Quechan – Native Americans of the Southwest

Published on April 23, 2014 by Amy

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Quechan
Quechan

Quechan from xam kwatcan, “another going down” (a reference to their ancestral migration). Quechans are also known as Yuma Indians; Yuma is an O’odham word for “People of the River.”

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Location The Quechan lived in several small settlements, or rancherias, along the bottomlands of the Colorado River, near the mouth of the Gila. Many Quechans now live on the Fort Yuma Reservation as well as on the Cocopah Reservation with Pee-Posh and Cocopas, having once been allied with these tribes.

Population Perhaps 4,000 Quechans lived on the Colorado River in the sixteenth century. Almost 1,200 Quechans lived at Fort Yuma in 1990; others lived on the Cocopah Reservation and off-reservation. The 1990 Quechan population was roughly 3,000.

Language Quechan is a dialect of River Yuman.

Historical Information

History Quechan farmers began using floodwaters of the Colorado River for irrigation beginning around 2,500 years ago. The Quechans first encountered a non-native person in 1540, in the person of Hernando de Alarcon. Father Eusebio Kino arrived in 1698 and Father Francisco Garces in 1775. The Quechans generally resisted Spanish missions and settlements. A rebellion in 1781 ended Spanish control of a key river crossing, and the Quechans were able to continue their traditional way of life.

In the mid-nineteenth century, Quechans occasionally raided overland travelers (on the Southern Overland Trail, or Butterfield Route), partly in retaliation for crop thievery. The number of non-Indians passing through their territory increased greatly in and after 1849, due to the California gold rush. At that time, the Quechans provided a ferry service across the Colorado. When Anglos attempted to open a competing service, the Quechans blocked the passage. When the U.S. Army intervened to keep the passage open, the Quechans fought back, driving the U.S. forces away for a year. In 1852, the soldiers returned and built Fort Yuma, effectively ending Quechan resistance in the area. Five years later, the Quechan and their Mojave allies were defeated by the Pima and Maricopa in the last big intra-Indian fight near the Colorado River.

In 1853 the United States established the Fort Yuma Reservation with 45,000 acres, on the California side of the Colorado. Steamship and railroad travel as well as the town of Yuma boomed in the following decades. Quechans worked as steamship pilots and woodcutters until railroads ended the industry and then as laborers and domestics.

By the end of the century the tribe, devastated by disease, was in a state of cultural eclipse. Factionalism also weakened the tribe, and Anglos took the opportunity to appoint Quechan leaders unilaterally. Clan and village affiliations broke down when youths were taken away forcibly to boarding school. The Quechan relinquished most of their land in 1893 and lost the best of what was left to Anglos by 1910. Upstream dams prevented natural flooding, and Quechan farmers, people of the river for centuries, found themselves in the position of having to pay for irrigation water.

Quechans lived in poverty well into the twentieth century. Mandated allotment of their land in 1912 led to endless subdivision and rendered it useless for agriculture; most was leased to non-Indians. The federal War on Poverty arrived in the 1960s, and with it new opportunities for decent housing and economic development. In 1978 the government returned 25,000 acres (minus the vital water rights) and paid for even more in the 1980s.

Religion Like those of all Yumans, Quechan religion and knowledge were based on dreaming. Dreams were seen as visits with ancestors. The most powerful dreamer was their religious leader. Dreams also brought power to lead in battle, orate a funeral, or do almost anything. However, dreams were considered of questionable authenticity unless they conferred success. Shamans were specialists who were able to cure using supernatural powers acquired through very powerful dreams, perhaps begun in the womb. They also controlled the weather.

Quechans sang extended song cycles for curing, funerals, and entertainment. The cycles consisted of dreams and tribal mythology and were accompanied by people shaking rattles and beating sticks on baskets. Important Quechan ceremonies included a four-daylong girls’ puberty rite and a boy’s nose-piercing ceremony (at age seven, which also included racing and fasting). A mesquite harvest festival in summer and a crop harvest festival in fall both featured games, contests, gambling, and songs. Quechans also observed a four-day-long mourning ceremony.

Government All political authority was based on dreams, as was the authority of singers, speakers, and curers. Each rancheria had one or more headmen: Although they might meet in council to discuss tribal matters, decision making was by concensus. Other offices included the war leader and funeral orator.

Customs The Quechan were organized into patrilineal clans. Little or no status differences existed between family groups. Rancheria leaders addressed the people from rooftops on correct behavior. All possessions of the deceased, even the house, were given away or destroyed. Dung was burned to keep away mosquitoes.

Dwellings Rectangular, open, earth-covered structures served as summer houses; in winter people lived in semisubterranean houses covered with sand. Other structures included sunshades and woven granaries.

Diet Quechans mainly farmed for their food. They grew corn, beans, and pumpkins and, after the Spanish arrived, melons and wheat. They also grew tobacco and gourds. They used the seasonal flooding of the river to irrigate their fields, predicting the occurrence of the floods with astrological knowledge. They also fished with nets, traps, and bows and arrows. They hunted small game such as rabbits and gathered foods such as mesquite, screwbeans, nuts, and seeds. They parched the nuts and seeds in trays and then ground them to meal or flour. Squash and pumpkins were cut into strips and dried.

Key Technology Sowing was accomplished by means of digging sticks. Musical instruments included flutes and gourd and deer hoof rattles. Nets attached to headbands were used for carrying burdens on the back. Women made pottery bowls, dippers, and cooking pots as well as basket trays and storage containers.

Trade Among other items, the Quechan received blankets from the Hopi and Navajo. They traded agricultural products with tribes near the Gulf of California and the Pacific Ocean for shells and feathers.

Notable Arts Pottery and basketry ranked among Quechan fine arts.

Transportation The Quechan used rafts of cottonwood logs or tule reeds for river travel. They floated children and goods in large pots. Horses arrived in their area by the late eighteenth century.

Dress Quechan dress was minimal. Women wore willow-bark aprons, and men occasionally wore buckskin or bark breechclouts. Both wore rawhide sandals. Domestically manufactured blankets were of rabbit skin or woven bark. Both sexes kept their hair long (men wore long rolls of hair) and painted their faces for decoration. Men also wore nose and/or ear rings.

War and Weapons Quechans considered war essential to the acquisition and maintenance of their spiritual power. They distinguished between raiding, an activity whose main purpose was to acquire horses or captives, and warfare, the purpose of which was revenge. The Mojave were traditional allies; enemies included the Cocopah, Pee-Posh, and Pima. The Quechan warrior hierarchy included the leader, then spearmen and clubmen, archers, horsemen (after contact) with spears, and finally women with clubs. For weapons they used mesquite bows, clubs, stone knives, hide shields, and spears.

Contemporary Information

Government/Reservations The Fort Yuma Reservation (1884) consists of 43,561 acres. Many Quechans also live on the Cocopah Reservation (6,000 acres; established 1917) near Summerton, Arizona. They adopted an Indian Reorganization Act constitution in 1936 and began electing tribal council two years later. Both men and women are represented in leadership positions.

Economy Tribal businesses include sand and gravel operations, recreational vehicle parks, a bingo parlor, and an irrigation project. Still, there are few jobs on the reservation; federal funding of tribal projects accounts for most economic activity. The tribe would like to establish a closed economy, with no need for jobs in Yuma. Future farming depends on establishing water rights and obtaining water for irrigation. Most prime farming land remains leased to non-Indian interests. Legal fights over these matters are pending. In addition, the Indians of the Cocopah Reservation recently signed an agreement to build a large recreational vehicle park.

Legal Status The Quechan Tribe of the Fort Yuma Indian Reservation is a federally recognized tribal entity.

Daily Life Older Quechans still speak the language. The mourning ceremony remains, as do some of the songs and dances. Most Quechans still prefer to be cremated along with much of their personal property. A small hospital attempts to cope with many cases of diabetes and substance abuse. The elderly are still revered, as are eloquent speakers of the native language. Children attend local public schools. Quechans are largely acculturated and have high hopes for survival in the modern world.

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