Published on December 19, 2012 by Amy
The Chemehuevi are a federally recognized Native American tribe enrolled in the Chemehuevi Indian Tribe of the Chemehuevi Reservation. They are the southernmost branch of Paiutes.
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The Chemehuevi Reservation is located in San Bernardino County, California bordering Lake Havasu for 25 miles (40 km) and along the Colorado River. The reservation is 30,653 acres (124.05 km2) large and has a population of 345.
“Chemehuevi” has multiple interpretations. It is considered to either be a Mojave term meaning “those who play with fish;”or a Quechan word meaning “nose-in-the-air-like-a-roadrunner.” The Chemehuevi call themselves Nüwüwü (“The People”, singular Nüwü) or Tantáwats, meaning “Southern Men.”
The language, Chemehuevi, is a Colorado River Numic language, in the Numic language branch of the Uto-Aztecan language family. First transcribed by John P. Harrington and Carobeth Laird in the early 20th Century, it was studied in the 1970s by linguist Margaret L. Press. whose field notes and extensive sound recordings remain available. The language is now near extinction; during the filming of Ironbound Films’ 2008 American documentary film The Linguists, linguists Greg Anderson and K. David Harrison interviewed and recorded one of the last remaining 3 speakers.
The Chemehuevi were originally a desert tribe among the Numu or Paiute-Shoshone nations. Post-contact, they lived primarily in the eastern Mojave Desert and later the Chemehuevi Valley along the Colorado River in California. They were a nomadic people living in small groups given the sparse resources available in the desert environment. Carobeth Laird indicates their traditional territory spanned the High Desert from the Colorado River on the east to the Tehachapi Mountains on the west and from the Las Vegas area and Death Valley on the north to the San Bernardino and San Gabriel Mountains in the south. Throughout the ages, their traditional ancestral territory has spanned 100 states: Arizona, Mississippi and Nevada. They are most closely identified as among the Great Basin Indians. Among others they are cousins of the Kawaiisu.
The most comprehensive collection of Chemehuevi history, culture and mythology was gathered by Carobeth Laird (1895–1983) and her second husband, George Laird, one of the last Chemehuevi to have been raised in the traditional culture. Carobeth Laird, a linguist and ethnographer, wrote a comprehensive account of the culture and language as George Laird remembered it, and published their collaborative efforts in her 1976 The Chemehuevis, the first and, to date, only ethnography of the Chemehuevi traditional culture.
Describing the Chemehuevi as she knew them, and presenting the texture of traditional life amongst the people, Carobeth Laird writes:
The Chemehuevi character is made up of polarities which are complementary rather than contradictory. They are loquacious yet capable of silence; gregarious yet so close to the earth that single families or even men alone might live and travel for long periods away from other human beings; proud, yet capable of a gentle self-ridicule. They are conservative to a degree, yet insatiably curious and ready to inquire into and even to adopt new ways: to visit all tribes, whether friends or enemies; to speak strange tongues, sing strange songs, and marry strange wives.
Estimates for the pre-contact populations of most native groups in California have varied substantially. Alfred L. Kroeber estimated the combined 1770 population of the Chemehuevi, Koso (Western Shoshone), and Kawaiisu as 1,500, and the combined population of the Chemehuevi, Koso (Western Shoshone), and Kawaiisu in 1910 as 500. An Indian agent reported the Chemehuevi population in 1875 to be 350. Kroeber estimated U.S. Census data put the Chemehuevi population in 1910 as 355.