Pee-Posh – Native Americans of the Southwest

Published on April 23, 2014 by Amy

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Pee-Posh or “Pipatsje,” “the People.” These people are also known as the Maricopa.

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Location The Pee-Posh lived for centuries along the lower Colorado River and then began migrating to the Gila River region in the 1600s. Today the majority of Pee-Posh live outside of Arizona and California, although the greatest concentrations live with the Pima on the Gila River and Salt River Reservations in Arizona (none live on the Maricopa Reservation).

Population Perhaps 2,500 Pee-Posh and related groups (see “History”) migrated to the Gila River region in early historical times. There were roughly 800 Pee-Posh nationwide in 1990.

Language The Pee-Posh spoke a dialect of River Yuman, a Hokan-Siouan language.

Historical Information

History Those people whom the Spanish called the Opa or the Cocomaricopa were one of several small Yuman tribes (including the related groups—the Halchidoma, Kahwan, Kavelchadom, and the Halyikwamai) who lived along the lower Colorado River. Contact with the Spanish was minimal and sporadic. By the early eighteenth century, these peoples had relocated up the Gila River, owing to an escalation of attacks by the Quechan and Mojave. The Pima offered them land and protection, and the two groups soon formed a confederation. By the early nineteenth century, the Pee-Posh had all but absorbed the smaller tribes.

The Pima-Maricopa confederacy went a long way toward making non-Indian settlement of that part of the desert possible, protecting Anglos from Apaches, starvation, and thirst. For example, the Indians used much of their surplus wheat to provide food for the so-called forty-niners on their way to California. (By 1870, their wheat production had reached 3 million pounds, an achievement that aroused the wrath of Anglo wheat farmers.) The Indians also sold wheat to the U.S. Army. In 1857, the confederacy decisively defeated the Quechans and Mojaves at Maricopa Wells, marking the last major formal battle between Indian nations in the Southwest. Beginning in the 1840s, and continuing throughout the century, epidemics took a heavy toll on the Indian population.

In recognition of its alliance with the confederation, the U.S. government established a reservation on the Gila River in 1863 for the Pima and the Pee-Posh. However, river water levels shortly began to fall so low as a result of upstream diversions by non-natives that a group of Indians moved to the confluence of the Gila and Salt Rivers. Now known as Laveen, this community was first called Maricopa Colony. Halchidoma descendants soon relocated to the Salt River, around the present site of Lehi. In 1879, the original reservation was enlarged, and the Salt River Reservation was established.

During that decade several factors conspired to ruin the Indians’ thriving economy: a decline in rainfall, a doubling of the population, and, in particular, huge diversions of Gila River water by non-Indians. By the 1880s, Indian crops routinely failed and famine threatened. Many Pimas and Pee-Posh were forced into the wage economy at the lowest levels. With the loss of the river, the heart of their culture also disappeared. The U.S. government continued to ignore the key problem of water rights, and Pima and Pee-Posh impoverishment continued well into the twentieth century.

In the late nineteenth century, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) began a campaign to assimilate local Indians. With its blessing, the Presbyterian Church became very active at Gila River, beginning a day school and in general imposing a religious structure on the tribes. The issue of Christianity proved to be a very divisive one on the reservation. In 1914, allotment hit both reservations (against active Indian opposition), scattering the people and further disrupting community life. In 1926, the BIA formed a Pima Advisory Council in an effort to create a formal body that spoke for the tribe. In 1934, the Pimas created a constitution, which was revised by the Pima and Pee-Posh community two years later.

By 1930, non-native water diversions had effectively ended Gila River surface water flowing to the Pee-Posh. Rather than redress the situation, the BIA forced the Indians to use brackish well water. This water was only suitable for growing cotton and some grains, however, and the people could no longer grow edible crops. Several other factors worked to cancel any benefits that might have come with the well water, including a dependency of Indians on wage work, continued ongoing water shortages, and the hated allotments (heirships), which had destroyed their effective land base.

In 1934, the Pima and the Pee-Posh accepted the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) and formed the Gila River Indian Community. Following World War II, many Pee-Posh (encouraged by the BIA’s relocation program) moved away from the reservation. For years outsiders thought that the Pee-Posh had died out and become a subgroup of the Pima Indians.

Religion In general, ceremonialism among River Yumans was not especially well developed, except to honor the dead or to celebrate war exploits. Pee-Posh people believed in the power of dreams to direct life and to reveal the potential for special skills and abilities. Shamans had special powers to cure, control the weather, and detect thieves and enemies.

Government Nominal village chiefs exerted little influence. Recognized specialists had the true authority, as curers, calendar-stick keepers, singers, potters, and dancers. All obtained their power from dreams.

Customs Entire villages moved when someone died, after the body, residence, and possessions had been burned. Special singers sang elaborate song cycles for funerals and transmitted legends, such as ancestral wanderings or conflicts with other groups. Girls celebrated a special puberty ceremony, after which they were tattooed. Both sexes cultivated a high tolerance of pain. As was true for other River Yumans, farming, including ownership of the farm site, was essentially an individual activity. Boundary disputes were solved by mediation or by controlled fighting. The Pee-Posh recognized patrilineal clan as well as village divisions.

Dwellings Flattened-dome houses were built with a frame of mesquite or cottonwood uprights and covered with willow ribs and arrowweed thatch. Walls were packed with earth. Rectangular ramadas often adjoined the houses. All dwellings faced east. Other structures included storage sheds, woven basket granaries, and sweat lodges.

Diet The Pee-Posh used floodwater agriculture in their farming. Their staples were mesquite beans and corn. Men planted and cultivated and women harvested. Much food was also gathered, including seeds, berries, nuts, cactus fruit, honey, caterpillars, and beans. The people also ate jackrabbits and fish (caught with nets or bare hands).

Key Technology All River Yumans share a similar material culture. Clay for pottery was shaped between a curved paddle and a stone anvil or pottery mold. Grinding stones came from granite or sandstone. Wooden mortars, made by hollowing the end of a cottonwood or mesquite log, were used with stone pestles to pulverize mesquite beans. The people used hides for thongs, quivers, shield coverings, and, occasionally, sandals. After the early 1800s, brush dams and ditches replaced floodwater farming as irrigation methods. O’odham-derived calendar sticks told of ancestors, travels, fights, and deaths.

Trade Trails linked the Pee-Posh with the Mojave and other southern desert peoples. With them, they traded for goods from the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of California. Trade articles included hand nets and weirless traps for fishing, Pima baskets, and, after the 1700s, Spanish horses and captives. In times of need, food could be obtained from the O’odham literally for a song.

Notable Arts Women made a wide variety of pottery, including cooking pots, bowls, and water jars. Both men and women wove blankets, cradle ties, headbands, belts, and skirts for girls’ puberty ceremonies. Baskets were made and obtained in trade from the Pima.

Transportation The Pee-Posh began using horses in the seventeenth century.

Dress Men wore breechclouts. Women wore fringed skirts of woven willow bark. Both used cotton and rabbit-skin garments in bad weather and sandals for long journeys.

War and Weapons The Pee-Posh fought primarily defensive wars. Their weapons included mesquite or ironwood bows, short clubs, and hide shields.

Contemporary Information

Government/Reservations The Pee-Posh live on the Salt River Reservation (1879; 50,506 acres), near Lehi, and on the Gila River Reservation (1859; 371,933 acres), west of Laveen (“District Seven” of the reservation, the old Maricopa Colony). They share a tribal government with the Pimas; constitutions and by-laws were approved in 1940 (Salt River) and 1936 (Gila River). It is the Ak-chin O’odham who live on the Maricopa Reservation.

Economy The possibility of subsistence farming was lost because individual allotments mandated by the Dawes Act (1887) divided the land into parcels too small to be farmed. Most reservation land is now leased to non-native farmers, and the reservation suffers from a high unemployment rate. Still, the Maricopa Indian Cooperative Association farms about 1,200 acres. Some Indians work off-reservation for wages, generally in Phoenix. Some pottery, not of original Indian concept, is made for the tourist trade. Industrial and mineral development (Gila River) is growing slowly.

Legal Status Recognized tribal entities include the Gila River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community and the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community.

Daily Life The ethnic identities of the other River Yuman people who followed the Pee-Posh east remain important. Despite the loss of many pre-Pima traditions, the Pee-Posh think of themselves as a united nation and remain in many ways distinct from the Pimas. They are relatively well educated and attend public school. Most speak only English, though a few still speak Pee-Posh. Water rights and health issues, including substance abuse and diabetes, are ongoing concerns. The cremation and mourning ceremonies remain important. A trade fair is held on the reservation every year.

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