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A Chemehuevi Song: The Resilience of a Southern Paiute Tribe

A Chemehuevi Song: The Resilience of a Southern Paiute Tribe

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A Chemehuevi Song: The Resilience of a Southern Paiute Tribe

532 pages
7 heures
Aug 1, 2015


The Chemehuevi of the Twenty-Nine Palms tribe of Southern California stands as a testament to the power of perseverance. This small, nomadic band of Southern Paiute Indians has been repeatedly marginalized by European settlers, other Native groups, and, until now, historical narratives that have all too often overlooked them.

Having survived much of the past two centuries without rights to their homeland or any self-governing abilities, the Chemehuevi were a mostly “forgotten” people until the creation of the Twenty-Nine Palms Reservation in 1974. Since then, they have formed a tribal government that addresses many of the same challenges faced by other tribes, including preserving cultural identity and managing a thriving gaming industry.

A dedicated historian who worked closely with the Chemehuevi for more than a decade, Clifford Trafzer shows how this once-splintered tribe persevered using sacred songs and other cultural practices to maintain tribal identity during the long period when it lacked both a homeland and autonomy. The Chemehuevi believe that their history and their ancestors are always present, and Trafzer honors that belief through his emphasis on individual and family stories. In doing so, he not only sheds light on an overlooked tribe but also presents an important new model for tribal history scholarship.

A Chemehuevi Song strikes the difficult balance of placing a community-driven research agenda within the latest currents of indigenous studies scholarship. Chemehuevi voices, both past and present, are used to narrate the story of the tribe’s tireless efforts to gain recognition and autonomy. The end result is a song of resilience.

Aug 1, 2015

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A Chemehuevi Song - Clifford E. Trafzer

Charlotte Cotè, Matthew Sakiestewa Gilbert, and Coll Thrush, Series Editors

Indigenous Confluences publishes cutting-edge works on the larger, universal themes common among indigenous communities of North America, with a special emphasis on Pacific Coast communities. Focusing on transnational approaches and decolonizing perspectives, this interdisciplinary series seeks to bring nuance and depth to the indigenous experience by examining a wide range of topics, including self-determination and resurgence efforts, identity, environmental and food justice, urban histories, language preservation, and art, music, performance and other forms of cultural expression.

A Chemehuevi Song: The Resilience of a Southern Paiute Tribe

by Clifford E. Trafzer

Education at the Edge of Empire: Negotiating Pueblo Identity in New Mexico’s Indian Boarding Schools

by John R. Gram

A Chemehuevi Song

The Resilience of a Southern Paiute Tribe


Foreword by Larry Myers


Seattle and London

© 2015 by the University of Washington Press

Printed and bound in the United States of America

Design by Dustin Kilgore

Composed in Charter, a typeface designed by Matthew Carter

19  18  17  16  15      5  4  3  2  1

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage or retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.



Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Trafzer, Clifford E.

A Chemehuevi song : the resilience of a Southern Paiute tribe / Clifford E. Trafzer ; foreword by Larry Myers. — First edition.

        pages          cm — (Indigenous confluences)

Includes bibliographical references.

ISBN 978-0-295-99458-1 (hard cover : alk. paper) 1. Chemehuevi Indians—History. 2. Chemehuevi Indians—Government relations. 3. Chemehuevi Indians—Ethnic identity. I. Title. II. Title: Resilience of a Southern Paiute tribe.

E99.C493T73 2015



The paper used in this publication is acid-free and meets the minimum requirements of American National Standard for Information Sciences—Permanence of Paper for Printed Library Materials, ANSI Z39.48–1984.∞

ISBN-13: 978-0-295-80582-5 (electronic)

I dedicate this book to the extended families of Dean Mike, Jennifer Mike, Matthew Hanks Leivas, Joe Mike Benitez, Betty Cornelius, Vivienne Jake, Richard Arnold, and Larry Eddy. These families are among those that keep the Chemehuevi and Southern Paiute songs and stories alive.



Preface and Acknowledgments



The Chemehuevi Way


Invading and Defaming the Chemehuevi


War, Resistance, and Survival


The Chemehuevi at Twenty-Nine Palms


Unvanished Americans


Willie, William, and Carlota


Cultural Preservation, Ethnogenesis, and Revitalization






PROFESSOR CLIFFORD TRAFZER BEGAN HIS ASSOCIATION WITH THE Twenty-Nine Palms Tribe in 1997, when the tribal council invited him to visit members of the tribe’s Business Committee to discuss cultural projects. At that time, Cahuilla tribal scholar Luke Madrigal directed the Twenty-Nine Palms Cultural Committee and offered monthly cultural exchanges with members of the San Manuel, Hualapai, Torres-Martinez, Chemehuevi, and other reservations in Southern California and western Arizona. In the mid-1990s the Twenty-Nine Palms Tribe became interested in preserving its tribal history by collecting oral interviews. Scholars had written very little about Chemehuevi people and essentially nothing on the Twenty-Nine Palms Tribe. As a result, tribal members decided to capture their history through the words of tribal members and other Indians who knew Chemehuevi culture, language, and history. They invited Cliff to work with them to develop a scholarly effort that carefully represented the tribe’s history and culture.

Some members of the Twenty-Nine Palms Tribe had attended a workshop on American Indian oral histories taught by Muscogee-Creek scholar Duane Hale at the University of Oklahoma, and they wanted to learn more about oral histories. One Monday evening in September 1997, Luke Madrigal introduced the tribe to his brother, Cahuilla historian Anthony Madrigal, and his friend Cliff Trafzer. At that time, Cliff was director of American Indian studies and professor of ethnic studies at the University of California–Riverside. Cliff and Anthony presented the tribal leadership with a host of ideas about possible historical and cultural projects that the tribe might wish to undertake, including an oral history project. After an enthusiastic discussion about possible projects, tribal members in attendance agreed on an oral history project.

Members of the Business Committee asked Cliff and Anthony to return the next week to interview Dean Mike, who at the time was tribal chair. Shortly after that, Cliff participated in the first of several oral histories with members of the Twenty-Nine Palms Tribe, and Joe Benitez, a Chemehuevi and member of the Cabazon Band of Cahuilla Indians. Cliff also traveled to the Colorado River to interview Gertrude, Matthew, Juliana, Hope, Mary, and June Hanks Leivas—all tribal scholars of Chemehuevi people. From these initial oral history projects, Cliff began an ongoing research project to gather documents and information from the National Archives, the Southwest Museum, the Costo Collection, the Bancroft Library, and other repositories about the history of Chemehuevi people in general and the Twenty-Nine Palms Tribe in particular.

Cliff interviewed numerous subjects about Chemehuevi people and their families. After researching tribal census data and death records of the Mission Indian Agency in the National Archives, Cliff spent hours with Dean Mike, Joe Benitez, and Gertrude Hanks Leivas identifying people listed as Chemehuevi in tribal censuses from the 1890s to the 1940s. This included those living on the Cabazon, Torres-Martinez, Soboba, Agua Caliente, Morongo, and San Manuel Reservations. Cliff also investigated birth and death registers of the Mission Indian Agency in the National Archives. This information has proved invaluable to the present book as well as to the tribe. A great deal of Chemehuevi history is family history, and Cliff has made excellent use of familial aspects of this Native American community.

From 1997 to 2013, he collected boxes of documents, maps, books, articles, and photographs. He made copies of all the sources for the Twenty-Nine Palms Tribe and helped the tribe create an archive. In addition, Cliff worked with the tribe to assist in establishing the Native American Land Conservancy, which formally began in 1998 and continues with an active agenda of preservation today. The Twenty-Nine Palms Tribe and Native American Land Conservancy diligently strives to protect and preserve the cultural, spiritual, and biological heritage of American Indian people. Cliff has been a part of this preservation effort from the outset, and he continues to serve on the Board of Directors of the Native American Land Conservancy.

Unlike many scholars, he has worked with and for the Twenty-Nine Palms Tribe, sharing information and learning from tribal elders. He has used knowledge gained from tribal scholars and elders to enrich his study, and he has carefully documented a portion of the tribe’s history by writing in the oral tradition, using oral narratives, contemporary interviews, written historical documents, and a host of other sources. Cliff does not claim that this study, A Chemehuevi Song: The Resilience of a Southern Paiute Tribe, is a definitive work. Instead, it is one song that represents a portion of the tribe’s history but a story never told before. He presents an original historical work that is groundbreaking in scholarship yet very readable—one that puts Indian people at the center of the story.

In 1997, Cliff worked with Anthony and Luke Madrigal to produce the first book on the tribe, Chemehuevi People of the Coachella Valley. To my knowledge, it is the only book to date on the Twenty-Nine Palms Tribe. Isabel Kelly, Catherine Fowler, LaVan Martineau, Martha C. Knack, and others have written major works on Southern Paiute people, and their research has contributed significantly to the foundation of Cliff’s study of the Twenty-Nine Palms Tribe. Carabeth Laird expanded the works on the Southern Paiute by recording the oral histories of her husband, George Laird, to write The Chemehuevis (1976) and Mirror and Pattern (1984). Laird’s work is largely anthropological, however, and not focused on the Twenty-Nine Palms Tribe.

The research of Kelly, Fowler, Knack, and Laird is indispensible to this book, offering rich anthropological studies relevant to the cultural past of Southern Paiute people. Yet these past works have only touched on the history of the Twenty-Nine Palms Tribe that once lived along the Colorado River, including in California’s Chemehuevi Valley. During the 1860s these people left the Mojave-controlled Colorado River regions for the isolation of the Mojave Desert, moving to the Oasis of Mara. There, one group of Chemehuevi formed a relationship with the Serrano to live in the desert by hunting, gathering, and farming the oasis known for its native palm trees. During the late nineteenth century, other Chemehuevi from the river and villages in the Mojave Desert joined them at the oasis, creating the Twenty-Nine Palms Tribe of Chemehuevi. This is the subject of Cliff’s moving study.

Since 1997, his ongoing research project has captured the history and culture of the Twenty-Nine Palms Tribe. This book represents his continued effort to research and write a deeper and fuller study of the people, their families, and their relationships with others. He understands the traditional cultural landscape of Chemehuevi from the Colorado River to the Pacific Ocean, sacred space that includes the Salt Song Trail, Silver Fox, Colorado River, Coco-Maricopa, and other spur trails. After one group of Chemehuevi relocated to the Oasis of Mara, the people of Twenty-Nine Palms formed an intimate relationship with the deserts and mountains of Southern California, while maintaining cultural and familial relationships with Chemehuevi and other Southern Paiute of Arizona, California, and Nevada.

Before completing this fine manuscript, Cliff provided several Chemehuevi people with copies of the work so that tribal members and council members of the Twenty-Nine Palms Tribe could read and comment on the work before submission. He worked especially closely with former tribal chair Dean Mike and current tribal chair Darrell Mike. Cliff has made a tremendous effort to gather written documents and learn from Indian people. I applaud his research model of openness and inclusiveness, respecting tribal elders and including their voices in this work. I duly acknowledge Cliff’s academic effort and hope this book encourages other scholars to continue to research tribal histories by conducting oral history projects and using tribal knowledge in a critical fashion in their own works. A Chemehuevi Song offers many details about Chemehuevi people in general and specifically about the Chemehuevi of Twenty-Nine Palms. This includes their dramatic relationships with other tribes and non-Indian newcomers. Cliff’s thorough historical and community-based research has resulted in an original scholarly work of Chemehuevi people of the Twenty-Nine Palms Tribe that will become the standard work on the tribe.

This book represents a path-breaking study of one group of Chemehuevi people through diverse historical voices and lenses. Cliff presents the first full-length historical work on the Twenty-Nine Palms Tribe, relating their history as part of a much larger historical drama of California, the Southwest, and the United States. He presents a remarkable story—not of vague historical characters but of members of Native American families and people. I think A Chemehuevi Song: The Resilience of a Southern Paiute Tribe is a significant book that will be of use and interest to scholars and the general public alike. Anyone the least bit interested in the history of Native Americans will find great value in these colorful and authoritative pages about the Twenty-Nine Palms Tribe of Chemehuevi. I hope this is the first of many songs sung about Chemehuevi Indians and other Native Americans of the Pacific West.


Executive Secretary

California Native American Heritage Commission

Preface and Acknowledgments

ON THE NIGHT OF SEPTEMBER 28, 2001, CHEMEHUEVI ELDERS LARRY Eddy and Matthew Hanks Leivas sang Salt Songs long into the night. Salt Songs are typically sung for funerals and memorials, but on this occasion, the elders sang their body of sacred songs in celebration of American Indian Day for one thousand people at California State University–San Bernardino. After singing a few songs, Leivas explained that the male and female dancers performed the Circle Dance, a dance also performed by Chemehuevi Ghost Dancers in the late nineteenth century. He explained that Chemehuevi and other Southern Paiute people believe the spirits hear the singing and gather in the middle of the plaza to be near their loved ones. Dancers surround the spirits, remembering and honoring them as well as their ancestors.

Chemehuevi dancers put songs into motion, re-creating ancient music and movement of the first Chemehuevi who emerged at the beginning of time on their sacred Spring Mountains of southern Nevada. Eddy explained: It is appropriate to share these songs tonight, because they are the mourning songs of our people, which we sing when someone dies or someone is remembered. In the late nineteenth century, Chemehuevi and other Southern Paiute people had danced the same dances, performing the Ghost Dance—a religion still practiced by some of the people. Leivas pointed out: We are all mourning, you know, given what happened in New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington. He was referring, of course, to the airplane crashes into the World Trade Center, the Pennsylvania woods, and Pentagon on September 11, 2001. We all need to listen to these songs and remember the dead and what has happened to all of us. Leivas added: "We need these songs to heal. He and Eddy invited the crowd to join the dancers in the Circle Dance, and soon more than a hundred men, women, and children danced with the Chemehuevi to honor the dead.

Chemehuevi culture is alive today through the dynamic process of ethnogenesis. Their culture has changed in many ways as a result of contact with newcomers, but the essence of cultural identity remains strong among the people. Songs, prayers, and stories call the spirits that have an effect on the lives of all Southern Paiute. Chemehuevi are Southern Paiute, or Nüwü as they call themselves. The people remain connected with each other, the spiritual world, and their grand landscape of mountains, deserts, and river valleys. Their spiritual connection with the world remains the core of their culture, and tribal elders pass along knowledge of spiritual matters through the oral tradition, which includes songs and stories. Singers share elements of this knowledge every time they sing or tell stories, believing that spirits enter their personal and public spaces whenever they gather. Chemehuevi elders, singers, and storytellers believe all human beings have the ability to share a common relationship through the Spirit. Many believe the actions of a single person affects the lives of everyone. Ceremonial spokesmen and -women remind people to teach their children proper behavior and be mindful of their actions. They stress the need to obey traditional tribal laws and continue the Chemehuevi way.

Songs put the Chemehuevi world into motion at the beginning of time, and the people have sung songs since the time when Ocean Woman stretched out her body to create the landform known today as the Western Hemisphere. Songs keep the world in motion, affecting landscapes, animals, plants, and people. Songs tell stories, and many exist. This book is my attempt at a historical song-story presented using written documents, oral histories, and fieldwork among the people. Since 1997, I have worked with several Chemehuevi people to research and write a history—my song—of the Twenty-Nine Palms Tribe of Chemehuevi. This book is but one song about one group of Chemehuevi Southern Paiute people who once lived at the Oasis of Mara in the modern-day town of Twentynine Palms, California. Today, they live primarily in the Coachella Valley near Indio and Palm Springs, California. They have relatives among all other Chemehuevi and Southern Paiute people living in Utah, Nevada, Arizona, and California. All of them are Nüwü. Since 1997, members of the Twenty-Nine Palms Tribe, Chemehuevi Tribe, Chemehuevi people of the Colorado River Reservation, and other Southern Paiute people have worked with me on this book, and many read and commented on the manuscript before and after submission to the University of Washington Press.

A Chemehuevi Song is a collaborative effort that draws on many written and oral sources to frame a book that focuses on spiritual, familial, social, and environmental relationships of the people. It is a story of ethnogenesis, cultural continuance, adaptation, and survival. In the 1970s the people of Twenty-Nine Palms organized a formal government and have functioned successfully since as a federally recognized tribe with trust lands in Coachella and Twentynine Palms. This history represents my song about the Chemehuevi people, built on past and new research, including oral histories and personal participation in song, stories, and ceremonies. It is only one of the many songs historians might create about Chemehuevi in general and the Twenty-Nine Palms Tribe in particular.

In the 1860s, these Chemehuevi moved into the eastern Mojave Desert, about seventy miles west of their relatives along the river. Their story is compelling, a chronicle of ethnogenesis, hardships, and survival that ultimately led them to the Coachella Valley. Dean Mike, Darrell Mike Jr., Jennifer Estama-Mike, Leanna Andrea Mike, Vivienne Jake, Joe Mike Benitez, Gertrude Hanks Leivas, Larry Eddy, Betty Cornelius, Matthew Hanks Leivas, June Hanks Leivas, Mary Hanks Leivas Drum, Julianna Hanks Leivas, Hope Hanks Leivas Hinman, Kenneth Anderson, Alfreda Mitre, Lorene Sisquoc, and other tribal scholars helped me with this research. I also thank Carmen Lucas, Michael Tsosie, Daphne Poolaw, Barbara Levy, Wesley Schofield, Lolita Schofield, Lorey and Linda Cachora, Preston Arrowweed, Barbara Levy, Willa Scott, Anthony Madrigal, Ernest Siva, James Ramos, Pauline Murillo, Sean Milanovich, Ted Vaughn, Linda Ogo, and Manfred Scott, who helped me understand Yavapai, Mojave, Cahuilla, Serrano, Kwaaymii, and Quechan relationships with Chemehuevi.

I thank the officials and institutions that helped me locate documents, including the Twenty-Nine Palms Tribe, Rupert Costo Library, Special Collections and Archives at the University of California–Riverside, Twentynine Palms City Library, Twentynine Palms Historical Society, San Manuel Tribe, National Parks Service, National Forest Service, Malki Museum, National Archives, Huntington Library, Joshua Tree National Park, Smiley Library, San Diego Historical Society, Southwest Museum, Cabazon Cultural Museum, Bancroft Library of the University of California–Berkeley, Colorado Indian River Tribe’s Museum and Library, Quechan Cultural Resources Library, Quechan Tribal Language Program Library, Yuma Proving Ground, Dorothy Ramon Learning Center, and Yuma City-County Library.

I thank the numerous officials at many libraries and special collections, including the Rivera and Orbach Libraries of the University of California–Riverside, Twentynine Palms Library, the Riverside Public Library, the Riverside Metropolitan Museum, Nevada Historical Society, Native American Heritage Commission, California State Parks, the University of Arizona, the Arizona Historical Society, the Twentynine Palms Historical Society, the Smith Collection at the Twentynine Palms Hotel, and personal documents provided by Indians and non-Indians alike.

I wish to thank the Chemehuevi and other Southern Paiute people for sharing their oral histories. I am profoundly grateful to Dean, Theresa, and the entire Mike family as well as the Hanks Leivas family for allowing me to participate and write about wakes and memorial ceremonies. These sacred ceremonies among Paiute people are not public events. I have written about these ceremonies from personal experiences, and I am humbled by the cultural confidence placed in me. The editors and reviewers of the University of Washington Press honored me by allowing this song to be a part of the Indigenous Confluence series. I offer deep appreciation to Ranjit Arab, Mary C. Ribesky, Tim Zimmerman, Dustin Kilgore, and Amy Smith Bell. I thank the anonymous reviewers who reviewed my manuscript and offered constructive criticisms that enhanced the work.

I thank librarians of many institutions, some of which I have just mentioned, for leading me to particular sources and making collections available. I also wish to thank authors mentioned throughout the manuscript and in the bibliography for providing groundbreaking information: Isabel Kelly, Catherine and Donald Fowler, Richard W. Stoffle, Maria Zedeño, Katherine Siva Saubel, Kurt Russo, Dorothy Ramon, Eric Elliott, Carobeth Laird, George Laird, Robert Johnson, Dennis Casebier, Tom King, Paul Smith, Robert Euler, James Sandos, Larry Burgess, Nathan Gonzales, Maria Carrillo, David Halmo, George Phillips, and Martha Knack. Each has greatly contributed to what we know about Southern Paiute people. I owe a debt of gratitude to Bill Houck, Fay McClung, David Saldivar, Emerson Gorman, Nicole Van der Linde-Johnson, and Michael Connoly of the Native American Land Conservancy.

Several scholars read and commented on portions of the work, including Anthony Madrigal, Matthew Sakiestewa Gilbert, Luke Madrigal, Richard Hanks, Kevin Whalen, Robert Przeklasa, Heather Andrews-Horton, Paul and Jane Smith, Kurt Russo, James Sandos, and Larry Burgess. I also thank members of the Business Council and Cultural Committee of the Twenty-Nine Palms Tribe for critiquing every page of the manuscript. I thank Darrell Mike, Jr., Dean Mike, Jennifer Estama-Mike, Joe Mike Benitez, Matthew Hanks Leivas, Betty Cornelius, Wilene Fisher-Holt, Larry Eddy, Michelle Mike, Melissa Mike Solomon, Dineen Mike, Angelina Mike, Courtney Andrade Gonzales, Lloyd Mike, Darrell Miller, Sabrena Mike, Leanna Mike, Richard Arnold, and Leanna, Earl, and Jordan Thomas for their support and constructive criticism. Without the support of the Twenty-Nine Palms Tribe, this book could not have been researched or written.

Theresa Mike has been a guiding light and supportive mentor. She taught me patience. She traveled with me to historical and cultural sites such as Old Woman Mountain, Twentynine Palms, Joshua Tree National Park, the Colorado River Indian Reservation, and the Chemehuevi Reservation. She traveled to the Colorado River with Anthony Madrigal and me to attended Bear Dances, funerals, and memorials. A Lummi person by birth, Theresa Mike has embraced the Chemehuevi history of her husband’s and daughter’s tribe.

Lucas Reyes, Maria Carrillo, and Sarah Allison helped format the photographs, and Lee Ann helped format the manuscript, which I greatly appreciate. I thank friends and colleagues: Kim Wilcox, James Sandoval, Steve Cullenberg, Michelle Raheja, Monte Kugel, Jacqueline Shea-Murphy, Joshua Gonzales, James Brennan, Tom Cogswell, Randolph Head, Tom Patterson, Brenda Focht, Wendy Ashmore, Steve Hackel, and Juliet McMullen. The following provided research grants: the Ford Foundation, the Riverside–San Bernardino Community Foundation, the U.S. Corps of Engineers, Faculty Senate Research Grants through the University of California–Riverside, and the Haynes Foundation grant through the Southern California Historical Society; each contributed to the research of the this volume. I thank the Rupert and Jeanette Costo Endowment for creating the chair that provided me time and funds to research and travel. I also wish to thank Melissa Conway, Eric Milenkiewicz, Steve Mitchell, and Sarah M. Allison of the campus libraries, especially Special Collections and the Costo Library, Rivera Library, of the University of California–Riverside. I thank my colleagues of the California Center for Native Nations. I also thank Larry Myers, executive secretary of the Native American Heritage Commission, for taking the time to read the manuscript and write a generous foreword.

Most of all, I thank my family for their support. My mother, Mary Lou, taught me the importance of our Indian heritage and the significance of family, community, survival, and memory—all elements of the Chemehuevi story. My sisters, Donna and Sally, as well as their husbands, Ron and Alan, helped me complete this work by providing support. Cousins Cathleen and Ron, as well as friends Chris Suter, Jim Fenelon, Kenneth Coosewoon, and the Madrigal family encouraged this book. My sisters took on extra family responsibilities caring for our mother, which meant a great deal to our family. I thank my other mother, Louise Smith, and my children—Tess Nashone, Hayley Kachine, and Tara Tsaile—for listening, editing, formatting, and typing. My best friend and wife, Lee Ann, a historian in her own right, read the manuscript, offered gentle criticism, and improved the presentation. To Lee Ann and all other people mentioned here, I offer my sincere and lasting appreciation, but without the Chemehuevi people, this song could never have been sung.


Yucaipa, California


A COLD WIND SWEPT DOWN FROM THE LITTLE SAN BERNARDINO Mountains, racing south through the Coachella Valley to the Torres-Martinez Indian Reservation, where Salt Song singers added their voices to nature’s howling chorus. Dust swirled up in the air, sending sand into the eyes and mouths of the singers, but nothing could quiet their songs, neither the dirt nor the cold. Old oil drums sat about the landscape, shooting fire from their open tops. They provided some light and warmth during the dark night in the early winter of 1998. The weather was bitter cold, made worse by the cutting winds. People huddled together around the rusted oilcans, warming their hands over the yellow, red, and blue flames. Some people sipped hot coffee. Others drank hot chocolate. Under a brush arbor not far away, men and women assembled to begin singing. People huddled around the oilcan fires heard the faint sounds of Salt Songs mixed with the howling winds, just as night had fully fallen over the desert valley.¹

Men, women, and children left the warmth of the fire, walking to the brush arbor to be closer to the singing and warmth of elders. Tribal assistants had set up an altar at one end of the brush arbor, which held a large framed photograph of Theresa Andrea Mike.² They had set up folding chairs on either side of the arbor for the male singers on one side and the female singers on the other. They had kept the center open. Speaker and elder Larry Eddy explained that sacred space existed between the chairs in front of the altar. Children could not fool around inside the sacred space, but Larry Eddy welcomed people to come forward to speak to the family and dance with the picture of the deceased.³ Only a few people came forward to pray and dance within the sacred space, some taking the photograph from the altar and dancing with it. Over the course of the evening, many people came forward to embrace and kiss members of the Mike family. Many mourned with the Mike family, while the Salt Song singers used their voices and gourd rattles to provide the music, telling a traveling song that delineated a large part of Southern Paiute country, which they shared with other Indians. Salt Songs travel through parts of Arizona, California, Nevada, and Utah. That freezing cold night, Chemehuevi and Southern Paiute singers sang many of the estimated 120 Salt Songs. Contemporary singers shared ancient songs that the Creator had taught the people at the beginning of time and people have passed down through the oral tradition throughout known time to the present. Like many aspects of Chemehuevi culture, the significance of Salt Songs, mourning ceremonies, and their link with the Spirit is alive today and an integral part of Chemehuevi culture.⁴

Salt Songs are a part of a dynamic, adaptive, and pragmatic cultural complex that has bent over time but never broken. Each time singers share Salt Songs, the story explained in song becomes animated. Salt Songs belong to an ancient cultural complex closely tied to the sacred. The songs tell of two women receiving power within a cave on the Bill Williams River of western Arizona; the songs follow a hero’s journey down the Bill Williams to the Colorado River before turning north along the river, east into the Hualapai country, and north to the Colorado River west of the Grand Canyon. The song-story describes a vast and rugged landscape of northern Arizona, southern Utah, and Nevada (near modern-day Las Vegas). The song-story travels to the creation site of Southern Paiute people, the Spring Mountains, where the mountainous stone figure of Ocean Woman lies facing heaven and the Milky Way.

The two women part at this point. One woman travels north, the other travels south, taking the songs into and through the Mojave Desert south to the Little San Bernardino Mountains of Joshua Tree National Park. In the Palm Springs area, the woman travels east toward the Colorado River, following a trail near present-day Interstate 10. The woman reaches the Colorado River south of present-day Blythe, California, but does not cross the Colorado River. Instead, she travels north on the California side of the river to the Riverside Mountains and reenters Arizona onto the Colorado River Indian Reservation. The woman who brought the Salt Songs to the people passes through the present homelands of Larry Eddy, Betty Cornelius, and other Chemehuevi who live on the Colorado River Indian Reservation. The woman takes the Salt Songs up the eastern bank of the Colorado River to the Buckskin Mountains, then east up the Bill Williams River. The journey ends in the cave on the Bill Williams, thus completing a symbolic circle of Southern Paiute lands that are shared with many other tribes. Salt Song singers are careful not to provide exact information about the trail and its branches in order to preserve and protect the landscape encompassed by the songs. The people say the woman who made this momentous journey, bringing the songs to the people, lives in spirit and listens to the Salt Songs every time the people gather to sing.

On the night of the memorial ceremony in 1998, more than a hundred people met at twilight to honor Theresa Andrea Mike during an all-night ceremony. The gathering represented communal mourning in support of Mike family members, and a ceremony celebrating Theresa’s life with song, music, dance, and prayers to help the deceased travel to Naugurivipi, the Land of the Spirits. The ceremony helped the living cope with their loss and deal with their grief. After a year of mourning, the ceremony represented a new beginning for the living to go on in life and continue their journey on earth, never forgetting their identity as Chemehuevi and their obligation to live in the cultural way that binds all Southern Paiute people together.

Theresa’s mother and father, Dean and Theresa Mike, arranged the ceremony to honor their daughter in the Chemehuevi way.⁸ Many family members living throughout the country came together to participate and support each other. Friends of the family gathered to mourn and share the grief, participating in the singing and dancing in remembrance of the one who had passed. Late that evening, Chemehuevi elder Larry Eddy spoke from his heart, comforting the Mike family and reminding everyone that the Salt Songs tied the past to the present. A long time ago the Creator gave us these songs, Eddy announced. But in order to teach you these songs, the Creator said, ‘I am going to break your heart.’ We sing these songs to help the spirit travel to the next life. We sing these songs to help us with sorrow. Several people cried as he spoke.⁹ Eddy asked everyone to think of their own loved ones and remember to live a good life, the right kind of life following the values established by the Creator at the beginning of time. He asked the people to reflect on the great circle that links the living with the dead, the lessons taught by life.¹⁰ Salt Songs provide guidance for the deceased to help the spirit move north to the Land of the Spirits, skyward into the Milky Way that sparkles at night and looks back onto earth, a reminder of another world beyond earth.¹¹

At midnight, Salt Song singers shared the Cry Song. The Salt Songs are traveling songs and at midnight, singers offer that part of the song-story when two women arrive at the Spring Mountains, the creation site of Southern Pai-ute. In the mountains located northwest of present-day Las Vegas, the two sisters anticipate their separation. They loved each other but they had to part. Therefore they cried. The Cry Song is a significant element of the Salt Song complex, characterizing the time when the two sisters parted ways, one going north and the other south. They cried, just as mourners cry, knowing they had no choice but to say goodbye. The woman going north symbolically represents the soul of the dead traveling north on her journey to the spirit world, while the other woman traveled south into California’s Mojave Desert, thus representing the living.¹²

After this song, the singers and those participating in the ceremony take a break. During the intermission, Southern Paiute people often give their condolences to the family or discuss the meaning of the songs or their central position within the modern world of Chemehuevi and Southern Paiute culture. Parents and grandparents educate their children and grandchildren about the tradition, explaining how to act during the ceremony. After refreshments and the warmth of a fire, the ceremony continues. Most often, Salt singers sing through the night until the gray light of morning. But during this particular ceremony, the lead singer, quite elderly, became ill and had to end the singing around 2 A.M. During the last few songs, tribal assistants lit a large bonfire fifty yards from the brush arbor. When the last song ended, participants walked to the fire, where family members had assembled some of the items owned by the deceased. They burned the personal items of Theresa Mike, offering smoke and prayer to the spirit world. Chemehuevi songs, particularly Salt Songs, provide cultural continuity, threads that weave the past with the present, providing hope for the continued renewal of Chemehuevi culture.¹³

Southern Paiute songs helped put the world into motion. Dance, the physical manifestation of song, keeps the world moving. Song, dance, and other elements of Chemehuevi culture remain extant, which form a unique and shared identity of Chemehuevi and other Southern Paiute people. The Salt Songs describe expansive landscapes, water, plants, people, and animals found within four states. The songs flow like a stream, providing a confluence of people, places, plants, animals, and memories in the deserts and mountains of the Great Basin, California, and the Southwest. Like song and dance, landscape and the entire natural environment remain central to contemporary Chemehuevi identity in addition to pragmatism, adaptation, and traveling.¹⁴

By being adaptive, Chemehuevi people survived many changes throughout their history, from the Pleistocene to the present. Over many years, Southern Paiutes experienced a great diaspora out of southern Nevada into Utah, California, and Arizona. In ancient times, Southern Paiutes radiated out from the Spring Mountains in all directions, including south into the Mojave Desert and Colorado River Valley. Chemehuevi people established their homelands north, south, and west of Mojave people. The Mojave are Yuman-speaking people, closely related to the Quechan, Kumeyaay, and other Yuman peoples. The Mojave enjoyed a large population and could be tremendous warriors that dreamed of fighting prowess and power. The Chemehuevi also had great warriors, but they did not develop a military system similar to the Mojave, Quechan, Cocopah, and other Yuman-speaking Indians. But like the Yuman-speaking tribes, the Chemehuevi had strong familial and kinship relations among themselves and their Southern Paiute neighbors.¹⁵

Chemehuevi family units and small bands lived in different regions of the desert and mountains of the Mojave Desert and Colorado River Valley. The people survived by depending on each other and working together for the betterment of their communities. Like heroes of ancient oral stories, the Chemehuevi learned to act on behalf of the family and band, acting correctly so that everyone survived the harsh desert conditions. Chemehuevi families adhered to strict marriage laws that the Creator had established to prevent incest and ensure a strong, hardy people. As a result, Chemehuevi people married out of their families and bands, carefully selecting husbands and wives. Generally, Chemehuevi people had to be six generations apart if they wished to marry, so parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles were deeply involved in arranging and permitting marriage.¹⁶ From an early age, Chemehuevi children learned about marriage laws, and their parents encouraged them to meet other young people when Chemehuevi gathered during the winter to feast, sing, dance, and tell stories at Winter Gatherings. Kinship relations, proper familial behavior, and living for the benefit of the entire group proved highly significant in Chemehuevi history, and these remain important cultural elements to contemporary people. Breaking marriage laws harmed the people involved and all Southern Paiute people who shared a belief system similar to that of covenant theology. Transgressors could expect the wrath of spirits that could harm every Southern Paiute person and sicken or kill offenders.¹⁷

The Chemehuevi people have always moved about, traveling and trading. The Southern Paiute diaspora began with Creation. A goddess, not a god, put the Southern Paiute world into motion. Ocean Woman, the first creative force, used her skin and body to stretch out over the entire Western Hemisphere. She used her body to push out the hemisphere from the center of the earth, located in the Spring Mountains of southern Nevada. The practice

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