the Gila River Reservation in 1859. In 1871 the U.S. Army had orders to force all Apaches (see entry) onto a reservation in Middle Verde Valley. Resisters were to be shot. The military also rounded up the Yavapai. Soldiers killed one hundred Yavapai men, women, and children who had taken refuge in the Salt River Canyon. This later came to be called the Skeleton Cave Massacre.

The Yavapai and Apache prospered during their two years on the reservation. Americans pressured the government to move them elsewhere. The 1,500 surviving Yavapai and Apaches were marched to the San Carlos Apache Reservation during the winter of 1875, a distance of more than 180 miles (290 kilometers). Along the way 115 people died. Because of its similarity to the forced march the Cherokees endured in 1838 this removal, too, became known as a “Trail of Tears.”

Other Yuman tribes were put on reservations over the next few years. Between 1875 and 1883 the Kumeyaay, Havasupai, and Hualapai all lost large portions of their lands and were confined to reservations. Yavapai, Mohave, and Apache (see entry) who had escaped the removals stayed in their traditional territory, but when minerals were discovered there in the 1890s, they were sent to reservations too.

Twentieth century and beyond

Under the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, many tribes wrote constitutions and started tribal councils to govern their reservations. By the mid-1900s most Yuman-speaking people lived on or near the reservations. Many struggled to adjust to life on small parcels of land when they had been used to a nomadic lifestyle. Hunters and gatherers now struggled to farm arid soil. Some left the reservations to find jobs. Others worked in the mines or for white farmers or ranchers. By the start of the twenty-first century many tribes had opened casinos or started other businesses to improve their economies (see “Economy”).

U.S. Yuman Population: 2000 Census

In 2000 U.S. Census takers asked people in the United States to identify the groups to which they belonged. According to that census, 7,972 people identified themselves as Yuman, and indicated they belonged to the groups listed below; these numbers do not reflect Mexican Yuman.

U.S. Yuman Population: 2000 Census
TribePopulation in 2000
Cocopah Tribe of Arizona891
Fort Mohave Indian Tribe of Arizona1,519
Yavapai-Prescott Tribe966
Yavapai Apache901

“2000 Census of Population and Housing. Matrix 7: American Indian and Alaskan Native summary file.” Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, Data User Services Division, American FactFinder, 2004.


Traditional beliefs

While each tribe had their own beliefs and stories, they all believed in a Great Spirit, or Creator. Most tribes did not have the elaborate rituals of many of the Southwest peoples, but they did emphasize the importance of dreams. Instead of a creation story, their main religious stories explained natural phenomena or told of the first cremation. Many tribes also had an origin story of twins, or two forces, representing good and evil. Other tales described the formation of the Colorado River and the sacred mountain.

The sacred mountain was the site where shamans (pronounced SHAH-muhn,SHEY-muhn, or SHAM-uhn) dreamed before they were born. Most people dreamed of the future, but a shaman could dream of the past—even as far back as creation. Dreams gave people the power to conceive children, cure diseases, cast spells, defeat enemies, or serve as leaders. All special abilities and supernatural powers came from dreaming. Luck, good or bad, resulted from dreams. Even a child in a mother’s womb could dream, so there were pregnancy taboos (see “Childbirth and naming”).

Songs, another important part of Yuman religion, also came from dreams. If members of the tribe became upset or were in deep emotional distress, they went to a secluded area for a time until they received new songs. Singing was an important part of a shaman’s skill in curing the sick.

Some tribes, such as the Cocopá, believed in ghosts. Certain shamans contacted the spirits of the dead. For this ceremony the shaman wore a cape made of the hair of dead virgins.

The Karuk, or Mourning Ceremony was important to most Yuman tribes (see “Death rituals”). In their dry climate, rainmaking ceremonies were considered vital. Fires to encourage rainfall may have been what earned them their name from the Spanish uma, meaning “smoke”.

Christian influences

Jesuit missionaries arrived in the late 1600s to convert the people. Some tribes, such as the Cochimí, wholeheartedly adopted Christian beliefs and ceremonies, whereas others rejected them. The Cochimí gave up their traditional beliefs and tried to live as the Jesuits suggested. By living close to the mission, the tribe was decimated by diseases brought by the whites. When the Dominicans replaced the Jesuits in 1768, few Cochimí still survived.

Presbyterians converted many Maricopa and Yavapai during the late 1800s and early 1900s. Some Yavapai continue to hold traditional ceremonies along with their Christian practices. In the mid-1900s other churches—Baptist, Mormon, Seventh Day Adventists, and Pentecostals—brought their beliefs to the tribes.

Other religions

Some tribes, such as the Walapai, resisted Christianity, preferring instead to practice the Ghost Dance religion. Followers danced in the hope that it would rid the land of whites and bring back the buffalo and dead Native American ancestors. On the Fort McDowell Reservation many Yavapai attend the Holy Ground Church, started in the 1920s by a White Mountain Apache (see entry), because it honors their traditions.

A more recent development in the Havasupai and Walapai tribes is the Rastafari movement and reggae music. Many of the people relate to the song lyrics that speak of oppression and misuse of the land. As one Native reggae fan explained:

We are struggling and striving as much as the black people who have been afflicted by the governments that have taken over their homelands. I feel that the same afflictions and prejudice that have happened to black people have happened to the American Indian people. Reggae music brings our people, the black and American Indian people together.


All the languages spoken by the Yuman tribes are part of the Hokan language family. Experts believe that the separation of the language into different dialects (varieties) may have occurred as far back as 2,500 years ago. Today each language falls into one of four subdivisions: Delta-California Yuman (Kumeyaay and Cocopá); River Yuman (Quechan, Maricopa, and Mohave); Pai (Upland Yuman—Yavapai, Hualapai or Walapai, and Havasupai dialects—and Paipai); and Kiliwa.

Many Yuman languages are endangered and spoken by only a few hundred tribe members, mostly the elderly. The Cochimí language became extinct in the 1800s, but some Kumeyaay (Kumiai) in the early twenty-first century are sometimes called Cochimí, which often causes confusion. In Mexico about half the tribes speak their Native languages. In the United States the Havasupai and Walapai have large populations that still speak those dialects. Several reservations have programs for children to ensure that the tribe’s language and culture are passed down to the next generations.


Traditional leadership

Although the clans or bands of each tribe spread out over a large area, they saw themselves as united. Together they fought common enemies and followed similar customs. Some tribes, like the Kumeyaay, however, consisted of many autonomous groups, each with their own leader.

Most bands had only one chief who presided over the whole tribe, usually the headman of the strongest village. His position was hereditary, but sometimes tribes chose a leader by his speaking ability or skill in battle. Most of the time the chief’s position was advisory, and a council of elders assisted with tribal decisions.

Other leaders in the tribe claimed their positions because of their dreams. Shamans, song and dance leaders, directors of funerals and mourning ceremonies, orators, Brave Men (war leaders), and Scalp-Keepers all received their positions after dreaming about them.

Present-day government

In the early twenty-first century most Yuman tribes are governed by a tribal council elected by the people. Councils are usually headed by a chairperson or president and a vice chairperson or vice president who are also elected. Some councils also have a secretary and treasurer. Many serve staggered four-year terms, although others serve two years. An exception is the Yavapai-Prescott Reservation, which has a board of directors.

On the Gila River Reservation a Youth Council is made up of 21 young adults, ranging in age from 14 to 21, who are elected by others their own age. Begun in 1988 this Akimel O’odham/Pee-Posh Youth Council advises the tribal council on youth issues, institutes programs to promote understanding, and acts as a spokesperson for their peers. Council members are elected to two-year terms.


Subsistence lifestyle

The River Yuman subsisted mainly on farming, whereas Upland Yuman lived by hunting and gathering. They moved often to find food, to foil enemies, or because floods washed away their campsites. Many tribes traded with each other and with neighboring tribes; some traveled great distances to barter.

Modern-day economy

In the present-day many Yuman make their livings by farming, ranching, mining, construction, manufacturing, or artwork. Some tribes lease land; others own industrial parks, service stations, campgrounds, fisheries, and corporations that provide jobs and income for the tribe.

The majority of the tribes have opened casinos to bring in additional income. Profits from gaming finance many social, educational, and health programs on most reservations. Under a policy begun in 2005 the Camp Verde Reservation gives each member ten percent of casino profits.

Because most reservations are located in areas of historical interest, tourism is a big business. RV (recreational vehicle) parks, hotels, restaurants, shopping malls, big game hunting, and other services that cater to tourists bolster tribal economies. The tribes living in the Grand Canyon area operate river rafting, helicopter and mule rides, and guide services.

Even with these business opportunities, the Hualapai (Walapai) suffered from high unemployment. Their casino did not generate enough funds, and forty percent of the people were out of work. To increase tribal income they opened a glass skywalk at the Grand Canyon in 2007. People pay to walk out on a four-inch thick (10-centimeter) glass shelf to peer down at the Canyon below.

Mexican economy today

Many Yuman in Mexico make their living by selling crafts (baskets and pottery), raising livestock, farming, fishing, digging stone and gravel, and providing seasonal labor in nearby communities. Others have moved off the reservations to find work. Some have even sold their land to non-Native Americans to survive. In the past gathering herbs, jojoba, piñon, and wildflower seeds to sell supplemented tribal income, but now harvesting these plants is more difficult because it requires expensive permits.

Mexican Yuman Population: 2000 Census

In 2000 the Mexican census showed the following breakdown of the Yuman population. Statistics also show the number of people who still speak their Native language. These numbers do not reflect Yuman residing in the United States.

Mexican Yuman Population: 2000 Census
TribePopulationNative Speakers
Cucupá (Cocopá)344206

“Llengües Indígenes de Mèxic.” Juárez, México: Comisión Nacional para el Desarrollo de los Pueblos Indígenas, 2000.

Daily life


Extended families (parents, children, grandparents, and other relatives) formed the basis of social and political life. Most families formed bands and migrated together. Some joined other groups in their region, but there were no social classes. Everyone was equal, and prestige was earned by skill, hard work, and good behavior.


While most early homes were dome-shaped, later ones were rectangular. Houses were partially underground and made from a frame of posts linked by rafters that supported flat, thatched roofs. Walls of arrowweed (a tall shrub with lancelike leaves) were held in place by willow branches woven through the thatch. Many walls and roofs were also covered with dirt. Most houses had ramadas, an open-sided shelter with a roof, useful for shade during the day and for sleeping during hot weather. When it was cold, some people dug a hole, scraped ashes from a fire into it, and lay down on top to stay warm.

Most Yuman lived in rancherias, a Spanish name for these small settlements. Rancherias usually had homes for several hundred people as well as a large meeting house, a storage building for grain, a small hut for purification and menstruation (see “Puberty”), and an open-air kitchen made from a screen of weeds near a cooking fire.

Some tribes used caves as shelter. Others, such as the Walapai, used wickiups or made simple shelters by piling branches against a tree. After the Walapai moved to the reservation, they built hogans and sweat lodges.

In the 1930s jacals became popular. These Mexican-style houses had adobe between the posts; roof beams were covered with sticks, brush, and dirt. Later log homes, then cement block homes were often built.

Clothing and adornment

Many of the Yuman went naked, especially children. Some men wore breechcloths, a piece of fabric that passed between their legs and attached to their belts. Apronlike flaps woven of willow bark hung to their knees in the front and back. Other men tied blankets around their waists, then pulled the folds up between their legs with cord to make pantaloons (short, puffy-legged pants).

Women wore small aprons made from the inner bark of cottonwood or willow trees. Some tied a deerskin around their waists; others donned skirts of fringed fabric strips. In cooler weather, most people draped blankets or rabbit-skin capes over their shoulders.

Most tribes went barefoot, but some, like the Kiliwa, wore agave (pronounced uh-GAH-vee; a plant with spiny, sword-shaped leaves) fiber sandals. The Cocopá made sandals from cowhide with the fur on top. The Kiliwa also wore reed caps, and Kumeyaay wore coiled basketry hats. To dress up for dances, people washed their hair, then men tied feathers in their hair and painted their faces and bodies with red, yellow, and white clay. Women wore beads on their wrists and necks.

Both sexes pierced their ears. In many tribes men also pierced their noses; they might insert a shell pendant, a plug, or a bone through the hole. Tattoos done with cactus spines and charcoal were common. Babies often had their heads flattened, which was thought to make them more beautiful. Most tribes wore their hair long; some used a lotion made of mesquite (pronounced me-SKEET or MES-keet) to prevent the sun from bleaching their hair.


Early Yuman tribes survived by hunting and gathering. Men shot larger game such as deer, pronghorn antelope, bighorn sheep, and mountain lion. The tribe worked together to drive smaller game like jackrabbits and quail into nets. In addition to hunting for moles, wood rats, lizards, caterpillars, and birds; the men of some tribes also caught fish, shellfish, and reptiles.

Plants they harvested in the wild included acorns, seeds, prickly pears, apples, pine nuts, cactus fruits, yucca, berries, onion, and garlic. Agave and mesquitebeans were important foods. Mesquite also served as medicine, paint, and hair treatment. Women usually spent all day picking mesquite beans, while men hunted nearby to protect them.

Mesquite beans could be dried and stored for later use. Women pounded green ones and mixed them, with their uncracked seeds, in water to drink. Beans not good enough to store or drink were ground into flour, which they sifted by shaking a traylike basket and letting the lighter flour fall onto a blanket on the ground. Women then dug deep, oval-shaped holes in the ground and wet the dirt. They poured a layer of mesquite flour into it and sprinkled water over it. They repeated the process until the hole was filled. After covering it with dirt, they let the flour set. The next day they removed the hard cake called hapa’ndj. Most women prepared at least twenty cakes at a time. To use them, they broke off chunks and put them in water to drink or boiled them with other ground seeds.

As the majority of the Southwest tribes did, most Yuman learned to grow maize (corn), beans, and squash, although some traded goods for Mexican wheat. Other crops that grew well in this area were pumpkins, gourds, watermelons, and cowpeas. Later some tribes learned to gather wild honey. Treks were also made to the coast to collect salt.


In most Yuman tribes mothers, grandmothers, and siblings taught younger children. Little pressure was put on children to learn because the people believed skills and talents came from dreams. Children spent most of their time playing, often imitating adult behavior.

In modern times most Yuman children attend public schools. Others go to reservation schools, private schools, or boarding schools. Many reservations have Head Start programs and tribal colleges. At the Fort McDowell Reservation the tribe funded their own school so students can take classes that include language study and culture.

Healing practices

Shaman dreamed their position, then paid an experienced shaman to teach them. These healers used herbs, rubbing, and singing. They also used tobacco smoke and sucking to cure patients. Dreams helped them identify symptoms and suggested treatment. In addition shaman were said to have the power to bring lost souls back, a skill they had learned before they were born.

Some tribes also feared shamans, who had the power to cause illnesses as well as cure them. If a medicine person failed to heal a patient or was suspected of being a witch and causing evil, the people often killed him.


The ancestors of some Yuman tribes, the Patayan, may have created the geoglyphs along the rivers in California, Arizona, and Nevada. These huge landscape constructions look like humans or mountain lions. Others are geometric shapes. Many are over 30 feet (9 meters) long; one is even 300 feet (91 meters) in length. To make them, the artists removed the darker top layer of soil, so the lighter soil underneath showed.

The Upland Yuman were known for basketry, while tribes like the Maricopa earned a reputation for their pottery. Girls as young as age five learned pottery-making from their mothers. They used a paddle to beat a small ball of clay into shape over another vessel, then pinched up the sides, and dried the bowls in sun. They coated the bowls with hematite to give them their distinct red color and hardened them in mesquite-fired ovens.


Quechan, Kumeyaay, Mohave, and Kamia, a tribe later absorbed into the others, were also known for their pottery. Some of these tribes shaped their vessels with paddles like the Maricopa did; others used coils to build their pots. Potters made many different kinds of pots or jars, called ollas. The tribe sometimes buried these partially underground, leaving only a small portion showing to serve as traps for small animals. Large lidded vessels for storage were filled with food, then sealed with pitch or unfired clay.

Different tribes made figurines with eyes shaped like coffee beans as well as miniature containers, possibly for funerals. While many of these tribes made narrow-necked jars, the Maricopa only made wide-mouthed jars. The most interesting pieces and hardest to make were large, flat bowls, many over three feet (one meter) in diameter. Women put babies or possessions in these, then swam across the water, pushing the bowls ahead of them.

Maricopa also used calendar sticks like the Tohono O’odham (see entry) and Pima. They cut notches to mark each year along with symbols to help them remember certain events. Some historians believe this custom began in 1833 to record a meteor shower, but the tribe’s oral history seems to indicate it may be a much older tradition.


Birth and naming

Because they believed babies had important dreams even before they were born, expectant parents had many taboos. A mother was not to lie on her back; the baby might be born facing the wrong direction. Nor should she touch a rattlesnake or her child might lack bones like the snake. Neither parent should look at dead animals or the baby could be paralyzed. When fathers hunted, they avoided looking at what they had killed. Diet, too, was important. If a mother got too fat, her baby might choke. And once the baby was born, neither parent was allowed to eat salt or fat.

Births took place in a menstrual hut or special circular lodge with a fire in the center. Usually a woman’s mother and another female relative (one who had had a short delivery) assisted at the birth. The woman sat facing east, with her back against a post in the west. In front of her was a sand-filled hollow lined with rabbitskin or soft cloth for the baby. If labor lasted too long, other women came and sat in the hut with her. As a last resort they called in a shaman. Her husband or other male relative might also help.


For many boys the puberty ceremony involved nose piercing and long periods of seclusion. Elders taught them about tribal history and culture. A girl went to a special hut when her first menstruation began. Different tribes observed different customs. Often this seclusion lasted four days and included taboos like not touching the face or body.


Most of the tribes did not have any special ceremonies for marriages. Some had trial marriages, where couples lived with a few different partners before deciding on a spouse. In other tribes a man went to stay with a woman and, if she accepted him, they were considered married. Having more than one wife was acceptable in many tribes, and a divorce could be obtained by walking out on a spouse.

Games and sports

Many Yuman excelled in running, wrestling, and swimming, but these sports, too, required a dream. Runners jogged or raced to trade with tribes on the Gulf of California or the Pacific coast, then took shells or coastal products to inland tribes to trade for additional goods.


Yuman dances were mostly social events. The few rituals included special dances at harvest times, war and scalp celebrations, and funeral or mourning rites (see “Death rituals”). Girls’ puberty rites were often celebrated in many tribes. Singing was also important to the tribe. During times of poverty, Maricopa sometimes sang for the Pima in exchange for food.

Dances were held in the open during a full moon. The Yuman often invited neighboring tribes to join them. One person sang his dream songs and accompanied himself with a gourd rattle. He might also beat on a basket or scrape it to make additional sounds. Dancers formed a circle around the singer, with men and women alternating, and they hopped or shuffled in a counterclockwise direction.

War etiquette

Yuma and Mohave warriors marched out in formation. Prior to a battle they might watch their leaders fight a duel. Dreams were important to prowess on the battlefield, as only men who had had dreams could take scalps. Those who scalped an enemy had to be purified in a four-day rite. When the tribes took prisoners, they also had to be purified before they became slaves or were killed.

Death rituals

Sometimes when a shaman could not cure a patient with singing, he changed his songs to speed the person on to the next world. Before the elderly died an orator gave a speech; he also gave one at the funeral to encourage the relatives to be happy in spite of their loss.

When someone died usually an elderly friend of the family combed the hair, painted the face, and wrapped the body in a cloth that they tied three places—above the head, at the waist, and below the feet. Cremation occurred within a day or less. A person’s possessions were burned with the body to discourage the dead person’s spirit from remaining on earth. Many tribes also tore down or burned the deceased’s home and engaged in ritual wailing.

The Visit of the Dead

Many Yuman tribes believed that dead spirits could come back to take the living along with them. To prevent that and to hurry the spirits along to the afterlife, they burned a dead person’s possessions.

An Halchidhoma family was coming to visit the people at kwa’akamat [Gila Bend]. They got half way and camped for the night. They built a fire. Late in the evening, they sat around it. As they sat there they saw the dead people gather and talk to them. The dead threw corn to them and brought melons. But the humans did not say anything. They recognized the faces of those long dead. The dead said, “Hurry up and eat your melons. Let us dance; there is a dance going on.” The humans were afraid to go to sleep: they kept the fire going all night. Toward morning the woman went to sleep: she died. But the husband held a little baby in his arms. Whenever the baby fell asleep, he pinched it hard to wake it. The reason the baby was saved was because he pinched it all night long. He arrived at kwa’akamat with only the baby. He told them he had come with the baby alone. It is always said if you go beyond the mountains to that place, and lie there, you will hear all kinds of noises. If you should fall asleep, you will die.

Spier, Leslie. Yuman Tribes of the Gila River. New York: Dover Publications, 1978.

Current tribal issues

From 1976 to 1981 the Yavapai fought to prevent the Central Arizona Project from building the Orme Dam where the Salt and the Verde Rivers meet. The dam would have flooded more than half of their reservation. They won their court case, and the dam was not built. In 1990 they won another water settlement with the U.S. government, which will give the tribe 36,000 acre-feet of water every year. This is enough to supply the tribe’s needs and water their crops, including the eighty thousand pecan and citrus trees they planted. The tribe plans to lease some of its extra water to nearby communities. The Salt River Project also agreed to keep enough water in the Verde River to sustain the wildlife, particularly the bald eagle.

Water is also a concern for many Mexican Yuman. Many settlements do not have water supplies, and people must rely on water collected in hand-dug water basins; some have cement sides, whereas others do not. All water needs to be boiled before it is used. Another difficulty is that toxic waste is contaminating the lakes and rivers where they fish. They also have trouble with squatters and poachers on their land.

Concern about the Arizona Clean Fuels plan to build an oil refinery on 1,460 acres of land in Yuma County prompted the Quechan to file suit in 2007 to halt the transfer of the land. Although the land is no longer tribal land, it is culturally significant to the people. They also have concerns about the impact of the refinery. The court denied their request, so the project will continue to move forward in spite of the tribe’s concerns.

The Quechan also supported a bill to avoid or lessen mining damages to Native American sacred places, which the California governor vetoed in 2002. He did sign a bill requiring mining companies to completely backfill open pit mines near Native American sacred places. One of the tribe’s main concerns was their ongoing fight to protect ancient sacred sites that would be damaged by Glamis Imperial Mine with a cyanide heap-leach goldmine at Indian Pass. The Quechan continued to press for action to halt the mine and, after six years of studies, the Department of the Interior denied a permit to the mining company owners, who sued the U.S. government to recover the loss of their investment. The mine would have affected 55 archaeological sites as well as rare desert plants and animals. It would also have used up 389 million gallons of water each year in a desert area where water is scarce.

Notable people

Carlos Montezuma (c. 1865-1923), a Yavapai, was stolen by Pimas when he was a child and sold to an American photographer, who educated the boy in Chicago. Montezuma was one of the first Native Americans to get a medical degree and later became an advocate for Native American rights.

Austin, Alfredo Lopez, and Leonardo Lopez Lujan. Mexico’s Indigenous Past. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2001.

Densmore, Frances. American Indians and Their Music. Kila, MN: Kessinger Publishing, 2003.

Dunn, J. P., Jr. Massacres of the Mountains: A History of the Indian Wars of the Far West. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2002.

Euler, Robert C., and Carma Lee Smithson Havasupai Legends: Religion and Mythology of the Havasupai Indians of the Grand Canyon. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2002.

Halpern, A. M. Karuk: Native Accounts of the Quechan Mourning Ceremony. Berkeley: University Of California, 1997.

Hayes, Allan, and Carol Hayes. The Desert Southwest: Four Thousand Years of Life And Art. Berkeley, CA: Ten Speed Press, 2006.

Hirst, Stephen. I Am the Grand Canyon: The Story of the Havasupai People. Grand Canyon, AZ: Grand Canyon Association, 2006.

Iliff, Flora Gregg. People of the Blue Water: My Adventures among the Walapai and Havasupai Indians. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1985.

Keller, Jean A., and Lorene Sisquoc. Boarding School Blues: Revisiting American Indian Educational Experiences. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2006.

McGinty, Brian. The Oatman Massacre: A Tale of Desert Captivity and Survival. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2005.

Secrest, William B. When the Great Spirit Died: The Destruction of the California Indians, 1850–1860. Sanger, CA: Word Dancer Press, 2003.

Smith, White Mountain. Indian Tribes of the Southwest. Kila, MN: Kessinger Publishing, 2005.

Speroff, Leon. Carlos Montezuma, M.D.: A Yavapai American Hero—The Life and Times of an American Indian, 1866–1923. Portland, OR: Arnica Publishing, 2003.

Cocopah Indian Tribe. (accessed August 12, 2007).

Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation. (accessed on August 12, 2007).

“Kumeyaay Culture.” Kumeyaay Info. (accessed on August 12, 2007).

Kumeyaay.com. (accessed on August 12, 2007).

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Schmal, John P. “History of Mexico: Indigenous Baja.” Houston Institute for Culture. (accessed on August 12, 2007).

Yavapai Prescott Indian Tribe. (accessed August 12, 2007).

Ned Blackhawk, Associate Professor, Department of History, American Indian Studies Program, University of Wisconsin, Madison

Laurie Edwards

Laurie Edwards