Southeastern California, along the Colorado River (San Bernandino County
& eastern Imperial County)
Language: Hokan family
1770 estimate: not known
1910 Census: not known
Both the Mohave and the Quechan (also called the Yuma) lived mostly east of the Colorado River, in what is now Arizona. Their culture is more like the southwestern groups than it is Californian. However, they also occupied an area in California.
The area along the Colorado River gets very little rain. The summers are hot and the winters are mild. Quechan and Mohave settlements were located on high ground away from the river during the winter and early spring, when the river might flood. The people moved closer to the river in the late spring and summer. Some settlements had as many as several hundred people, but families were usually spread out over a mile or two, rather than clustered in villages.
Both Quechan and Mohave thought of themselves as tribes made up of many clans or bands. The tribe came together to make war against neighboring tribes, and to celebrate the harvest. The Mohave and Quechan were often allies against neighboring tribes. Each settlement had one or more headmen who were chosen by the people. The headmen from all the settlements sometimes met together to discuss things of importance to the entire tribe.
Houses in this desert country were usually just shade roofs (called ramadas), with four or six poles supporting a flat roof covered with bundles of reeds or grasses. For cold weather, the houses had side walls made from poles slanting from the ground to the roof, covered with bundles of grass and then with a layer of mud several inches thick. Sometimes a settlement would have one or two such houses larger than the rest, where the leaders lived. If the weather was very cold, they would invite others to stay with them.
It seems that neither the Mohave or the Quechan used sweathouses, as most early Californians did.
Unlike most of the early Californians, the Mohave and Quechan were farmers. They depended on growing part of their food, rather than on hunting and gathering only wild food. The flooding of the Colorado River each spring left rich soil in the valley along the river bottom. Here the people planted maize (corn), melons, beans, and pumpkins. They also planted the seeds of wild grasses.
Men and women worked together to raise crops. The men cleared the land, dug planting holes, and weeded. Women planted the seeds and worked with the men in the harvest. Often several families worked together to plant and harvest a crop. In September the corn was picked and the husks removed in the fields. The ears of corn were placed on the roofs of the ramadas to dry in the sun before being stored in large baskets.
In addition to the crops grown in their fields, the Mohave and Quechan women gathered wild food. A variety of wild seeds grew along the river. The desert produced several kinds of cactus with edible fruits, as well as mesquite. The beanlike pods of the mesquite plant were pounded and crushed so that the pulp (soft part inside) could be removed. The pulp was dried and ground into flour, which was mixed with water to make cakes. The crushed pods also could be soaked in warm water to make a sweet-tasting drink.
Meat was not common in the Mohave or Quechan diet, as there was very little game for them to hunt. Hunters sometimes traveled to the mountains east of the river to hunt deer. Rabbits were caught in traps or with curved throwing sticks. More common in the diet was fish taken from the Colorado River. A stew made from fish and corn was a favorite meal.
In the hot, dry southwestern desert, people did not need to wear many clothes. Women made apron-like skirts from the inner bark of the willow tree, pounded until it was soft. The knee-length skirts were made in two pieces, one for the front and one for the back. Men either went without clothing, or wore a girdle, woven from pieces of willow bark, around their hips. Children usually wore no clothes.
For the few times when the weather was cold, both men and women wore robes or blankets over their shoulders. They made the blankets from strips of rabbit skins sewn together. Sometimes they carried a piece of burning wood, called a firebrand, to keep themselves warm.
Mohave and Quechan men and women wore their hair long, treating it with a mixture of reddish mud and the sap from willow bark. Men rolled their hair into long strands, sometimes as many as 20 or 30 of them, that hung down their backs. Both men and women painted designs on their faces, often keeping the same design for many months. The paint was a protection from the hot desert sun, as well as being a decoration. They used plants to make red, yellow, green, black and white dyes. Men wore bead or shell ornaments in their ears and noses.
The Mohave and Quechan were not known for their skill in making tools. Since they did very little hunting, their bows were simple and their arrows often had no sharp points. In fact, they made very little use of stone or bone for tools or implements. From wood they made planting sticks and hoes used in weeding the gardens.
Although they lived along the river, the Mohave and the Quechan did not build boats. Once in a while they would tie several logs together to make a raft, but they usually swam when they wanted to cross the river. To get their supplies or their children across the river, they put them in a very large pottery bowl and pushed it ahead of them as they swam across.
Fishing was done from the river banks with nets, traps, or long-handled scoops. Nets and traps were made from cord, which was made by twisting plant fibers together. The scoops were woven from reeds and plant fibers, like baskets.
The Mohave and the Quechan made both baskets and pottery containers, which they used for carrying and storing food. Pottery bowls, made from clay found along the river, were sometimes decorated with designs in red and black. Their baskets were coarsely woven from arrowweed branches, often with the leaves left on them. Women carried loads on their backs in net bags attached to rough wooden frames, supported by a band across the forehead.
The Mohave and the Quechan did not show much interest in gathering wealth for themselves. They shared food supplies with each other, and did not value other possessions. They were all rather equally well-to-do or equally poor.
Trading was done between the Mohave and Quechan, and with groups living both east and west of them. The Quechan grew wheat and traded it to the Mohave, who did not grow wheat. From the Hopi, to the east, they both got blankets. They also had contacts with other California groups.
Each year, people from all the settlements would gather with their tribal neighbors to celebrate the fall harvest. Each family brought food for the feasting. Communities also joined together once a year for a mourning ceremony to remember those who had died during the past year.