Chemehuevi lands in California and Arizona
Total population
2010: 1,201 alone and in combination[1]
Regions with significant populations
 United States
( Arizona,  California)
English, Colorado River Numic (ISO 639-3, ute)
Native American Church, Sun Dance, traditional tribal religion,[2] Christianity, Ghost Dance
Related ethnic groups
Southern Paiute people

The Chemehuevi (/ˌɛmɪˈwvi/ CHEH-mih-WAY-vee) are an indigenous people of the Great Basin. They are the southernmost branch of Southern Paiute.[3][4][5] Today, Chemehuevi people are enrolled in the following federally recognized tribes:

Some Chemehuevi are also part of the Soboba Band of Luiseño Indians, whose members are mostly Sovovatum or Soboba band members of Cahuilla and Luiseño people.


"Chemehuevi" has multiple interpretations. It is considered to either be a Mojave term meaning "those who play with fish;"[8] or a Quechan word meaning "nose-in-the-air-like-a-roadrunner."[9] The Chemehuevi call themselves Nüwüvi ("The People", singular Nüwü)[10][11] or Tantáwats, meaning "Southern Men."[9] Alternate spellings of Chemehuevi include Chemeguab and Chemegueb.[12]


Their language, Chemehuevi, is a Colorado River Numic language, in the Numic language branch of the Uto-Aztecan language family. First transcribed by John P. Harrington and Carobeth Laird in the early 20th century, it was studied in the 1970s by linguist Margaret L. Press.[13] whose field notes and extensive sound recordings remain available.[14] The language is now near extinction;[15] during the filming of Ironbound Films' 2008 American documentary film The Linguists, linguists Greg Anderson and K. David Harrison interviewed and recorded one of the last 3 remaining speakers.

In 2015, the Siwavaats Junior College in Havasu Lake, California, was established to teach children the language. A Chemehuevi dictionary with 2,500 words was expected to become available in 2016.[16]

History and traditional culture

McKinley Fisher, a Chemehuevi man employed by the Indian Service at Colorado Agency, Arizona in 1957.

The Chemehuevi were originally a desert tribe among the Southern Paiute group. Post-contact, they lived primarily in the eastern Mojave Desert and later Cottonwood Island in Nevada and the Chemehuevi Valley along the Colorado River in California. They were a nomadic people living in small groups given the sparse resources available in the desert environment. Carobeth Laird indicates their traditional territory spanned the High Desert from the Colorado River on the east to the Tehachapi Mountains on the west and from the Las Vegas area and Death Valley on the north to the San Bernardino and San Gabriel Mountains in the south. They are most closely identified as among the Great Basin Indians. Among others they are cousins of the Kawaiisu.[17]

The most comprehensive collection of Chemehuevi history, culture and mythology was gathered by Carobeth Laird (1895–1983) and her second husband, George Laird, one of the last Chemehuevi to have been raised in the traditional culture. Carobeth Laird, a linguist and ethnographer, wrote a comprehensive account of the culture and language as George Laird remembered it, and published their collaborative efforts in her 1976 The Chemehuevis, the first – and, to date, only – ethnography of the Chemehuevi traditional culture.

Describing the Chemehuevi as she knew them, and presenting the texture of traditional life amongst the people, Carobeth Laird writes:

The Chemehuevi character is made up of polarities which are complementary rather than contradictory. They are loquacious yet capable of silence; gregarious yet so close to the earth that single families or even men alone might live and travel for long periods away from other human beings; proud, yet capable of a gentle self-ridicule. They are conservative to a degree, yet insatiably curious and ready to inquire into and even to adopt new ways: to visit all tribes, whether friends or enemies; to speak strange tongues, sing strange songs, and marry strange wives.[18]

The Chemehuevi made intricately coiled baskets using a three-rod foundation of willow. Traditionally, the majority of weaving was completed with split willow, and darker patterns were made with devil's claw and yucca, among other materials.[19] This traditional style of basketmaking is currently practiced by a small group of weavers.[20]


Chemehuevi boy by Edward S. Curtis

Estimates for the pre-contact populations of most native groups in California have varied substantially. Alfred L. Kroeber estimated the combined 1770 population of the Chemehuevi, Koso, and Kawaiisu as 1,500. The combined estimate in 1910 dropped to 500.[21] An Indian agent reported the Chemehuevi population in 1875 to be 350.[22] Kroeber estimated U.S. census data put the Chemehuevi population in 1910 as 355.[23] Population as of 2016 is in the thousands.


See also


  1. ^ "2010 Census CPH-T-6. American Indian and Alaska Native Tribes in the United States and Puerto Rico: 2010" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 9 December 2014.
  2. ^ " Northern Paiute - Religion and Expressive Culture ". Countries and Their Cultures. Retrieved 8 December 2009.
  3. ^ Trafzer, Clifford E. (1 August 2015). A Chemehuevi Song: The Resilience of a Southern Paiute Tribe. Seattle, Washington: University of Washington Press (published June 2015). pp. 17–18. ISBN 978-0-295-80582-5.
  4. ^ "California Indians and Their Reservations". San Diego State University. Archived from the original on 5 February 2009.
  5. ^ "Chemehuevi Indian Tribe". Southern California Tribal Chairmen's Association. Retrieved 4 May 2023.
  6. ^ Pritzker 24
  7. ^
  8. ^ Chemehuevi Indian Tribe Archived 22 January 2017 at the Wayback Machine. Retrieved 1 March 2010.
  9. ^ a b Pritzker 23
  10. ^ "History". Chemehuevi Indian Tribe. Archived from the original on 11 September 2007. Retrieved 29 March 2007.
  11. ^ Elzinga, Dirk. "An Online Chemehuevi Dictionary". Archived from the original on 5 December 2007. Retrieved 29 March 2007.
  12. ^ Barnes, Thomas C.; Naylor, Thomas H.; Polzer, Charles W. Northern New Spain: A Research Guide. University of Arizona. Retrieved 10 May 2024.
  13. ^ Margaret L. Press, Chemehuevi: A Grammar and Lexicon, University of California Press, 1979
  14. ^ Mary Hanks Molino, Oral History (in Chemehuevi), sound recording at
  15. ^ "Ute-Southern Paiute". Ethnologue. Retrieved 29 March 2007.
  16. ^ Baird, Kevin (27 July 2015). "Learning the language: The tribe is working to have more children learn Chemehuevi as few adults speak it fluently". Havasu News-Herald. Retrieved 3 October 2015.
  17. ^ Laird 1976
  18. ^ Laird, p. 4
  19. ^ Kania, John J. (Winter 2007). "Bread for Baskets: The Ammann Collection of Chemehuevi Basketry" (PDF). SCV History.
  20. ^ "Mary 'Weegie' Claw Chemehuevi and Kawaiisu basketry". Alliance for California Traditional Arts. 2020.
  21. ^ Kroeber (1925:883)
  22. ^ Clemmer and Stewart (1986:539)
  23. ^ Leland (1986:612)