July 14, 2012

Chemehuevi Indian Tribe of the Chemehuevi Reservation


The Chemehuevi Indian Tribe of the Chemehuevi Reservation is a federally recognized indian tribe, who are the southernmost branch of the Southern Paiute people.  

Official Tribal Name: Chemehuevi Indian Tribe of the Chemehuevi Reservation

Address:  P.O. Box 1976,  Havasu Lake CA 92363
Phone:  760-858-4219
Fax:  760-858-5400

Official Website: 

Recognition Status:  Federally Recognized

Traditional Name / Traditional Meaning:

The Chemehuevi called themselves nüwü, meaning people in their language, or Tantdwats, meaning “Southern Men.”

Common Name / Meaning of Common Name:

Chemehuevi is a Mojave term meaning “those that play with fish.”

Alternate names / Alternate spellings / Mispellings:

Name in other languages: The name Chemehuevi  is what they were called by their neighbors to the south, the Mohave and other Yuman groups. 

Region: California 

State(s) Today:  California

Traditional Territory:

The lands of the Chemehuevi covered a large area in the southeastern part of the state. Since the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the people have lived in the Chemehuevi Valley, California (part of the Colorado River Valley east of Joshua Tree National Monument, and southwestern California). Their traditional territory was located in southwestern Utah, the Mojave Desert, and finally the Chemehuevi Valley, near the present Lake Havasu.

Most of the area was  part of the Mohave Desert, and not many places were good for settlements.  Though they had one of the largest areas of the early California people, they had few settlements and few people.

A settlement might consist of just one or two families, or as many as 10 or 20 families who searched for food together, traveling from place to place but coming back often to one fixed area.  Most groups chose a leader who was expected to be wealthy as well as wise in advising the group as to when and where to hunt for food.  The position of leader was usually inherited by the eldest son.

Confederacy: Paiute – The Chemehuevi people are considered to be the most southern group of the Southern Paiute Indians, who are linguistically related to the greater Uto-Aztecan language family which includes languages spoken by peoples from the Great Basin south into central Mexico.


Reservations: Chemehuevi Reservation

The original Chemehuevi Reservation was created in 1907 and contained 36,000 acres, almost 8,000 of which were subsequently lost to Lake Havasu.

The Chemehuevi Reservation is located on the shores of Lake Havasu, in southeastern California on the Arizona border; 25 miles of the reservation boundary run along the shores of the lake, and 27 acres are located on prime lakefront property. The current Chemehuevi Reservation was established by an Executive Order in 1970.

Most Chemehuevis live on the Colorado River Reservation, created in 1865, and are members of the Colorado River Indian Tribe (CRIT). This reservation contains roughly 270,000 acres. It is governed under a constitution approved in 1937 and is dominated politically by the Mojave tribe.

Chemehuevis are also represented on the Morongo, Cabazon, and Agua Caliente Reservations (Cahuilla) in California.

Land Area:  
Tribal Headquarters:  
Time Zone:  
B.I.A. Office:  

Population at Contact: There were perhaps 500 Chemehuevis in 1600. 1770 estimates: 800, 1910 Census: 260

Registered Population Today: In 1990, there were 95 Indians at Chemehuevi and 2,345 at the Colorado River Reservation (out of these, perhaps 600 identified themselves as Chemehuevi). 

Tribal Enrollment Requirements:

Genealogy Resources:


Before their move to the Colorado River, the Chemehuevi had little tribal consciousness or government per se. They roamed their territory in many bands, each with a relatively powerless chief. They assumed a tribal identity toward the mid-nineteenth century. At the same time, the chief, often a generous, smart, wealthy man succeeded by his eldest son, assumed a stronger leadership role.

Charter:   Indian Reorganization Ace of 1934
Name of Governing Body:  Tribal Council
Number of Council members:   Six, plus executive officers.
Dates of Constitutional amendments: 
Number of Executive Officers:  Chairperson, Vice-Chairperson, and a Secretary-Treasurer


Tribal officers serve for three-year terms. In addition, various standing committees such as the resource development committee, the administration committee, and the human resource committee, report to the tribal council.

Language Classification: Uto-Aztecan -> Northern Uto-Aztecan -> Numic -> Southern Numic -> Southern Paiute (Colorado River)

Language Dialects: Chemehuevi 

Number of fluent Speakers:



Bands, Gens, and Clans

Related Tribes:

Traditional Allies:  Traditional allies included the Mojave (especially), Quechan, Yavapai, and Western Apache.

Traditional Enemies:  The Chemehuevi did not shy away from fighting. Enemies included the Cocopah, Pima, O’odham, Pee-Posh, and on occasion their allies, the Mojave. Warriors generally clubbed their sleeping victims in predawn raids. They also used the bow and arrow. 

Ceremonies / Dances:

The Chemehuevi had four groups of songs, called the Salt, Deer, Mountain Sheep, and Shamans’ or Doctoring song cycles, which were used in their ceremonies.  Each group of songs was connected with a story which was told during the ceremony.  The Deer and Mountain Sheep songs were sung both for fun, and to insure success in the hunt.

Modern Day Events & Tourism:

Legends / Oral Stories:

Art & Crafts:

It appears that the Chemehuevi sometimes made pots from the clay in their area.  However, baskets were more common.  Their coiled baskets were made from slender willow branches, with other fibers sewn through the coils and are among the finest in the world.

They also made baskets by the twining method, used especially for caps, trays, and carrying baskets.  Instead of working in designs with colored fibers, as other Californians, the Chemehuevi often painted designs on the basket after it was completed.  It seems that the Chemehuevi did not use baskets for cooking, as many early Californians did.

The following video shows some examples of their baskets. The song in the background is a traditional Salt Song.


Besides using pottery water jars and cooking pots, the Chemehuevi made a large pottery container which they used to carry children across the Colorado River.  Adults sometimes used log rafts to cross the river, or they swam across, pushing the pot with the children in front of them.

Animals: In addition to horses (acquired while they were still leading a nomadic existence in the desert) for basic mobility on land, the Chemehuevi used reed or log rafts for river travel, as well as large pots to hold provisions or even small children for short travels in the water. 

Clothing: After contact with the Mojaves, men began wearing their hair in thin “ropes” that hung down the back. Generally, men and women wore double aprons. Women also wore willow-bark aprons. Both went barefoot except when traveling, when rawhide sandals were worn. 

Chemehuevi women probably wore an apron-like skirt with one piece in the front and one in the back.  The skirt was made of plant fibers attached to a waist band.  The men wore a piece of animal skin wrapped around their hips or, in warm weather, went without clothes.  For colder weather, a cape made of animal skins was worn over the shoulders by both men and women.  The skins for clothing came from antelope or mountain sheep, or from a number of rabbit skins cut in strips and sewn together with cord.

Both men and women often wore caps on their heads.  The women’s cap was woven of plant fibers, like a basket, and served to protect the head when a large load was carried in a basket supported by a head strap.  Caps worn by the men were made of animal skin.  A leader or a skillful hunter might have a few quail feathers on his cap, to show his importance. 

Though they went barefoot much of the time, there were occasions when sandals or moccasins were worn.  Bark or plant fibers (particularly from the yucca plant) was used to make sandals.  Some Chemehuevi made moccasins from pieces of deerhide, or from the whole skin of a squirrel or other small animal. 


Both as decoration and to protect their skin from the sun and wind, men and women painted their faces and bodies with red, white, black, yellow, and blue clays.

Housing: The traditional Chemehuevi shelter consisted of a small, temporary hut covered with dirt. 

Protection from the sun and wind was the main need in the desert.  Houses were often brush-roofed shelters made by placing poles in the ground in a rectangular pattern, joining the upright poles with cross poles at the top, and covering the roof frame with branches.  A brush side-wall on the side from which the wind usually came gave more protection. 

In colder weather, the people might build their houses with three side walls.  Covering the brush with earth made the house warmer inside.

Caves were used by the Chemehuevi when they were available.  A cave made a snug home when the weather was cold.  Little caves or crevices in the rocks were used for storing food and supplies.

A settlement might consist of just one or two families, or as many as 10 or 20 families who searched for food together, traveling from place to place but coming back often to one fixed area. 

Most groups chose a leader who was expected to be wealthy as well as wise in advising the group as to when and where to hunt for food.  The position of leader was usually inherited by the eldest son.

Subsistance: Following their move to the river, a diet based on foods obtained by hunting and by gathering desert resources was partially replaced by crops such as corn, beans, pumpkins, melons, grasses (semicultivated), and wheat. The Chemehuevi also ate fish from the river; game, including turtles, snakes, and lizards; and a variety of wild plants, such as mesquite beans (a staple) and pinon nuts. 

Chemehuevi technology in the nineteenth century consisted largely of adaptations of Mojave items, such as reed rafts, baskets and pottery, a headring for carrying, gourds for storage and rattles, planting sticks and wooden hoes, and fish and carrying nets. They also adopted Mojave floodplain irrigation methods.

The Chemehuevi had to work hard to find food in their desert home.  They hunted small game like rabbits, wood rats, mice, gophers, squirrels, chipmunks, lizards and tortoises.  Sometimes hunters joined together in a rabbit drive. 

Large game such as deer, antelope, and mountain sheep were scarce. Some men owned the rights to hunt these larger animals in certain areas, and passed these rights on to their sons.  The hunting areas were described in songs.  The owner of the rights to the hunting area must know the proper song to show that it was indeed his area. 

The Chemehuevi did not like to eat fish, but they would if food supplies were short. They caught birds, gathered bird eggs, and ate caterpillars and locusts.

The Chemehuevis traditionally gathered seeds and, after the coming of the Spanish, planted wheat along the Colorado River. The agave plant was a basic food which grew all year round.  The leaves were cut off and part of the stalk was baked.  The people  also gathered seeds and a type of cactus called mescal. The seeds were dried and then ground into flour to be used for mush or for bread.  To gather pine nuts, the people had to go to the mountains. 

The Chemehuevi were one of the few early Californians to do a little farming, having learned from their neighbors to the east how to grow  beans, corn, wheat, and melons.  Only in a few spots was there enough water to grow these crops.

The agave plant was the source of fibers which the Chemehuevi made into rope and cord.  It was a man’s job to make rope, and a woman’s job to make the lighter cord or twine.  The men used the cord to make nets, which were used in hunting small game and for carrying loads.  Chemehuevi nets were made double; they could be opened up to carry a larger load.

The Chemehuevi traveled a lot and had contacts with many other groups.  They were especially influenced by the Mohave people, with whom they traded ideas as well as goods. 

Since they moved often in the search for food, the people did not accumulate lots of belongings as wealth. One valuable possession was a spring of water, which was considered to be private property.  Wealthy men would be those who owned a spring or the hunting rights for large game in a certain area.

In the nineteenth century, the Chemehuevi participated in the general regional trade, extending into southern California, which saw the exchange of agricultural products for shells, feathers, and other items.

Economy Today: The tribal resort on Lake Havasu provides most of the employment and income for members of that reservation.

CRIT, which boasts notably low unemployment (10 percent in 1985), features an 11,000-acre farming cooperative (primarily cotton, alfalfa, melons, and lettuce), a sheep herd, a resort (Aha Quin Park), and employment with the tribe, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, numerous small and large businesses, and the local health center.

Long-term leases provide further income. There are also hydroelectric, oil, and uranium resources. 

Religion & Spiritual Beliefs: After migrating to the Colorado River Valley, the Chemehuevi became strongly influenced by Mojave beliefs. Specifically, they acquired both interest and skill in dreaming and in using the power conferred by dreams to cure illness and spiritual imbalance.

The Chemehuevi also adopted some of the Mojave song cycles, which referred to dreams as well as mythological events. 

Burial Customs: After the early nineteenth century, the Chemehuevi burned the body and possessions of their dead, following preparations by relatives. Their mourning ceremony, or “cry,” in which a wealthy family gave a feast and destroyed goods, had its roots in Southern Paiute culture. 

The Cry was held several months after the death of a relative.  Many neighbors were invited to a big feast where presents were given.  Objects belonging to the deceased were burned in a ceremonial fire.

Wedding Customs: Intermarriage on the Colorado River Reservation has tended to blur the identities of the individual constituent tribes of CRIT, with the possible exception of the Mojave, which dominate by their sheer numbers. The other tribes both concede Mojave domination and search for ways to maintain their individuality. Toward this end, a museum has been built that details the heritage of the separate tribes. 

Education: Children from both reservations attend public schools. 

Chemehuevi People of Note:

Catastrophic Events:

Tribe History:

Toward the end of the eighteenth century, the Chemehuevi and the Las Vegas band of Southern Paiutes may have exterminated the Desert Mojave. In the mid-nineteenth century, the Chemehuevi took over their territory as well as that of the Pee-Posh (Maricopa) Indians, who had been driven away by the Mojave Indians and had gone to live on the Gila River.

The Mojave either actively or passively accepted the Chemehuevi. On the Colorado River, the Chemehuevi developed a crop-based economy and at the same time began to think of themselves as a distinct political entity.

They also became strongly influenced in many ways by the Mojave, notably in their interest in warfare and their religious beliefs. Some Chemehuevis raided miners in northern Arizona from the 1850s through the 1870s.

In 1865 the Chemehuevi and Mojave fought each other. The Chemehuevi lost and retreated back into the desert. Two years later, however, many returned to the California side of the Colorado River, where they resumed their lives on the Colorado River Reservation, established two years earlier.

Many Chemehuevi also remained in and around the Chemehuevi Valley, combining wage labor and traditional subsistence. By the turn of the century, most Chemehuevis were settled on the Colorado River Reservation and among the Serrano and Cahuilla in southern California. In 1885, after a particularly severe drought, a group moved north to farm the Chemehuevi Valley. When a reservation was established there, in 1907, the tribal split became official.

The creation of Hoover Dam in 1935 and Parker Dam in 1939 spelled disaster for the Chemehuevi. The Hoover stopped the seasonal Colorado River floods, which the Chemehuevi people had depended upon to nourish their crops. The Parker Dam created Lake Havasu, placing most of the Chemehuevi Valley under water.

At that point, most Indians in the Chemehuevi Valley moved south again to join their people at the Colorado River Reservation. A government relocation camp operated on the reservation from 1942 to 1945.

By the end of World War II, 148 Navajo and Hopi families had also colonized the reservation; they, with the Chemehuevi and Mojave, became known as the Colorado River Indian Tribes (CRIT). As a result of a 1951 lawsuit, the Chemehuevi were awarded $900,000 by the United States for land taken to create Lake Havasu.

The tribe was not formally constituted until they adopted a constitution in 1971. At about that time, some Chemehuevis began a slow return to the Chemehuevi Valley, where they remain today, operating a resort on their tribal lands.

In the News:

Further Reading:

The Indians of the Painted Desert Region
Visitor’s Guide to Arizona’s Indian Reservations
Handbook of the Indians of California, with 419 Illustrations and 40 Maps
California Indian Languages

US Tribes C to D
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