East central California, in the eastern part of the Mohave Desert (San Bernardino
Language: Uto-Aztecan family
1770 estimate: 800
1910 Census: 260
The Chemehuevi were actually Southern Paiutes, connected with the Paiutes of Nevada and Arizona. Their speech and way of life was more like that of people in the Great Basin of Nevada than it was like other early Californians.
The lands of the Chemehuevi covered a large area in the southeastern part of the state. 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.
The Chemehuevi called themselves nüwü, meaning people in their language. The name Chemehuevi is what they were called by their neighbors to the south, the Mohave and other Yuman groups.
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.
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.
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 caught birds, gathered bird eggs, and ate caterpillars and locusts.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
One important ceremony was the Cry, 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.