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Several meanings for the name Mohave, or Mojave (both pronounced moe-HAH-vee ), have been suggested. It may come from the Native word hamakhava, which means “mountain peaks,” referring to The Needles, mountain peaks in California. Or it may come from the word ahamakav, or ahamecav, which means “people who live along the river.”


The Mohave lived in sprawling settlements on both sides of the Colorado River, which separates California and Arizona and extends into lower Nevada. Their homeland was once about 200 miles (322 kilometers) long and 25 miles (40 kilometers) wide. Modern-day members of the tribe live with descendants of three other tribes—Chemehuevi, Hopi, and Navajo—on or near the 270,000-acre Colorado River Indian Tribes Reservation (located mostly in Arizona, with about 43,000 acres on the California side). The people of that reservation are collectively known as Colorado River Indians. Other Mohave live on or near Fort Mohave Reservation, which has acreage in California, Arizona, and Nevada, and tribal offices in Needles, California. Some members of the tribe live on the Fort McDowell reservation in Arizona along with the Apache and Yavapai.


In 1800 there were about three thousand Mohave. In 1900 there were about two thousand, with five hundred on the Colorado River Reservation, about one thousand near Fort Mohave, Arizona, and about two hundred in Needles, California. In the 1990 U.S. Census, 1,645 people identified themselves as “Colorado River.” No one identified themselves as “Mohave.” The 2000 census showed 1,707 Colorado River Indians in the United States; of those 1,412 lived in Arizona. Population for the Fort Mojave Indian Tribe of Arizona was 1,519.

Language family

Yuman (rhymes with “human”).

Origins and group affiliations

The Mohave were the largest of the Yuman-speaking tribes living along both sides of the lower Colorado River. (The other Yuman-speaking tribes were the Yavapai, Maricopa, Quechan, Hualapai, Havasupai, Paipai, Kumeyaay, Cocopá, and Kiliwa) The Mohave were a desert people descended from the Patayan of late prehistoric times. Most Mohave migrated to the Mohave Valley (where Fort Mohave Reservation now stands) from the Mohave Desert to the east, settling along the Colorado River around 1150. The tribe later divided into two factions or groups: one preferred peace with whites and neighboring tribes; the other favored war.

Friends and allies of the Mohave included the Quechan, Yavapai, Cahuilla (see entry), Chemehuevi (a Southern Paiute tribe; see Paiute entry), and Tipai-Ipai. Their enemies included the Halchidhoma, Maricopa, Cocopa, Pima (see entry), Tohono O’odham (see entry), and, occasionally, the Walapai.

The Mohave have lived, they say, longer than anyone—living or dead—could ever remember in a hot, dry area made fertile by the yearly flooding of the Colorado River. An active and adventurous people, they made a name for themselves as expert runners. The Mohave traveled far and wide to trade and created a trail to the Pacific Coast that white settlers later found useful. The tribe was also feared because of its fierce warriors. Although white trappers and settlers characterized them as warlike, the majority of the Mohave preferred peace. Most attacks were carried out by kawanamis , or “brave men“. These were professional warriors who had special dreams that encouraged fighting. Reports of their attacks on California-bound wagon trains brought the Mohave to the attention of the U.S. military, and by 1865 they were being settled on reservations. There the people lived unhappily and impoverished for many years. By the late 1990s, though, with modern irrigation methods in place for more than 35 years, the Mohave enjoyed considerable prosperity.


Uneventful contacts with Spanish

Long before the Spanish first saw them, the Mohave were a large, unified tribe, even though families lived on sprawling, individually-owned farms rather than in villages. Their lives were simple and marked by few ceremonies or festivals. The Mohave people came together to defend their territory or to attack other tribes. The first overwhelming threat to their way of life came hundreds of years after their first contact with whites.

The tribe first encountered the Spanish in 1604, when Juan de Oñate (1552–1626) of Mexico explored the region where the Colorado and Bill Williams Rivers come together. It was another 172 years before the Spanish actually reached the Mohave Valley. When a Spanish priest, Father Francisco Garcés (1738–1781), arrived in 1776, he estimated the Mohave population to be three thousand. But as far as the Spanish were concerned, the Mohave Valley was too dry, barren, and remote to be on any interest. Contact between the two groups remained minimal, except for an occasional Mohave raid for horses at Spanish missions in California.

Important Dates

1827: A battle breaks out between the Mohave and Jedediah Smith’s expedition.

1858: Fort Mohave is established to protect American settlers from Indian attacks.

1859: The Mohave are defeated, ending resistance against white settlement.

1865: The Colorado River Reservation is established, with acreage in Arizona and California.

1870: Fort Mohave Reservation is established, with acreage in California, Arizona, and Nevada.

c. 1945: Members of the Hopi and Navajo tribes join the Mohave and Chemehuevi on the Colorado River Indian Tribes Reservation.

1963: The Colorado River Indian Tribes win an important water rights case, and reservation economy improves.

1983: The state of California passes legislation calling for the development of a radioactive waste depository. Ward Valley, 22 miles from Fort Mohave Indian Reservation, is chosen as the site. Native American opposition to the proposal begins.

War with whites and neighboring tribes

During the 1820s American fur trappers traveled through Mohave country, prompting considerable bloodshed. One of the best-known battles occurred in August 1827 when the Mohave nearly wiped out a trapping expedition led by American fur trader and explorer Jedediah Smith (1799–1831). And in 1851 the tribe attacked a group led by Lorenzo Sitgreaves (1810–1888), who was looking for a route for a transcontinental (spanning the nation from coast to coast) railroad. At other times the tribe cooperated with whites. They guided an expedition of white travelers through the desert to the Pacific Coast in 1853–54. But when faced with the destruction of their natural resources by whites, they defended their territory.

Throughout the early period of American trapping and westward expansion, the Mohave also warred with neighboring tribes. Between 1827 and 1829 they fought the Halchidhoma, who invaded their land. The Mohave expelled the tribe from their valley. Later the Mohave permitted the poverty-stricken Chemehuevi to occupy their lands until war broke out between the tribes in 1865. The Chemehuevi were driven back into the desert, but they reached peace with the Mohave in 1867.

The Mohave suffered a disastrous military defeat at the hands of the Pima (see entry) and Maricopa tribes in 1857, but still persisted with attacks on white settlers. Their 1858 attack on a wagon train bound for California was a call to arms for the U.S. military. It resulted in the establishment of a U.S. military post in the Mohave Valley for the protection of white settlers. (This post was later named Fort Mohave.) The post’s commander was ordered to bring the Mohave “to submission.” Mohave resistance did not end until many Mohave warriors had been slain by American soldiers in an 1859 battle.

Reservation lands lost

The Colorado River Indian Reservation was established in 1865 for all the Native Americans along the Colorado River and its tributaries. The Mohave and the Chemehuevi were confined to nearly 270,000 acres on both sides of the river. The government promised to build modern irrigation works on the reservation, and Mohave Chief Irretaba settled there with a fairly large group of people. But another Mohave chief named Hamoseh Quahote, along with a great majority of the tribe, refused to leave the Mohave Valley. Later, after a railroad was built through Mohave lands, some Native people changed their minds and moved south to the Colorado River Indian Reservation. Those who remained behind were settled at Fort Mohave Reservation, established in 1870, where they endured prejudice and humiliation by white settlers.

The Mohave had been on their reservations for only a short time before their lands were reduced. By 1887 the Santa Fe Railroad company owned a large portion of Fort Mohave Reservation land.

In 1941, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and the United States entered World War II (1939-45; a war in which Great Britain, France, the United States, and their allies defeated Germany, Italy, and Japan), the federal government interned Japanese-Americans, confining them to camps because of their race. (The government feared that Americans of Japanese descent might help Japan invade the United States, although no evidence of this ever existed.) Many Japanese-Americans were detained at the Colorado River Indian Tribes Reservation. In return for accommodating these prisoners, the U.S. War Department promised the Native Americans it would not keep the land permanently and would make land and irrigation improvements on the reservation.

After World War II the United States developed a new policy of moving “surplus” Indians from one reservation to another. The government offered farming land on the Colorado River Indian Reservation to some Hopi and Navajo, and members of those tribes are now considered Colorado River Indians.

Government “civilizes” Mohave

As the Mohave mourned the loss of their ancient homeland, the government set about “civilizing” and educating them in white ways. Schools and churches were built, and the Native people were instructed in modern farming techniques. Between 1870 and 1890 the Mohave were plagued by disease and poverty. Improved irrigation methods brought some prosperity in the twentieth century, but much of the tribe’s traditional culture has been lost over the years.


The Mohave believe they were sent forth from Spirit Mountain (Mt. Newberry in Nevada) by their spiritual guides, Mutavilya and Mastamho, to be Earth’s caretakers. Mutavilya built a Great Dark House, the place where the first Mohave dreamers received knowledge from their spirit guides.

The people have always relied upon dreams for spiritual guidance and knowledge. All the talents, skills, and successes they enjoy in life are received in dreams. Great dreams came only to a few chiefs, braves, healers, and singers who had to perform courageous deeds to show their dreams were real. According to Mohave beliefs, these great dreams first occurred in the womb, were forgotten, and then reoccurred in adolescence. There were few religious ceremonies among the Mohave; religious expression was mainly through songs. (See “Oral literature.”)

The Mohave did not believe in heaven. They said that four days after a body was cremated (burned), the spirit went to the land of the dead, where deceased relatives met the ghost. A pleasant, pain-free period followed, with plenty of good things to eat. The soul then died again and was cremated by other ghosts, repeating the cycle until, eventually, the soul turned to charcoal in the desert. The Mohave who had not been tattooed in life were thought to pass down a rat hole at death.

Religious leaders, whose names meant the “one who is good,” gave feasts and hosted victory celebrations. Their importance declined after European contact, when public religious ceremonies began to vanish in Mohave life.

Christian missionaries came to the reservations to convert the Mohave at the beginning of the twentieth century. The first Presbyterian church was built in 1914, and many other groups have had an influence on the tribe since then. Religious denominations with followers on the reservations include Catholics, Pentecostals, Mormons, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Some Mohave still practice the Native religion.

Mojave Words

  • a’avk … “hear”
  • aha … “water”
  • amam … “eat”
  • ’anya … “sun”
  • haly’a … “moon”
  • hatchoq … “dog”
  • ’iipa … “man”
  • isvark … “sing”
  • iyuuk … “see”
  • thinya’aak … “woman”


The Mohave are regarded as the first speakers of the Yuman language. In 1997, about 5 percent of Fort Mohave tribal members still spoke the language; the figure at the Colorado River Indian Reservation was 15 percent. In addition to English, many tribal members speak Spanish. Efforts to revive the Native language have been undertaken by Fort Mohave’s Aha Makav Cultural Society. According to studies done by the Summer Language Institute (SIL) International in 2000, most adults on the reservation speak Mohave, but many children do not.


The Mohave did not have a formal government, but were a unified tribe and joined together in defense against enemies. Long ago any man who had special power bestowed on him in a dream claimed the position of head chief, but at some point in the tribe’s history, the position became hereditary, that is, passed down from father to son. Although they had a chief, no single person or group held a great deal of power over any other. The tribal chief served mainly as an overseer, looking after tribal welfare and providing an example of proper behavior to his people. During battles he took charge of the war chiefs, whom he also chose.

The last Mohave chief died in 1947. Present-day Mohave reservations are governed by elected tribal councils in accordance with the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934. At the Colorado River Indian Reservation the tribal council is advised by the Mohave Elders Standing Committee. At Fort Mohave a tribal chairperson and an elected seven-member council govern the reservation. The task of tribal councils is complicated by the fact that, when governing, the council must take into account tribal laws and the laws of the states of California, Arizona, and Nevada.


Farming was the main economic activity among the Mohave. The men cleared the land and planted and tended the fields, which were then harvested by women. Unlike many other Native groups, the Mohave recognized private ownership of property. A piece of land not already in use could be taken over, cleared, and planted; it was then considered private property. In years when the Colorado River did not rise high enough to flood their fields, the Mohave depended on hunting, fishing, and gathering food.

On the reservations the tribe endured poverty and hardship when the federal government was slow to deliver on promises of improved irrigation techniques. When a reliable system was introduced in the early twentieth century, the economy improved.

Farming remains the major source of income for the Mohave. Cotton, alfalfa, wheat, feed grains for livestock, lettuce, garbanzo beans, peanuts, tomatoes, and melons are their major crops. The Fort Mojave Reservation also supplies Bermuda grass seed to the turf-grass industry. The Mohave attained a higher standard of living beginning in the 1960s, when they started leasing reservation lands to development corporations and farming operations. Unemployment on the reservations remained extremely high at the end of the twentieth century with 41 percent of job seekers at Fort Mohave and 25 percent of job seekers at the Colorado River reservation unable to find work.

With the opening of casinos and tourist facilities in the 1990s, the unemployment situation improved. Many service businesses both on and off the reservation brought in additional income. Tribal employment is also a major source of jobs. Leasing property has provided extra income and led to land development and home building. By the early 2000s the unemployment rate at Colorado River was less than 10 percent; Fort Mojave’s unemployment was less than 5 percent.

Daily life


Families usually consisted of seven or eight persons, including parents, children, and other relatives. Families related to each other through the male line might settle near one another for a time, but the Mohave moved about frequently.


During most of the year the people lived in single-family, open-sided, flat-roofed structures that provided more shade than shelter. Winter homes were low, sloping, rectangular structures made of arrowweed (a large brushy shrub that grows in clumps resembling corn shocks) attached to poles and covered with mud. They built their dwellings over a circular hole in the ground. From floor to ceiling, the homes measured about five feet (1.5 meters) high, but almost half of that was underground. A low door on the eastern side of the dwelling served as both an entrance and an escape hole for smoke from indoor fires. Although they lived along the Colorado River, the Mohave did not build boats or canoes.

Clothing and adornment

The Mohave were big-boned, exceptionally tall, and physically stronger than any other tribe in the United States. The desert region where they lived was subject to extremes of heat and cold, and when it was hot the Mohave wore little or no clothing. Men sometimes wore narrow breechcloths, garments with front and back flaps that hung from the waist. Women might wear front and back aprons or short skirts woven from the fibrous inner layer of willow bark.

Blankets of rabbit, badger, or rat skin provided warmth in the evenings and during cold weather, and badger skin sandals protected their feet during travel. Both men and women wore their hair in bangs over the forehead. Women let their hair hang long in back, while the men twisted theirs into many thin strands and held them in place with mesquite gum. Both sexes took pride in their long, glossy black hair, frequently cleaning it by plastering it with a mixture of mud and boiled mesquite bark. Both sexes painted their faces, and body tattooing was common.

During the early to mid’twentieth century Mohave men often wore overalls, tight undershirts, usually painted black or striped, and bright handkerchiefs around the neck. Many Mohave women adorned themselves with creative glass bead decorations.


Plant life

The Mohave lived in small farming communities scattered in clusters along the bottomlands of the lower Colorado River. The region’s vegetation consisted of piñon (pine nut) trees, desert shrubs, cactus, mesquite shrubs, and screwbeans (the spiral-shaped pod of the screwbean tree). Arrowweed, cottonwoods, cane, and willows grew at the river bottoms. The sandy earth sloping upward from the river supported cacti and creosote bushes (pronounced KREE-uh-sote; evergreen desert shrubs).

They grew more than half of the food they ate. Their crops included corn, melons, pumpkins, gourds, beans, sunflowers, grasses, and herbs. They also grew tobacco and cotton. Men punched holes in the moist river soil using a planting stick with a wedge-shaped point. Women followed, dropping seeds in each hole and covering them with soil by hand. No fertilization was necessary because flooding enriched the soil. Crops not used immediately after harvesting were dried in the sun and stored in huge baskets.

Animal life

Scarce food and water forced wildlife to roam widely, and the Mohave rarely saw big game. They hunted an occasional deer, a project that required a profound understanding of life in the desert and a keen eye. When a hunter caught a deer, he traded it to other Mohave for fish and farm products because it was considered bad luck for him to eat his own kill. Mostly, though, meat came from quail, rabbits, rodents, and river fish. Men set up weirs (small fences of sticks built across a river or stream), or heated and bent cactus thorns into hooks to catch fish. They broiled mullet or lumpfish on hot coals or prepared them with corn as a stew.

Sometimes communal rabbit drives were held. The Mohave occasionally relied on insects, snakes, and lizards for food when game was scarce, or they dug up nourishing roots.


There was little pressure placed on children to learn because the Mojave believed skills and talents came through dreaming. Children spent much time in play activities, often imitating adult behavior.

Once the Mohave were on reservations, the U.S. government took over the schooling of the children. They built boarding schools for Native youth in order to limit or remove their connections to their culture. Children were forbidden to speak their Native language and were even given new “American” names. By the end of the twentieth century a few Mohave reservation children still attended government-run boarding schools, but most children had enrolled in area public schools. At the start of the twenty-first century the Mohave had established schools or cultural centers where children could learn their Native language and traditions.

Healing practices

A medicine man’s power came from dreams, which were sent before birth or in early childhood by Tinyam, “The Night.” Tinyam would stand beside the young child and provide instruction on how to perform certain cures. Mohave medicine men were specialists; each could only cure one type of illness. Evil medicine men could cause illness.

The curing specialist might blow breath or spit on a patient with a fever or suck a swollen part of the ill person’s body to release evil. The identity of an evil medicine man who had caused an illness usually came to the patient in a dream. In the early days relatives of sick people sometimes killed a medicine man they thought caused an illness. Some medicine men welcomed such a death because they believed a special fate would be theirs if they died violently.

Mohave medicine men mistrusted white remedies. During the 1900s the medicine man’s influence all but disappeared, in part because the U.S. government discouraged these practices. Modern-day Mohave on the reservations have access to community hospitals as well as to hospitals operated by the Indian Health Service. The Colorado River Indian Tribes employ health experts and operate facilities on the reservation to deal with psychological problems and alcohol abuse.


The Mohave enjoyed gambling and games involving skill, strength, and endurance. Among these was a hoop and pole game that required a person to have both a sure aim and good judgment under pressure, since participants bet heavily on the outcome. A hoop was set rolling, then one player slid a pole along the ground, trying to calculate when the hoop would roll onto the pole and stop. Dice-like counting games were played by women using counters made from shells.



Petroglyphs (carvings or drawings on rock) left behind by ancient Mohave peoples can still be seen on the walls of Grapevine Canyon, the entrance to Spirit Mountain (Mt. Newberry in Nevada) where the Mohave people believe they originated. The petroglyphs tell how the Mohave came to be and record important information such as who passed through their territory and where water sources were located.


Women wove burden baskets, made pottery, and fashioned glass beads, until European trade beads became more common. The beads they made came from ingredients they took from the necks of insects; some early observers thought these bugs might have been black beetles. Along with several other Yuman tribes, the Mojave used either large watertight baskets or huge pottery bowls up to three feet (one meter) in diameter to float supplies and children across streams when moving from place to place.

Oral literature

Mohave song cycles passed along tribal history, morals, and myths, which were extremely long and complicated and full of details about time and place. For example Mohave Bird Songs describe a travel route through the desert to the Pacific Coast and list every type of bird encountered on the way. One song cycle could consist of fifty to two hundred songs, and thirty cycles were sung at one time. The words to the songs came to the singer in dreams. Some song cycles required several days and nights to perform; they were often accompanied by the music of a gourd rattle or by drumming on a basket. By the 1970s there were few Mohave people left who knew how to perform the song cycles, and only fragments of the tribe’s oral literature were remembered.


Festivals and ceremonies

The Mohave did not wear masks or ceremonial costumes. Nor did they have rituals for rainmaking or crop growth, except in the very early times when members of the tribe sometimes drank cactus wine to bring forth rain. The main celebrations included the Scalp Dance (see “War rituals”) and girls’ puberty ceremonies, both of which died out by the early 1900s. Songs for cremation and the Mourning Chant were the only rituals still practiced in recent times.

War rituals

The Mohave were warlike because their spirit guide, Mastamho, predicted that each generation would have men with war powers. Therefore, when not hunting or gathering, Mohave warriors fulfilled that prophesy by going to war. Warfare was carried on by men who had experienced “great dreams” that gave them power in battle. However, if they were needed, most Mohave men were willing to fight, whether they had had a great dream or not.

To carry out small raids, ten to twelve men performed the task without ceremony or ritual. For major battles, scouts were sent ahead to stake out a route, noting the location of water holes and enemy camps. Warriors then made surprise attacks on the enemy at dawn.

Mohave warriors divided into two groups: the first group were archers, who used 5-foot-long (1.5-meter-long) bows and arrows for long-distance fighting; the second group were clubmen, who rushed in for close fighting using heavy clubs and sticks. Each warrior carried a round shield made of horsehide or deerskin and a feathered stave (wooden pole). A fighter would plant his stave firmly in the ground and defend it to his death.

A special scalper always accompanied war expeditions, and the return of warriors was celebrated with a victory dance around enemy scalps mounted on poles. Young female prisoners were given to old men of the tribe to insult the enemy.


Much of Mohave traveling took place on foot, and men were especially adept, often covering up to 100 miles (161 kilometers) a day across the desert. Running was an opportunity to meditate and to escape from evil spirits; it served a practical purpose as well. Teams of relay runners could communicate the location of enemies or water holes.

Puberty and pregnancy

Unlike many other tribes the Mohave did not regard puberty and pregnancy as occasions for complicated rituals. Menstruating girls sat in a secluded corner of their homes, resting quietly and avoiding meat and salt. At night they were laid in a warm pit. A pregnant woman was cared for tenderly, since the unborn child would be having its first—and possibly “great”—dream, and the dream might be adversely affected if the mother were unhappy or upset.

Courtship and marriage

A Mohave man courting his future bride brought her many gifts. If the young woman accepted the man’s advances, the couple began to live together. No ceremony was necessary to validate the marriage. The couple could live wherever they chose. They might, for example, take up residence at the bride’s home with her parents until they built a home of their own. If the partners’ union failed, they separated. Divorces were fairly common. Most men had only one wife, although it was permissible to have more than one. Divorces and remarriages remain common in modern Mohave society.


The funeral involved more ritual than any other Mohave ceremony. Mourners typically gathered around the dying person to sing and wail. After death, they wrapped the corpse in a blanket and burned it, while mourners continued to wail and watch as the body departed to the afterworld. The person’s home and personal possessions were also burned. The Mohave never again spoke the name of the dead person.

A special mourning ceremony was held for certain warriors and chiefs after their cremation. This ceremony involved a 10-hour ritual in which men in war costumes ran back and forth carrying replicas of real weapons. The special house that was built to hold the spectators at this ritual was later burned together with the replica weapons. Runners then fled to the river and jumped in for purification.

The cremation and wailing ceremony continue to be the manner in which most Mohave mourn their dead. Some personal property is also burned when a person dies.

Current tribal issues

In the nineteenth century the Mohave gave up a large part of their homeland to the American government. At the end of the twentieth century they were being pressured by the state of California to permit the building of a radioactive waste dump in Ward Valley, a site 22 miles (35 kilometers) west of Needles in traditional Mohave territory. The Mohave and the Chemehuevi, who are also affected by the proposal, claim such a dump would contaminate the sacred Colorado River, threaten the tribes’ health and livelihood, and destroy the habitat of the desert tortoise, an important tribal symbol. Furthermore, the tribes assert that the project is a violation of their rights and see it as yet another attack on Native American culture, lands, and futures.

Little of traditional Mohave culture remains, as a result of longstanding efforts on the part of the federal government and other agencies to force the people to assimilate (become part of the larger American culture). Recent efforts, however, have been made to revitalize aspects of the culture. The tradition of running, for example, is gaining renewed meaning and popularity at Fort Mohave. Runner clans—groups of men and women who receive in dreams the desire and the power to run—have formed at the reservation. And Ward Valley, site of the proposed waste dump, became the site of “Spirit Runs,” communal relay runs with both a political and spiritual purpose.

In addition to protecting their water rights, the Fort Mojave people have been working with state and federal agencies to restore habitats for many endangered species, such as the desert willow flycatcher, the Yuma clapper rail, and the yellow-billed cuckoo. They are also active in presenting environmental education programs to schools and the surrounding communities.

Boule, Mary Null. Mohave Tribe. Vashon, WV: Merryant Publishers Inc., 2000.

Curtis, Edward S. The North American Indian. New York: Johnson Reprint Corporation, 1908.

Furst, Jill Leslie Mckeever. Mojave Pottery, Mojave People. Santa Fe, NM: School Of American Research Press, 2001.

Kroeber, Alfred Louis. Seven Mohave Myths. Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing, LLC, 2007.

Ortiz, Alfonso, ed. Handbook of North American Indians, Vol. 10: Southwest. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, 1978.

Swanton, John R. The Indian Tribes of North America. Washington, DC: Smithsonian, 1979.

Williams, Jack S. The Mojave of California and Arizona. New York: PowerKids Press, 2004.

Fikes, Bradley J. “Ward Valley Sides Spar over Review Panel.” San Diego Business Journal. (1995).

Stewart, Kenneth M. “Mohave Warfare.” Southwestern Journal of Anthropology. 3: 3 (Autumn 1947): 257–278.

“Desert Native Americans: Mohave Indians.” Mojave Desert. (accessed on August 4, 2007).

“Fort Mojave Indian Tribe.” Inter Tribal Council of Arizona, Inc. (accessed on August 4, 2007).

“Mohave Indian Tribe History.” Access Genealogy. (accessed on August 4, 2007).

“Mohave National Preserve: Mohave Indians—Beginnings.” National Park Service. (accessed on August 4, 2007).

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

Laurie Edwards

Laurie Edwards

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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 .