History of the Site

The Chemehuevi Indians of Southern California by Ronald Dean Miller & Peggy Jeanne Miller
Published 1967
Malki Museum Press
Banning, CA

Interview with David Chavez, a member of the Chemehuevi Indian Tribe

A Synopsis of The History of The Chemehuevi

1776—Pathfinder-priest Father Garces became the first white man to ‘discover’ the Chemehuevi Indian Tribe by entering the Shoshonean Territory with the help of the Mohave Indians.

1776-1857--The Chemehuevi Indians begin to migrate from Nevada, Utah, and Arizona to California because of a complication with the Yuman Indian Tribe, who were living in the area next to theirs.

1857—Lieutenant Joseph C. Ives conducted an expedition and noted that the Chemehuevi Indians were neighbors of the Mohave Indians. Both tribes were living on Cottonwood Island as well as in the Chemehuevi Valley.

1870’s- late 1880’s—The Chemehuevi were forced into Indian Reservations. In particular, they began to move their homes to the Oasis at Twentynine Palms.

1902—A census was taken of the number of Chemehuevi left living on the reservation. The resulting number, which included the Serrano Indians, was only 37.


The Chemehuevi Culture

Tribal Area: Its size could be compared to the size of the area inhabited by the Serrano and Yokuts. They first lived in Nevada, Utah, and Arizona, but then moved to California. They lived west of the Colorado River in deserts filled with stones, sand, and cacti.

Population: The population never exceeded 800 because the land was so barren that it could not support much life.

Interaction: Their interaction with other tribes was usually peaceful, but they were known to have fought with the Mohave Indians, who lived next to them in California. As a result, their numbers dwindled severely.

Tribal Organization: "Each band consisted of lineages based on nuclear and extended families, with an older man as captain or chief." –Ronald and Peggy Miller
This chief, also known as windum, set the rules for the economics of the tribe, helped to perform the ceremonies, judged trials, and moderated the politics within the tribe. The position of the windum was hereditary, passed down from father to son.

Food: When they lived out in the desert, the Chemehuevi hunted rabbits and lizards (as well as other reptiles). Plants such as wild grass and chia also provided a nutritional balance in their diet. The Chemehuevi would also roast pinon cones in order to eat the nuts which were inside the hard shell.

Puberty: When a boy reaches puberty, he is not allowed to eat his ‘first kill.’ This may symbolize the fact that they will have to provide for their families for most of their adult lives. However, when a girl reaches puberty, she is put on a fast for an entire month. The only thing that she is allowed is hot water. The reason for fasting is so that she will learn to be thankful for the food that her husband manages to kill.

Achievement: A Chemehuevi Indian has succeeded in life when he or she finally discovers how to dream properly in life. Dreams are the central part of the Chemehuevan life—essential to all types of people, whether a windum, warrior, medecine man, or gambler.

Myths & Stories: In the earlier histories of the Chemehuevi, Old Brother Puma and Coyote were important heroes. However, this changes as soon as they move to California and onto the reservations. Wolf (Tiwats), instead of Old Brother Puma, became the brother of Coyote, who was also known as Shinav. Coyote, on the other hand, was the evil character who was selfish and uncaring. Shinav overheard people talk about how their father, Gato, wished to put Tiwats in the Rainbow. Shinav got jealous because he also wanted to be on the Rainbow, like Gato had promised him he would be. So, he killed Tiwats when everyone was out on an expedition. When they returned, they noticed that Tiwats was missing and asked Shinav what had happened to him, who told them that he had no idea. So, for the entire night, everyone held a vigil for him, anxiously waiting for his return. The next day, Shinav decided that he should bury Tiwats’ body, lest anyone discovered it. But, when he went to the spot where he had murdered Tiwats, it was missing, along with his blood. Shinav then looked up at the sky and noticed the color red, which was Shinav’s body, up in the Rainbow. Gato had placed Tiwats up in the sky as he had originally planned. Shinav was embarrassed and crawled away into the desert (which is why the coyote is seen with its tail between its legs). Shinav was eventually placed up into the Rainbow as well. He became the white mist which can be seen underneath the Rainbow.

Shamans: There were four different shamans. First of all, there the hunting shamans. Then, there were shamans who controlled water—those who found water holes, and those who stopped or started the rain. These two shamans must have been of great importance to the Chemehuevi because of the very little access to enough water. Finally, there were the pow-wands who’s shaman power came through dreams. His power could be used for good or evil, depending on his wishes. He used a rattle and a cane wand in a ceremony to cure the sick. Each of the shamans had his own, personalized songs that no one else would learn. These healers, or medicine men, would use plants and herbs to heal illness, however, they put most of their confidence into the songs that they sang, which were accompanied by the relatives of the sick person. In these cermonies, the cane wand, also known as enupe, was placed in the ground over the head of the person who was to be cured. The enupe, which contained the spirit of the pow-wands, sometimes acted as insurance of the patient’s health and stayed with him or her for as long as year.

Games: Females liked to play with dice. A popular game, however, was one using a rabbit’s skull and a pole. The object of the game was to stick the pole through the rabbit’s eye socket as it was being thrown into the air. Males, on the other hand, had many target-hitting contests as well as races, some involving a stone ball, peon.

Celestial connections: The Summer and Winter Solstice were supposed to be very important to the Chemehuevi Indians. Many of the tribes were recorded to having a large stone with a headrest at the top. This was subsequently place on three smaller stones.


Interview with Rick Hazlett, geology professor at Pomona College

History of The Site

The petroglyphs are thought to be drawn between the early 1500’s and the early 1800’s. This conclusion is drawn from the aging of the glaze on the petroglyphs. The glaze is caused by microbacteria that builds up layers on the surface of the rocks. The glaze would consequently hide the visibility of the drawings, and so, the Chemehuevi would scrape of the glaze. Since they scraped off the glaze unevenly, the new layers of glaze resulted in the multi-coloring of the rocks that we see today.
If, however, the petroglyphs were created in the early 1500’s, then it is a possibility that the Chemehuevi came to California earlier than the recorded 1770’s. Another possibility is that the Chemehuevi did not actually draw the petroglyphs, but, rather, used them for their own ceremonies. The Halchidoma Indians may have possibly drawn the petroglyphs since they were a tribe that occupied the area at the time.
At the beginning of the 16th century, it is rumored that the Spanish explored the area. However, there is no physical evidence or written history recording that they had ever occupied the area.
The next sign of non-Native American presence was in the 1860’s, the U.S. Army, led by Captain Whipple explored the site, scouting for a good area to build a railroad.
Soon after, cattle-grazers occupied the area for a short while. Proof of this lies in the graffiti found on one of the rocks next to a petroglyph.

Then, in the early 20th century, between World War I and World War II, some mining was done. But, as soon as World War II hit the U.S., a troop in the army, led by General Patton, used the Mopah Mountain Range Site as a landing base. Bullets can still be found today lying beneath and next to rocks.
Ever since World War II, the only sign of life, has been from campers leaving their empty beer bottles, and soda cans lying around next to the petroglyphs.
The history of the petroglyphs—whom they were drawn by, what they were drawn for, what kind of ceremonies or rituals were conducted beside them—are all factors that have yet to be thoroughly explored. Much of what is concluded comes from comparing drawings that they had created, and customs of nearby tribes that they had practiced. Written history of the Chemehuevi only really began a couple of generations after they had moved onto the reservations.

compiled by Natasha Gronski

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