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Bringing Creation Back Together Again: The Salt Songs of the Nuwuvi

Matt Leivas, Sr. singing at the Old Woman Mountains Preserve photographed by Kim Stringfellow in 2019.

The Mojave Project is an experimental transmedia documentary and curatorial project led by Kim Stringfellow exploring the physical, geological and cultural landscape of the Mojave Desert. The Mojave Project reconsiders and establishes multiple ways in which to interpret this unique and complex landscape, through association and connection of seemingly unrelated sites, themes, and subjects thus creating a speculative and immersive experience for our audience.

It is no surprise that Matt Leivas, Sr. is a ram. By this, I mean he is a Na, a direct descendent of the Chemehuevi Mountain Sheep Clan. An all-star high school linebacker, Leivas’ formidable stature suggests that of Ovis canadensis nelsoni but it could be said that his serene demeanor resembles one as well.[i] As if to confirm this fact, in July 2016, while singing traditional songs during a healing retreat at Painted Rock, a sacred ancestral site within the Old Woman Mountains Preserve, a mature ram seemingly appeared out of nowhere drawn in by Leivas’ enduring song. Looming thirty feet above, Leivas’ had not noticed this ungulate observing him. After he finished singing the lone ram had moved on.[ii]

At 67, Leivas is a respected Chemehuevi elder, Salt Song singer, Tribal scholar and environmental activist. His intensely compassionate eyes, warm presence and wry sense of humor (an endearing trait shared by many Chemehuevi) are particularly disarming, but it is his detailed and comprehensive knowledge of his people’s history, culture and the landscape they inhabit — along with the varied complex issues affecting contemporary Chemehuevi people — that are most impressive.  

Leivas, is the youngest of two brothers, five sisters and several older half-siblings from his father’s previous marriage. He was born and raised at Hanks Village, an Indian allotment in the Parker Valley at the Colorado River Indian Tribes (CRIT) reservation. 

The federal government originally established CRIT in 1865 for the both the Mojave and Chemehuevi people — even though the region was traditional Mojave territory and the two groups were at war.[iii] By 1867, when the conflict had subsided, many Chemehuevi relocated to Parker Valley from Chemehuevi Valley — considered to be their traditional territory along the western shore of the Colorado River — now the site of Lake Havasu.[iv] It is important to state that in 1853, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) had already conveyed Chemehuevi Valley into the public domain.

At the beginning of the hostilities some Chemehuevi, including past relatives of the contemporary Twenty-Nine Palms Band of Mission Indians, had fled to various parts of the Mojave Desert to escape violence wrought by the conflict. The Chemehuevi band at Twentynine Palms, California, would choose to remain at the Oasis of Mara (Mar’rah), sharing the village with the Serrano, until the tragic Willie Boy saga had unfolded in 1909.[v] Other Chemehuevi bands had dispersed into the Mojave River watershed at present-day Victorville, California, but it should be noted that ancestors of the Chemehuevi had thrived throughout the Mojave Desert since time immemorial.

Matt Leivas, Sr. shown in front of a painting representing his ancestors at the Chemehuevi Cultural Center, Havasu Lake, CA. Photo: Kim Stringfellow.
Matt Leivas, Sr. shown in front of a painting representing his ancestors at the Chemehuevi Cultural Center, Havasu Lake, CA. Photo: Kim Stringfellow.
A painting representing Chemehuevi Valley village life in the conference room of the Chemehuevi Cultural Center, Havasu Lake, CA. Photo: Kim Stringfellow.
A painting representing Chemehuevi Valley village life in the conference room of the Chemehuevi Cultural Center, Havasu Lake, CA. Photo: Kim Stringfellow.

By the turn of the twentieth century, most Chemehuevi were settled at reservations in the Parker Valley or in southern California’s Coachella Valley but some had chosen to return to Chemehuevi Valley. In an apparent about face, the federal government established the Chemehuevi Valley Reservation in 1907. However, with the eventual construction of Hoover Dam in 1935 and Parker Dam in 1939, the Chemehuevi who had returned to the area would once again be displaced. After Parker Dam became operational and the river’s waters rose, nearly 8,000 acres of fertile reservation farmland was flooded the following year. Leading up to the dam’s construction, those residing in the valley were again forced to relocate south to the Parker Valley. Additionally, Chemehuevi tribal status would be revoked after the tribe was officially consolidated into CRIT. However, unbeknownst to them, their Chemehuevi Valley land holdings would remain in trust — but in limbo — for over fifty years until the mid-1960s when tribal member Herb Pencille learned through his persistent research that these lands still belonged to the Chemehuevi people.[vi]

Leivas regards Parker Valley as his first home — where many of his relatives continue to reside today — but considers Chemehuevi Valley his true home. Leivas’ mother, Gertrude Hanks Leivas, whose Chemehuevi name is Kankewa or “Hillside,” vividly recounted her family’s relocation to Parker Valley as a small child during the mid-1920s when plans to construct of Parker Dam had begun. During her interview for William Logan Hebner’s "Southern Paiute: A Portrait," she stated that their journey began after a big Sing took place with the entire community gathering to sing traditional songs “to the land, the ancestors, [singing] goodbye to everything.”[vii]

A prehistoric Native American travel route near West Well with a view of Lake Havasu in the distance. Photo: Kim Stringfellow.
A prehistoric Native American travel route near West Well with a view of Lake Havasu in the distance. Photo: Kim Stringfellow.

Gertrude’s family traveled on foot alongside her father, Henry Hanks,[viii] who pulled a wagon with all of their belongings thirty or so miles southward. As they plodded through the desert mountain canyons, Gertrude took in the stunning scenery but never forgot her homeland where dense cottonwood groves lined the formally formerly-unbridled river and seasonal flooding kept the land along it lush and fertile. Throughout her life, Gertrude would implore her family to return to their true homeland — the Chemehuevi Valley. By the time she passed in 2007 she would be the last full-blooded Chemehuevi to have been born and buried here.

By 1970, after much concerted effort by Pencille, other tribal members and the California Indian Legal Services, the Chemehuevi’s federal tribal status was formally reinstated. Under executive order, two adjacent parcels of their former lands on the California side of the river, each approximately 16,000 acres with a total of thirty miles of Lake Havasu shoreline, were returned to the Chemehuevi to repatriate. Consider that 8,000 acres of their original lands,along with prime lakefront property, had been long submerged and was now leased to non-Indians. Many Chemehuevi, including the extended Leivas family, decided to leave Parker to rebuild their lives back up north. The transition proved at times to be difficult —t hey would need to reestablish themselves in a land now partially occupied by outsiders. Plus, for most of the younger tribal members, including Leivas and his siblings, the land was foreign.

A vintage postcard showing the Mission Revival architecturally styled Sherman Institute, Riverside, CA. Credit: Sherman Indian Museum.
A vintage postcard showing the Mission Revival architecturally styled Sherman Institute, Riverside, CA. Credit: Sherman Indian Museum.

Leivas, like his mother before him, attended Sherman Institute in Riverside, California during the 1960s.[ix] Sherman is an off-reservation boarding school established in 1902 that continues to this day to be operated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Department of the Interior. Like the hundreds of Indian boarding schools established by the federal government during the late- nineteenth century, Sherman’s history is storied and controversial. For one, the goal of these programs were was to completely expunge student attendees of their Native heritage and culture — including their appearance, language and spirituality — in order to “assimilate” them into mainstream or white society. Children, as early as four four years of age, were sometimes removed from their homes forcibly. Other families sent their kids willingly because they felt they had no other option — unfortunately the cycle of extreme poverty continues for many indigenous people. Students would attend Sherman for up to ten years. Most were unable to visit their familiesy while enrolled because of sheer distance combined with economic disadvantage. 

Young women attending Sherman Indian School were in the past trained as domestic workers. Credit: Sherman Indian Museum.
Young women attending Sherman Indian School were in the past trained as domestic workers. | Sherman Indian Museum

Sherman’s early educational program was structured as vocational; girls were trained as domestic workers or nurses; while boys studied agriculture, carpentry, tailoring and other trades. Program administrators in all tribal education programs believed that by “civilizing” these Native children they would, in turn, influence their parents and families once they had returned to their respected respective reservations. Over time, Sherman would become academically focused, providing college preparation courses by the 1970s.

Young men preparing pancakes for Sherman Indian School students. Credit: Sherman Indian Museum.
Young men preparing pancakes for Sherman Indian School students. | Sherman Indian Museum

But a dark period from Sherman’s past would linger well into the future when a Riverside Eagle Scout discovered sixty-seven graves of former students in 2003 who had attended the program from 1904 to 1955. [x] The cemetery had been neglected and long forgotten. Many of Sherman’s deceased children were buried in unmarked graves, likely because these students had arrived as orphans. Officially, the deaths were primarily attributed to disease or “accidental death.” Leivas’ shared that his mother and her friend who attended Sherman together would cover their mouths and speak in hushed voices well into old age out of habit — cautious that a head mistress from their past would discipline them for doing so. Regardless, Gertrude expressed mostly fond memories of her time spent at Sherman.

In 1971, Sherman Institute was renamed Sherman Indian High School, serving grades nine to twelve. Leivas and other students from his senior class that year were instrumental in securing California state accreditation, which guaranteed graduating students a high school diploma. As one of four federally-administered off-reservation Indian boarding schools in operation today, Sherman celebrates Native American culture rather than suppressing it — representing over seventy-six federally recognized tribes with about 68 percent of their students attending from reservations across the country.[xi] Native Americans manage administration and operations and additionally oversee and teach Sherman’s curriculum, which includes American Indian history, languages and culture.

A prehistoric Native American encampment near West Well. Photo: Kim Stringfellow.
A prehistoric Native American encampment near West Well. | Kim Stringfellow.

Leivas moved to Chemehuevi Valley in 1977. His mother and two sisters, Mary and Irene followed in 1980, after their homes had been constructed. Leivas worked as the area’s chief tribal game warden from 1977 to 1989 where he was responsible for patrolling 32,000 acres of desert by himself. While doing so, his appreciation of the area’s native ecology deepened as he “relearned” the landscape. During repeated management excursions on foot, truck, plane or boat Leivas began to notice the subtle physical signature of cultural sites such as ancient sleeping circles within the landscape. Initially, these ancient village sites were difficult to make out with the naked eye but, with time spent in the land, they became more apparent.

Matt Leivas, Sr. shown at the spring he revived near West Well. Photo: Kim Stringfellow.
Matt Leivas, Sr. shown at the spring he revived near West Well. |  Kim Stringfellow

Around this time Leivas’ spiritual awakening began to take hold. Leivas shared that he would “feel the spirit” while patrolling his people’s ancestral lands.  During which, he became acutely aware of the multitude of connections between himself and the lives of his ancestors, the animals, plants, rocks, springs, sky, the river and other natural physical features he encountered. At one point, on his off days, he began driving out to West Well to clear up a dried-up natural spring located at an ancient Chemehuevi camp that had served as a stagecoach stopover during the late- nineteenth century. The spring was no longer flowing, choked with non-native vegetation. On one of these visits, Leivas had found a crooked two-foot- long arrow weed branch (Pluchea sericea) that became his Poro or sacred prayer stick. Having heard about a Hopi elder who revived a long dead spring by blessing it in the traditional way he decided to attempt this for himself. During a return trip to the spring Leivas burned t local mountain sage from the Old Woman Mountains and solemnly prayed over the site. He prodded theto earth with his prayer stick several times — and miraculously water began to slowly percolate from below. The spring continues to flow to this day. 

Matt Leivas, Sr. photographed at the historic West Well cultural site located south of Chemehuevi Wash and west of Lake Havasu. Photo: Kim Stringfellow.
Matt Leivas, Sr. photographed at the historic West Well cultural site located south of Chemehuevi Wash and west of Lake Havasu. Photo: Kim Stringfellow.

West Well or Hawaiyo is an important cultural site for the Chemehuevi located just south of Chemehuevi Wash. Detailed petroglyphs at West Well describe various natural resources and sacred sites throughout the region. Although Leivas had contemplated the meaning of these inscriptions for some time, one day he realized that a large, stylized drawing near the top of the bolder was in actuality a map of the Colorado River—with its various channels, bays, points and islands — etched as a wayfinding tool for Native travelers.

Matt Leivas, Sr. interprets this ancient petroglyph at the center of the photo as the map of the Lake Havasu region before colonization. Photo: Kim Stringfellow.
Matt Leivas, Sr. interprets this ancient petroglyph at the center of the photo as the map of the Lake Havasu region before colonization. | Kim Stringfellow.

Around this time Leivas became increasingly involved in environmental justice issues, affecting both Native people and the larger regional community. He joined with other tribal members to halt the construction of a coal slurry pipeline and incinerator in the Ivanpah Valley near Primm, Nevada—considered traditional Chemehuevi territory. 

In 1986, Leivas, while accompanied by a BIA representative, seized illegally- acquired Native American artifacts—several large boulder faces with ancient petroglyphs that were being displayed as lawn ornaments at a prime lakefront property in The Colony—a retirement community located on Chemehuevi land that had been leased to non-Indians prior to the 1970 turnover. 

The homeowner, a California game warden, was away at the time but his next-door neighbor, a San Bernardino County sheriff, came outside to contest the removal of the artifacts stating that boulders had originated from the New York Mountains, not Chemehuevi Valley. However, Leivas suspected that they were taken from a locale much closer, possibly West Well. 

Leivas and the BIA representative responded that removal of culturally significant artifacts from public land was in violation of federal law. The sheriff continued to block their recovery effort by attempting to call San Bernardino County deputies from Needles to assist him, but after negotiation he allowed the two to confiscate the boulders without further incident. The artifacts are now on display at the tribe’s cultural center museum. Not long after the confrontation both homeowners vacated their properties. Eventually Tthe Colony became a tribal subdivision after the homes were renovated and awarded to their current owners through a lottery.

During the late 1980s, and later as tribal chairman, Leivas  (and later as tribal chairman), joined with other Chemehuevi, Fort Mojave, Quechan, Cocopah, CRIT and many other regional tribal members, along with several non-tribal environmentalist  groups, in their continuous occupation of Ward Valley. This non-violent act of solidarity began a fifteen-year watershed battle against a proposed low-level nuclear waste dump that was being fast- tracked for development within this sacred valley, which is located less than twenty miles from the Colorado River and also considered prime habitat for the desert tortoise. Leivas is credited with helping the various tribal groups come together when internal negotiations had been strained due to the hardship of maintaining the vigil for over a decade.

A view looking east towards Ward and Chemehuevi Valleys from the Old Woman Mountains Preserve. Photo: Kim Stringfellow.
A view looking east towards Ward and Chemehuevi Valleys from the Old Woman Mountains Preserve. | Kim Stringfellow.

Leivas would be cast into an important tribal leadership role again when as intertribal political turmoil had erupted when over an unscrupulous takeover of the tribal council had occurred. Having demonstrated his capacity for fair leadership, Leivas was chosen as the “illegal” tribal chairman in 1992 by tribal majority. He would be formally elected as the official chairman the following year. Leivas, had been encouraged to take on the honored role as he is one of two grandsons of the last recognized chief of the Chemehuevi Valley people, Henry Hanks. 

As tribal chairman, one  of his first big achievements was to switch the tribe’s main water supply from the Colorado River intake to more pristine water pumped from the local ancient aquifer on the Chemehuevi Valley reservation. Tribal council had previously noted a spike in thyroid disease cases and suspected the river water was contributing to general poor health for those consuming the water. They set about creating their own water standards and regulations to protect this resource. Additionally, the Chemehuevi have an 11,400 acre-foot annual allotment of Colorado River water but are presently using only around 2,400 acre-feet. Currently, they are unable to market sales of this surplus water unless they receive congressional approval to do so.

Havasu Landing Marina with the newly opened Chemehuevi-operated casino shown in the upper-right corner of the image. Photo: Kim Stringfellow.
Havasu Landing Marina with the newly opened Chemehuevi-operated casino shown in the upper-right corner of the image. | Kim Stringfellow.

After the tribe purchased the Havasu Landing Resort Inc. at premium “fair market” value from the previous owners and once purchase or renegotiation of the other leased holdings on tribal land had occurred, a costly restoration effort was initiated to clean up the long-neglected properties. Tribal members oversaw this effort, which included the renovation of the old Havasu Landing casino and the adjacent marina along with the very blighted RV campsite that had been used for cheap, long-term lodging by less than desirable occupants. Today, the camp ground is a stopover for retired, well-behaved recreationists frequenting the new lakefront hotel and casino, which opened in late 2019.

Painted Rock in the Old Woman Mountains Preserve is a significant Native American cultural site administered Native American Land Conservancy. Photo: Kim Stringfellow.
Painted Rock in the Old Woman Mountains Preserve is a significant Native American cultural site administered Native American Land Conservancy. | Kim Stringfellow.

However, Leivas regards his involvement in the acquisition of once- private land within the Old Woman Mountains, where significant ancestral Chemehuevi cultural sites are located, as one of his most notable accomplishments. Today, the Twenty-Nine Palms Band of Mission Indians, in conjunction with the Native American Land Conservancy (NALC), jointly manage the 2,560-acre Old Woman Mountains Preserve (OWMP), acquired in 2002, whose mission is the acquisition and protection of Native American sacred lands through sustainable land management, education and scientific study.[xii]

Painted Rock has a significant collection of prehistoric Native American petroglyphs. Photo: Kim Stringfellow.
Painted Rock has a significant collection of prehistoric Native American petroglyphs. | Kim Stringfellow.

“These places exist in dreams and the spirit world and also exist in the conscious, natural world of the living Nuwuvi who sing.” —Vivienne Jake, Kaibab Paiute [xiii]

The Old Woman Mountains are a sacred site of the Asi Huviav or Salt Song—a vast interconnected ritual song map describing the sacred geography of the Nuwuvi people whose ancestral territories traditionally spanned across the Mojave Desert, the southern Great Basin, the northwestern Colorado Plateau and the north central Colorado Desert. 

During the mid-nineteenth century, when Euro-Americans first documented the indigenous people of this region as many as thirty-five distinct geographically- dispersed bands of Nuwuvi thrived here.[xiv] Of the thirty-five original bands, fourteen remain today and include the Kaibab Band of Paiute IndiansLas Vegas Paiute TribeMoapa Band of Paiute Indians, Pahrump Band of Paiutes, Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah (Cedar, Indian Peaks, Kanosh, Koosharem and Shivwits Bands) and the San Juan Southern Paiute Tribe.

This map shows traditional Southern Paiute territories. Up to thirty-five distinct Paiute bands present during the mid-nineteenth century were consolidated into this representation. Credit: Kaibab Band of Paiute Indians website.
This map shows traditional Southern Paiute territories. Up to thirty-five distinct Paiute bands present during the mid-nineteenth century were consolidated into this representation. Credit: Kaibab Band of Paiute Indians website.

The Tuumontcokowi[xv]or Nuwu (the name Chemehuevi call themselves) are the southernmost group of the Nuwuvipeople. Today, descendants of the Nuwu include members of the Chemehuevi Indian Tribe at Chemehuevi Valley, those at CRIT and also members of the Twenty-Nine Palms Band of Mission Indians.[xvi] The Kawaiisu of Tehachapi and Fort Tejon, located at the far western edge of the Mojave Desert, are also part of the larger Nuwuvi diaspora—suggesting that the Nuwuvi were a highly adaptable desert people comfortable migrating over great distances and across time when necessary.[xvii]

Vivienne Jake, the Kaibab Paiute elder who was instrumental in reviving the songs before her passing in 2016 stated, “Salt Songs are a cultural and spiritual bond between the Nuwuvi people and the land and represent a renewal and healing spiritual journey.”[xviii]

Taken literally, the 142 Salt Song cycle describes locations of ancient villages, places to gather life-giving salt, medicinal herbs, foodstuffs, trade routes, sacred sites and other important geographical features that were in the past necessary for their continued survival.[xix] When sung during private memorials and other sacred ceremonies today, Salt Songs encourage community healing by connecting contemporary Nuwuvi to their ancestors and the landscape they once inhabited. More importantly, the songs are the puha path or spiritual trail that provides a conduit between past and present for both the living and the dead. Singers, dancers and attendees work in concert to assist the deceased in their transition into the next world. “The songs of our singers will be like a trail leading us to you.”[xx] Likewise, the songs allow the living to embark on their own spiritual journey while participating in song, dance and shared ritual.

The origin of the Salt Songs is obscure — most Southern Paiute claim ownership. Plus, the songs are sung in a variety of Southern Paiute dialects that additionally intertwine vestiges of traditional songs from other regional groups including Cahuilla Bird Songs. Some are even sung in a kind of “backwards” Yuman dialect of their former traditional enemies, the Mojave. 

kstringfellow · Matt Leivas Sr., Salt Song Singer
The Salt Songs describe the journey of two sisters who receive puha — sacred power or energy that emanates from the earth within a cave along the Bill Williams River in western Arizona near Parker. [xxi] The two embark on a spiritual journey traveling northward along the Colorado River into the Hualapai Mountains. They continue their travels through the spectacular rugged country of northern Arizona, southern Utah and Southern Nevada. Once they reach the sacred creation site for all Nuwuvi people — Mount Charleston in the Spring Mountains northwest of present-day Las Vegas—they split up. Here, the Midnight Song is sung suggesting the sorrow and heartache the two sisters endure knowing that they will never see one another again. One sister continues her solitary wend northward “symbolically representing the soul of the dead traveling north on her journey to the spirit world”[xxii] while the other sister roams southward along the Salt Trail embarking on a new beginning.

The Salt Song Cycle begins at Avi Nava/Ting-ai-ay (Rock House), the sacred, unmapped cave near the confluence of the Bill Williams and Colorado rivers. The song then travels northeast along the Colorado River into the Colorado Plateau, Kaibab and southern Utah. From there, the song heads westward to Nuva Kaiv (Mount Charleston). Traveling further west across the Mojave Desert into the Tehachapi Mountains and then to the Pacific Ocean, the song loops back southward through the southern Mojave Desert across El Cajon Pass into the Coachella Valley and Salton Sink. From here, it travels around Chocolate Mountains and merges  where merging with the Quechan Dream Trail. Following the Colorado River north of Yuma, the song crosses the river at Riverside Mountains near Poston, Arizona, completing the cycle at its origin at Avi Nava.

Besides being indispensable for ritual purposes, Salt Songs and other sacred songs acted as an “oral deed” in the past marking a family’s territory. These hereditary songs are passed down from family member to family member thus delineating property ownership. With ownership came the responsibility to respect and care for the entire ecology the song encompassed. This ecology not only includes its human occupants, but also the entire ecosystem consisting of flora and fauna, water resources, rocks, mountains, earth, sky, etc., of which they considered themselves caretakers. Today, the songs are no longer used as a record of property ownership but remain crucial for the continued transference of cultural memory and ritual practice, especially for younger tribal members.

Salt Songs are part of a larger physical and cultural landscape connected by a network of trails that have been documented and mapped through the Salt Song Trail Project, an intertribal partnership supported by the Storyscape Project and the Cultural Conservancy whose goal is to preserve and revitalize the songs for future generations. The project, begun in 1998, was led by San Francisco State University Drsprofessors . Philip Klasky and Melissa Nelson with co-directors Vivienne Jake and Leivas. Senior tribal collaborators include Betty Cornelius, Larry Eddy, Willis Mayo, Sylvia Polacca and others. Included is a historic 2001 recording of a Salt Song performance of thirteen singers led by 89-year- old Mayo (Kaibab Paiute) exclusively kept for instructional tribal use plus two short documentary films. A beautifully-printed map illustrating the Salt Song Trail is available for public purchase.

A beautifully-printed map illustrating the Salt Song Trail.
A beautifully-printed map illustrating the Salt Song Trail.

Leivas himself became intrigued with the Salt Songs after listening to his mother, aunts, uncles and others sing them during family gatherings in the late- 1960s at their home at Hanks Village. When his older brother Ace returned from Vietnam, Ace began recording the group with a reel-to-reel recorder to keep a family archive of them. At one of these gatherings Gertrude and his Uncle Mio asked Matt to sing for the group. He obliged. After finishing, he asked how he sounded. His mother replied, “You sound okay.” Exasperated by her response Leivas exclaimed, “What?” Gertrude countered, “It sounded okay, but you’re only singing with your mouth. You’re not singing from within, from the heart.”[xxiii] Her modest assessment drove Leivas to learn the songs in earnest. He began to organize gatherings with other Chemehuevi elders, including Larry Eddy, who would mentor Leivas and others interested in learning the songs. Eventually they began to invite other regional tribal groups—Maricopas, Mojaves, Pimas—who shared similar oral song cycles, to participate. 

In 1993, Leivas traveled up to Kaibab in the Colorado Plateau after being invited by a Kaibab tribal member. There he first met Vivienne Jake along with Willis Mayo during a Cry that Leivas had participated in. For those unfamiliar, the Cry or Yagap is an all-night vigil for the deceased that follows the Salt Song cycle from dust to dawn. The songs are performed in a precise sequence to guide the departed to Naugurivipi (Land of Spirits into the Milky Way) while assisting mourners in their grief — thus producing tremendous communal catharsis.

Traditionally, all belongings, including the person’s home, are burned during the ceremony to ensure that the deceased may have access to them in the next life. Rarely do contemporary Southern Paiute burn all possessions of their loved ones — although the ritual burning of personal property is still crucial for the positive outcome of the ceremony. In the past, a knotted string called the tapitcapi was sent out announcing the event and was carried by special runners that moved effortlessly through the desert terrain. Today, relatives share the news of the Cry via telephone or email. The event may take place months after a person has passed.

To prepare for the Cry an outdoor arbor is constructed from natural materials with an altar prepared displaying photographs of the deceased. During the song cycle dancers perform the Circle Dance just ahead of the singers thus creating a sacred space or holy ground linking the living with the dead. Assistants aid performers along with the immediate family during the vigil. At certain stages the participants rest and feast before continuing to dawn. The ritual burning of the deceased’s personal belongings occurs after the Salt Song cycle has been completed the following morning. In some cases, four of the final songs of the cycle are sung during this rite.

Jake, who had been working independently to preserve the songs prior to meeting Leivas, was concerned that her people’s younger generation did not know the songs. She cautioned them that outsiders would sing in their place if they did not learn these songs. After the ceremony, she and Leivas discussed what each had each envisioned thus beginning the groundwork for the Salt Song Project, whose goal was to share and preserve the songs and their sacred landscapes for future generations.

What makes this story so compelling is that Leivas’ grandfather, Henry Hanks, had shared a prophecy with his brother,Ace, many years before  asserting that the songs had “left” the valley and travelled north. He stated, “If people want to know the songs they need to go to Kaivavante (Kaibab) to retrieve the songs—to bring them back.” Initially, some Kaibab tribal members found it difficult to accept this notion — that their songs may have originated elsewhere. But as discussion evolved, the community began to mutually acknowledge that the songs had evolved dynamically over a shifting peripheral landscape that transcended time and cultural displacement. The Salt Songs were now bringing the contemporary Southern Paiute together as a people.

Not soon long after the Salt Project became a reality a group of Salt Song singers, including Jake and Leivas, traveled to Riverside, California to sing for the children of Sherman Indian School who had died while attending and were buried in the little cemetery nearby. The act of doing so was a momentous emotional occasion — cathartic and healing for everyone evolved. While facing east towards the mountains, singing the final round of songs, Matt felt compelled to open his eyes — above him were three hawks s circling midair in the sky. He was elated, knowing that the children were now returning home.

Recommended reading:  

  • Carobeth Laird, The Chemehuevis (Banning, California, Malki Museum Press, 1976).
  • William Logan Hebner, Southern Paiute: A Portrait (Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press, 2010, 156.
  • Clifford E. Trafzer, A Chemehuevi Song: Resiliency of the Southern Paiute Tribe (Seattle:  University of Washington Press, 2015).
  • Clifford E. Trafzer, Matthew Sakiestewa Gilbert and Lorene Sisquoc, eds., The Indian School on Magnolia Avenue: Voices and Images from Sherman Institute (Corvallis, Oregon: Oregon State University Press, 2012).

[i] Leivas was a Riverside County all-star high school linebacker in 1971.

[ii] Jeff Johnson, email correspondence with the author dated December 6, 2019. Johnson is the land manager at the Old Woman Mountains Preserve and a friend of Leivas. He had accompanied Leivas during this particular outing.

[iii] Today, CRIT’s approximately 4,277 active tribal members include Chemehuevi, Hopi, Mohave and Navajo people. CRIT’s land holdings originally comprised 300,000 acres along both sides of the Colorado River along with 717,000 acre-feet of senior water rights—nearly one-third of Arizona’s total Colorado River allotment.

[iv] The Mojave and Chemehuevi people coexisted for the most part peaceably along the Colorado River corridor before the incursion of Euro-Americans into their respected territories. During the contact period, interactions became strained creating tension between the two tribal groups leading to conflict by the mid-nineteenth century. Douglas Deur, Ph.D. and Deborah Confer, “People of Snowy Mountain, People of the River: A Multi-Agency Ethnographic Overview and Compendium Relating to Tribes associated with Clark County, Nevada,” Pacific West Region: Social Science Series, Publication Number 2012-01, National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, 2012, 161- 166.

[v] The Twenty-Nine Palms Band of Mission Indians are relative newcomers to the Oasis of Mara (Mar’rah). This multi-tribal village site has been historically occupied by Serrano, Cahuilla and Chemehuevi—sometimes jointly throughout time. For more information see: https://www.29palmstribe.org/copy-of-our-mission-statement-1  

[vi] In 1966, the BIA twice- offered Chemehuevi cash for their Chemehuevi Valley land holdings if they agreed to fold them into CRIT. They turned the offer down and were reinstated as a sovereign tribe on June 5, 1970. William Logan Hebner, Southern Paiute: A Portrait (Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press, 2010, 156.

[vii] Heber, Southern Paiute: A Portrait, 58.

[viii] Henry Hanks’ Chemehuevi  name is Siwantip. During Hebner’s interview of Gertrude Leivas with four of her daughters, it was stated by daughter June that “Hanks” and other white surnames like them given to Native Americans are “our slave names.” Heber, Southern Paiute: A Portrait, 160.

[ix] Gertrude Hanks, along with her siblings, were sent to the BIA Indian school in Parker Valley not long after her family arrived there.

[x] Eagle Scout Jasen Aebischer worked with other scouts and volunteers in a clean-up effort of the cemetery. The Pechanga Indian Tribe donated $5,000 for headstones. Cecilia Rasmussen, “Institute Tried to Drum ‘Civilization’ Into Indian Youth,” Los Angeles Times, February 23, 2003.

[xi] Sherman Institute was originally founded as the Perris Indian School in 1892 and relocated to Riverside, California in 1902. For more information see: https://www.shermanindian.org/home.

[xii] The OWMP dedication ceremony on May 23, 2015 involved Cahuilla, Chemehuevi and other regional tribal members, local ranchers, representatives from the BLM and from the Sierra Club. Cahuilla Bird Songs were sung while dancers performed.

[xiii] Ruth Arlene Musser-Lopez and Steve Miller, “Archaeological Trails and Ethnographic Trails: Can They Meet?” SCA Proceedings, Volume 24, 2010, 2.

[xiv]  Maps showing traditional territories of the Southern Paiute compiled by Isabel T. Kelly in 1934 and William R. Palmer in 1933 suggest that up to thirty-five distinct bands, recorded during the mid-nineteenth century, were consolidated into fifteen groups. See: Heber, Southern Paiute: A Portrait, 188 – 192 for more information.

[xv] Translates to Black Bearded Ones. Carobeth Laird, The Chemehuevis (Banning, California, Malki Museum Press, 1976), 3.

[xvi] As mentioned earlier, Chemehuevi descendants live within the Coachella and Imperial Valleys.

[xvii] A band of Chemehuevis lived in the Victorville/Apple Valley/Lucerne Valley area during the nineteenth century and perhaps earlier. The last conflict between Native Americans and Euro-Americans in the Mojave Desert occurred at Chimney Rock on February 16, 1867. Designated as a California Historical Landmark No. 737 in 1960, the Chimney Rock site is located north of Rabbit Springs Dry Lake in Lucerne Valley, California. Matt Leivas said that descendants of these Chemehuevis, who fought in this battle, call themselves “Pyuchies.” Matt Leivas, interview with the author, June 7, 2020.

[xviii] Musser-Lopez and Miller, “Archaeological Trails and Ethnographic Trails,” 2.

[xix] In the past, Deer and Bighorn Sheep Songs provided an oral map for prime hunting locations while other songs detailed food and other important resource gathering sites.

[xx] Heber, Southern Paiute: A Portrait, 14.

[xxi] Certain remote desert caves are significant ceremonial ancestral sites for Southern Paiutes. Sacred caves located in the Mojave Desert, including Mitchell Caverns, are places where “Paiutes sought and received spiritual powers from specific, named spirits…sometimes be [sic] revealed in the form of songs.” One of these “Music Caves” known today as Gypsum Cave, located east of Las Vegas, Nevada, is one such ancient ritual site. Filled with invaluable indigenous artifacts left over a long period of human occupation, the cave was first excavated by archeologist Mark R. Harrington during the 1930s. In more recent years, unsavory recreationists have completely desecrated what little was left in publicly- accessible areas of the cave. Deur and Confer, “People of Snowy Mountain, People of the River,” 276.

[xxii] Clifford E. Trafzer, A Chemehuevi Song:  Resiliency of the Southern Paiute Tribe (Seattle:  University of Washington Press, 2015), 6.

[xxiii] Heber, Southern Paiute: A Portrait, 168.

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