Mohave people

Published on August 26, 2013 by Amy

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Charley-Arri-Wa-Wa (Mohave)
Charley-Arri-Wa-Wa (Mohave)

Mohave or Mojave (Mojave: ‘Aha Makhav) are a Native American people indigenous to the Colorado River in the Mojave Desert. The Fort Mojave Indian Reservation includes parts of California, Arizona, and Nevada. The Colorado River Indian Reservation includes parts of California and Arizona and is shared by members of the Chemehuevi, Hopi, and Navajo peoples.

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The original Colorado River and Fort Mojave reservations were established in 1865 and 1870, respectively. Both reservations include substantial senior water rights in the Colorado River, which are used for irrigated farming. Though the four combined tribes sharing the Colorado River Indian Reservation function today as one geo-political unit, the federally recognized Colorado River Indian Tribes, each continues to maintain and observe its individual traditions, distinct religions, and culturally unique identities.

The tribal headquarters, library and museum are in Parker, Arizona, about 40 miles (64 km) north of I-10. The National Indian Days Celebration is held annually in Parker, from Thursday through Sunday during the last week of September. The All Indian Rodeo is also celebrated annually, on the first weekend in December. RV facilities are available along the Colorado River.


Much of early Mojave history remains unwritten, since the Mojave language was unwritten in precolonial times. They depended on oral communication to transmit their history and culture from one generation to the next. The impact of outside culture shattered their social organization and fragmented the Mojave transmission of their stories and songs.

The tribal name has been spelled with over 50 variations, such as Hamock avi, Amacava, A-mac-ha ves, A-moc-ha-ve, Jamajabs, and Hamakhav. The resulting incorrect assumed meanings can be partly traced to a translation error in Frederick W. Hodge’s 1917 Handbook of the American Indians North of Mexico, which incorrectly defined it, “Mohave (from hamock, three, avi, mountain).” According to this source, the name refers to the picturesque mountain peaks called The Needles, located near the Colorado River a few miles south of the city of Needles, California. The Mojave call these peaks Huqueamp avi, which means “where the battle took place,” referring to the battle in which the God-son, Mastamho, slew the sea serpent.

Ancestral lands

Before they surrendered to United States troops, the Mojave held lands along the river that stretched from Black Canyon, where the tall pillars of First House of Mutavilya loomed above the river, past Avi kwame or Spirit Mountain, the center of spiritual things, to the Quechan Valley, where the lands of other tribes began. Translated into present landmarks, their lands began in the north at Hoover Dam and ended about one hundred miles below Parker Dam on the Colorado River, or aha kwahwat in Mojave.

19th–20th centuries

In mid-April 1859, United States troops of the Expedition of the Colorado, led by Lieutenant Colonel William Hoffman, moved upriver into Mojave country, with the well-publicized objective of establishing a military post on the river. It was intended to protect east-west European-American emigrants from attack by the Mojave. By that time, white immigrants and settlers had begun to encroach on Mojave lands, and sometimes got into violent conflict with the indigenous people, who tried to protect their territory. Hoffman sent couriers among the tribes, warning that the post would be gained by force if they or their allies chose to resist. Instead, it was a bloodless occupation. The Mojave warriors withdrew as Hoffman’s formidable armada approached and the expedition posted camp near what would later become Fort Mojave.

Hoffman ordered the Mojave men to assemble at the armed stockade adjacent to his headquarters; two days later, on April 23, 1859, clan chiefs came as ordered to hear Hoffman’s terms of peace. Hoffman gave them the choice of submission or extermination. They chose peace. At that time, the Mojave had an old culture that had been passed down the centuries, unchanged by the few parties of white men who had traveled through their country. 22 totemic clans existed among a Mojave population estimated to be about 4,000 in total.

During most of the period of military occupation, the Fort Mojave were technically under the jurisdiction of the Department of the Interior. Legally they belonged on the Colorado River Reservation after it was established in 1865. But, when they refused to leave their ancestral homes in the Mojave Valley, the War Department declined to try to force them onto the reservation. The Indian Agent there was unable to supervise them. Whatever supervision they had came from the commanders at Fort Mojave. As long as Fort Mojave was garrisoned by the War Department, the Fort Mojave Indians, if peace abiding, were relatively free to follow their old tribal ways. In the midsummer of 1890, the War Department withdrew its troops and transferred the post to the Department of the Interior.

Beginning in August 1890, the Department of the Interior began an intensive program of assimilation. Its agent forced native children living on reservations into schools to learn to speak, write, and read English. Fort Mojave was converted into a boarding school for Fort Mojave and other “non-reservation” Indians. Until 1931, forty-one years later, all Fort Mojave boys and girls between the ages of six and eighteen were compelled to live at this school or attend an advanced Indian school remote from Fort Mojave.

This was the era of trying to assimilate Indians to European-American culture by breaking up tribal ties and governments, teaching American culture, customs and English, and insisting that they follow the patterns of the majority culture. At the school the children and youth were transformed, outside, into facsimiles of white children of their day—haircuts, clothing, habits of eating, sleeping, toiletry, manners, industry, language, and so on. They were forbidden to use their own language, as with most other native ways which were also prohibited and punished. Five lashes of the whip was the penalty for the first offense of speaking in their native tongue. Corporal punishment of children scandalized the Mojave, who did not discipline their children with whips and straps.

The administrators of the reservations’ school systems assigned English names to the children. They were registered with the Department of the Interior as members of two tribes, the Mojave Tribe on the Colorado River Reservation and the Fort Mojave Indian Tribe on the Fort Mojave Indian Reservation. These divisions did not reflect the old Mojave family system. By the late 1960s, 18 of the traditional clans survived.


Estimates for the pre-contact populations of most native groups in California have varied substantially. The Franciscan missionary-explorer Francisco Garcés estimated the Mohave population in 1776 as approximately 3,000 Mojave Indians (Garcés 1900(2):450). Alfred L. Kroeber (1925:883) also put the 1770 population of the Mohave at 3,000.

Kroeber estimated the population of the Mohave in 1910 as 1,050. Lorraine M. Sherer’s research revealed that in 1963, the population of Fort Mojaves was 438 and that of the Colorado River Reservation approximately 550.

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