Throughout modern history the Colorado River, formerly the Grand, and before that “life giving water”, defined the culture of many peoples. The River Yumans were among them. This was their homeland, the giver of life. The river supplied the resources necessary to grow crops, provide fish and game, and sustain or destroy culture. The life and death of the river and its surroundings determined the life and the eventual acculturation (death) of the River Yumans. The River Yuman’s culture revolved around the water. Other cultures understood the life and wealth of the river; the River Yumans lived it.
Wars were won and lost, both intertribal and extra-cultural, over the lands bordering the river. The Mojave, Quechen, Cocopa, Maricopa, Chemehuevi, Halchidhoma, Halyikwami, and other (Pai) native tribes, fought amongst themselves and against the Spanish, Mexicans, and Anglo-Americans for the right to control the lands bordering the river. Each, in its own right, had control at one time or another, over one portion or another. Cultures clashed and sometimes won and sometimes lost. The lives of the natives changed with the life of the river and so will ours. We share a future with the history of the River Yumans
The lives of over 30 million people depend on the Colorado River today. Denver, Salt Lake City, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Tucson, Los Angeles, and San Diego need the “life giving water” of the Colorado. As the river is continually dammed, diverted, and diluted, these centers of American culture will diminish, just as the River Yumans has. Scottsdale will be deserted and dry. The crops of the Imperial Valley will vanish. Lake Powell will become a mud-hole. The River Yumans understand. They experienced it. Our time will come.
The Patayan people knew the river. They inhabited the lowland region of the lower Colorado and the bordering desert. They, and their descendants, the River Yumans, traveled across great distances to trade their mesquite, shells, and pottery, for essentials like meat, skins, and blankets. Many trails apparent today are evidence of their mobility. Intaglios mark the journeys to Spirit Mountain and the River Yuman songs repeat the tales of their wanderings.
Eventually some of the Yumans moved north and became the Upland Yumans– the Hualapai, Havasupai, and the Yavapai. Two opposing tribal alliances emerged: the Quechen league and the Maricopa league. By the mid-1800’s, after much inter-tribal warfare, the only inhabitants of the lower Colorado were the Mojave, Quechen, and Cocopa.
These were the River Yumans. They shared a patrilineal descent pattern, settlement pattern of rancherias, and inherited chiefdomship. Their rancherias spread throughout the lower Colorado and western Gila rivers.
Rich deposits, from annual flooding, of silt, minerals, and nutrients fueled the soil. Corn, squash, and varieties of beans grew in abundance as the River Yumans planted and harvested them over decades. The Cocopa became skilled at water diversion. The Quechen knew the flooding patterns. The River Yumans knew the rivers.
The Gila and Colorado provided the life giving floods that fed them. Rancherias flourished north and south and east of the confluence of the Colorado and Gila rivers. Gathering of wild plants and seeds supplemented their diet. Fish and game contributed to their sustenance. Though they thrived in the river floodplains, Spanish contact with the Cocopa in the 1500’s brought decimation in the form of infectious disease. It flowed up the rivers like a tsunami, wiping out at a huge portion of the population. The river had become a killer. Tribe infected tribe and measles, typhus, and smallpox attacked the children. Plague, influenza and cholera contributed to decimate the population; it never recovered.
Flood river farming sustained the survivors, just as it had supported their ancestors. Battles over territory, vengeance, and economic conditions fueled dispersion. Remnants of various peoples became the Maricopa, who joined with the Pima to oppose the Mojave and Quechen. Similar cultures clashed with one another while yet another, greed motivated, diseased bearing people moved through their land.
Control of the confluence of the Gila and Colorado became a matter of strategic importance for hundred of years. Spanish, Mexican, Native, and Anglo-American people fought for control of the only viable crossing into California. The Spanish tried to cajole, and the latter tried to conquer the Quechen for the control of that water. That life-giving water. It became a matter of economics, strategy, and control.
After a dinner party in 1777 meant to coerce the Quechen into submission, the Quechen became disenchanted. Continuing incursions, including the establishment of two settlements, into Quechen territory, raised the ire of the Quechen. In 1781 the Quechen stood up and removed the Spaniards, killing the priests and others. For nearly another 100 years, the River Yumans controlled the crossing.
Warfare was a way of life for the River Yumans. Dreams dictated it. Raiding parties of ten to fifteen warriors would plunder a neighboring village, sometimes scalping their rival. Purification ceremonies would follow, consisting of a fast from meat and salt and a repeated bathing. War parties with non-warriors would attack enemies near and far. Scouts, endowed with their powers by Mastamho, led the way. The River Yumans were an antagonistic people, driven by vengeance, lack of arable land, and dreams. This was a way of life. A part of their culture. A part of the river.
In the mid-1800’s, the River Yumans finally lost control over the strategic Gila-Colorado confluence. The U.S. Army established Fort Yuma on the western side of the Colorado and stemmed off attacks against the increasing stream of Anglos into California. The River Yumans became workers on the steamships of the Anglos and the acculturation of the River Yumans began in earnest. The River Yumans yearned for the their land. It was the river. It was their life. They wished for sustenance, peace, and contentment.
The whites stole land over the next decades. They dammed the River; they stole the water. The Dawes Act, Wheeler-Howard Act, and the support of federal court decisions, have denied, fictionalized, and reinforced the River Yumans in the use of their ancestral tribal lands for commercial (Anglo) purposes. They have established tribal councils and self-government. They teach their children the language and the legends. The Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 gave the River Yumans a new life. A way to self-sufficiency they experienced in the past. Leasing of what were tribal lands is lucrative. The possible sale of water rights is attractive.
The acculturation of their peoples continues today. Casinos, land-leases and agriculture fuel their economy. Still, traditional wailing and the burning of possessions of the deceased characterize the age-old ceremony practiced at death. While cremation is not allowed in Mexico, for the Cocopa, American Cocopa practiced it into this century. The ceremonies of death are the lasting tradition of the River Yuman today. However, now, homes and cars are now sold; the traditional burning of the deceased’s expensive belongings is no longer practiced. Assimilation continues.
The promise of residing in the “land of the dead” is the cultural fulfillment of life. It is the promise of Mastamho and Matavila. No pain or suffering is experienced there. Sumah ahot is the promised land. It exists in the world of dreams and dreams are the foundation of River Yuman culture.
Dreams permeated every aspect of life for the people for centuries. The unborn “ordinary dream” might foretell a future event. The unborn “great dream” might lead a warrior into battle, or cure a loved one. The discussion and interpretation of dreams is one of the hallmarks of River Yuman culture; comparable to the cremation ceremony practiced to this day, dreaming is a lasting remnant of old River Yuman culture
In the past all River Yuman were obsessed with dream. It was the way they lived their life. “Great dreams” gave power to individuals, and “ordinary dreams” divined the future of lesser dreamers. The ability to relate one’s dreams related to the prominence society gave one as adjudged by elders, who could make or break a possible leader. Dreaming of cures, songs, and battle were dreams that could vault one to the heights of River Yuman society.
It is their identity. It is their tradition. Dreaming. Their dream of the future. What does it hold for us today? The draining of the Colorado and Gila rivers continues. The whites do not see it. They do not dream of it. It is impossible that a great river like the Colorado would ever dry up, or the water become so salty that it could never be used. I do not dream of an arid land where we cannot survive; a land devoid of the most necessary resource. Do you dream of it? Perhaps one of us will have a dream, either way. Perhaps not.
You and I can exercise and realize our powers by sharing your dreams.
So the River Yumans say.