Genealogy Trails

Yuma County, Arizona Indians


The Yuman Indians consisted of various tribes: The Quechan, Cocopah, Hualapai, Mohave, and some Maricopas. These Yumans lived, for the main, on the bottom lands of the Colorado River maintaining scattered settlements, called rancherias, on the west side of the river near the present day Laguna Dam, Picacho, and at the foot of the Chocolate Mountains. To the West they went as far along the Colorado River as Pilot Knob, the Baja-California, California border, and on the Sonora Mesa. To the East they reached as far as the Dome and Wellton area; also east of the river and north as far as Parker, Arizona.

Estimates of the population for the early Yumans has been anywhere from 4,000 to the more conservative figure of 3,000. The Yumans were nomadic in that they moved according to the flood stages of the Colorado River. The Yumans were reported to have visited other tribes for the purpose of trade in items that they deemed worthwhile. This can be exemplified by the Yumans going as far as the Laguna Mountains and even beyond trading with the Mission Indians of the Pacific coast area. Perhaps these Mission Indians were the source of the abalone shells that the Yumans gave to the famous Father Kino, that ultimately led Father Kino to the discovery that California was not an island, as was the belief.

The Yumans are reported to have been a very large people, the men towering to six feet and taller, and being very muscular in body build. To this day the Yumans are large people, though civilization has tended to make them fat instead of the fine muscular people they once were. A well-known chief of the Yumans was Chief Pasqual who measured 6'7" tall. There is a story that Chief Pasqual once visited the very sophisticated city of San Francisco, and caused awe in all who beheld him because of his height, his tremendous build, and his very long flowing black hair.

The Yumans were chiefly farmers as they planted melons, corn, beans, and pumpkins. They also harvested from the wild crops that grew abundantly along the river such as, the mesquite bean, wild grass seeds, and tobacco. The Yumans used fish, as did the east coast Indians for fertilizing their crops. They did not, themselves, eat much fish, not caring for it. However, before the dams were built, salmon used to go up the Colorado River to spawn, and they did catch and eat these salmon. The Yumans used a unique form of irrigation whereby flooding of the river caused little lakes in the area. When the floods subsided and only the lakes remained, the squaws would dig ditches from the lakes to the crops, thus irrigating their crops.

Game was abundant in the form of deer, antelope, rabbits, and various fowl which the Yumans hunted for food. The skin from the deer was used to make rawhide sandals; the rabbit skins were used to make blankets. They did their hunting with a comparatively small bow and small arrow.

The Yumans were very unlike their brethren to the east in that they had but one god, the great spirit. They did not worship the sun, moon, buffalo, fire or water gods. Because of their strong belief in the great spirit, who dwelled in the heavens above, the Yumans formed a very elaborate 'mourning ceremony' for their dead. In order for the spirit of the deceased to enter the world of the great spirit, he had to be cremated. If he were buried in the ground his spirit could not go up; it would remain in the earth. Thus, the cremation which would allow the spirit to float upward. Preparation for the cremation ceremony was as follows: a hole was dug in the ground over which were placed logs; the deceased Indian would then be rolled into blankets and placed on the logs, face down. (This was so the body would not rise with the heat of the cremation fire.) Then, smaller bits of wood were placed all around the cremation logs and set afire. There was much singing, lamenting, and talk of the virtues of the dead Indian during the cremation. All the worldly possessions of the deceased were put in the fire so that they might accompany the deceased into the land of the great spirit. This ceremony lasted for many hours, and when it was over, the dead one was never spoken of again. Life must go on for the living, and the dead one was now in the land of eternal happiness.

The Yumans had another very elaborate religious ceremony called a 'Koorok', which could last for from three to five days. (The last koorok was in 1956. Anthropologists witnessed this ceremony and took notes but were cautioned not to take pictures. To compensate for this, they brought along expert artists who made some excellent sketches. However, this was discovered by the Indians, and the sketches were confiscated and destroyed.) There were joyful fiesta type ceremonies also, which were mainly for the celebration of bountiful crops. At these ceremonies flutes were played, (made from reeds from along the river), and they also used rattle like instruments made of dried deer hooves filled with small pebbles.

It has been noted of the Yumans, and their neighbors the Pima, and Papagos, that they were considered a more humane Indian, being cheerful in spirit, with a surprisingly high moral standard and with the idea of goodness emanating from their religion.

Though the Yumans were religious people, and though they traded with other tribes, they were still fierce warriors. In their fighting the Yumans did not use the bow and arrow as they did in hunting; they used clubs. These clubs were carved at one end in which stones were fitted and secured with rawhide. The Yumans were well-known for their fighting prowess, even the Apaches avoided them, and the Apache is known for his fighting proficiency. The Yumans were not great horsemen so most of their fighting was done while on foot. As a matter of fact, when the Spaniards brought horses over to America, the Indians would steal them, not for riding, but for purposes of eating.

The Yumans had a tribal medicine man who acted as their doctor. He used herbs that he gathered from the banks of the Colorado River, and when a member of the tribe was bitten by a snake, he lanced the area of the bite and extracted the venom by sucking the poison out. Now, whenever he performed one of his acts of doctoring, he did a great deal of dancing, and singing, and shaking of deer hoof rattles. All this ceremonial procedure was supposed to work wonders and make the patient well.

The Yumans were, and arc, essentially a shy people; they do not speak up freely. An illustration of this concerned those Indians fighting in World War II. During battle, if the commanding officer asked for volunteers, the Indians would not volunteer. However if they were told to go and wipe out an especially concentrated enemy strong-hold, the Indians did just that. If they found they were being overwhelmed by the enemy they would not retreat, but they would stay and fight till they were victorious or died in the process. This, undoubtedly, reverts back to their following of their chief—even to death.

Ft. Yuma Indian Reservation occupies more than 8,000 acres on the banks of the Colorado River across the river from Yuma. It is the home of more than 1,500 members of the Quechan Indian tribe today.

Ft. Yuma is a sub-agency of the Colorado River Indian Agency at Parker, more than 100 miles to the North. It was established in 1884.

The original acreage was much larger, but parcels of land are sold from time to time. Five employees of the Department of Interior handle the Indian affairs. Head-quarters is located on Indian Hill across from the Territorial Prison.

The Quechans are governed by a seven-man Tribal Council. Every two years the tribe elects its members to serve on the Council.

The federal government provides the Indians with a hospital and the youngsters attend school at the nearby San Pasqual High and Elementary School.

On Indian Hill can be seen historic St. Thomas Indian Mission. The church stands on the site where early Spanish missionaries erected the first church to convert the Indians in the 1700s.

The big event of the Quechan Indians of Yuma is the annual Yuma Indian Pow Wow in mid-March.

It is staged on Indian Hill for two days, and the war whoops and stomping dances of the Indians of the Southwest can be heard as they perform their authentic rituals. Indian groups from throughout the Southwest are invited to take part.

This is one of the more colorful events of the winter season and usually provides camera enthusiasts with good shots. Winter visitors are welcome and may go into the arena for close-ups of the warriors and the Mission.

The programs are usually presented in the afternoons beginning at 1 P.M. on Saturday, and again on Sunday. A barbecue usually precedes the opening of the festivities on Saturday.

The ceremonials presented by these Indians of the Southwest, seek to show the true way of life of the Indians.

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