The Cocopah Tribe of Arizona, also known as the River People, have long lived along the lower Colorado River and delta. The Cocopah Indian Tribe is one of seven descendant Tribes from the greater Yuman language-speaking people who occupied lands along the Colorado River. Cocopah Tribal ancestors also lived along the Lower Colorado River region near the river delta and the Gulf of California.
Official Tribal Name: Cocopah Tribe of Arizona
Address: 14515 S. Veterans Drive, Somerton, AZ 85350
Phone: (928) 627-2102
Fax: (928) 627-3173
Email: [email protected]
Official Website: http://www.cocopah.com/
Recognition Status: Federally Recognized
Traditional Name / Traditional Meaning: Xawiƚƚ kwñchawaay meaning “Those Who Live on the River.”
Common Name / Meaning of Common Name:
Alternate names / Alternate spellings / Mispellings:
Kwapa, Cocopa, Cucapá (in Mexico)
Name in other languages: Cucapá in Spanish
State(s) Today: Arizona, Baja California and Sonora, Mexico
The traditional home of the Cocopah is near the Colorado River delta. Historical records show that the Cocopah domain once included portions of Arizona, southern California and Sonora, Mexico.
Ancestors of the Cocopah probably migrated from the north during the first millennium. By 1540 the Mojave and Quechan Indians had forced them down the Colorado River, to a place where they farmed 50,000 acres of delta land, made rich by the annual spring floods. The Cocopah encountered Spanish soldiers and travelers during the mid-sixteenth century but remained in place and relatively unaffected by contact with the Europeans until U.S. dams stopped the Colorado from flooding in the late nineteenth century.
The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo divided the U.S.-Mexican border and the Cocopah lands between the two countries in 1848.
In 1853, the Gadsden Treaty separated the four bands of Cocopah: Two remained in Mexico, and two moved north to near Somerton, Arizona. By the mid-1800s, with the cessation of warfare with their ancient enemies, the Quechans, the Cocopah lost a certain sense of purpose. A generation of men obtained employment as river pilots and navigators along the Colorado River, whetting their appetite for American goods and foods. Riverboat traffic ended when the railroad reached Yuma in 1877. In 1905, an accidental diversion of the Colorado River (the Salton Sea debacle) led to the Cocopahs’ final displacement.
Since 1930, the Cocopah (U.S.) and the Cucapá (Mexico) peoples have been forced to end Tribal unity.
Reservations: Cocopah Reservation
President Woodrow Wilson signed Executive Order No. 2711 in 1917 which established a 1,700 acre Reservation. In 1985, the Cocopah Tribe gained an additional 4,200 acres, including the North Reservation, through the Cocopah Land Acquisition Bill signed by President Ronald Reagan.
The Cocopah Tribe of Arizona is comprised of three noncontiguous bodies of land known as the North, West and East Reservations. Today, the East, West and North Reservations comprise over 6,500 acres, much of which is leased as agricultural land to non-Indian farmers. The Cocopah Reservation is located 13 miles south of Yuma, AZ, and 15 miles north of San Luis, Mexico, in Yuma County along the Colorado River. The reservation’s unique geographical location borders the United States, Mexico, Arizona and California.
In 1985, the tribe received 4,000 acres in land claims settlements.
Land Area: 10,700 acres
Tribal Headquarters: Somerton, AZ
Population at Contact:
When Don Juan de Onate and Father Escobar sailed up the river, there were estimated to be about 6,000-7,000 Cocopah people living along the delta and the lower Colorado River. The first significant contact of the Cocopah with Europeans probably occurred in 1540, when the Spanish explorer Hernando de Alarcón sailed into the Colorado River delta. The Cocopah were specifically mentioned by name by the expedition of Juan de Oñate in 1605.
Registered Population Today:
As of the 2000 United States Census, the Cocopah Tribe of Arizona numbered 891 people. There are also at least 200 Mexican Cocopahs living in Baja California and Sonora.
Tribal Enrollment Requirements:
The Cocopah traditionally maintained little political leadership. They lived in small settlements, or rancherias, of 10 to 12 families. Society was organized into clans, with each clan having a leader. Other quasi officials included dance and war leaders and funeral orators. Leadership was generally determined by experience, ability, and, as with everything else, dreams.
Charter: In 1964, the Cocopah Indian Tribe founded its first Constitution.
Name of Governing Body: Tribal Council
Number of Council members: 5, including the executive officers
Dates of Constitutional amendments:
Number of Executive Officers:
Language Classification: Hokan -> Hokan-Siouan -> Yuman–Cochimí -> Yuman -> Delta–California Yuman
Language Dialects: Cocopah
Number of fluent Speakers: Most Cocopahs speak their language.
Bands, Gens, and Clans
American Cocopahs are working to restore dual citizenship for their kin in Mexico.
Traditional Allies: Allied peoples included the O’odham, Pee-Posh (now called the Maricopa), and Pai.
Traditional Enemies: Traditional enemies included the Mojave and the Quechan.
Ceremonies / Dances: Most ceremonies, including karuk, a six-day mourning rite featuring long, “dreamed” song cycles, centered around death. The onset of puberty was also an occasion for ceremonies. The Cocopah sometimes wear traditional grass skirts during ceremonies.
Modern Day Events & Tourism:
Cocopah Museum. There is a casino and bingo hall on the reservation.
Legends / Oral Stories:
Art & Crafts: Women made pottery that was mostly utilitarian, as was the basketry (made by men and women and used for storage, carrying, and cradles). In later historic times the Cocopah also learned loom weaving.
Animals: Dogs were kept as pets.
Clothing: Men wore tanned skin loincloths. Women wore bundles of feathers or willow-bark skirts in front and back. For both, clothing was minimal. People wore rabbit-skin robes or blankets in cold weather. Sandals were made of untanned skins. Men wore their hair long and braided. In the early twentieth century they tucked it under a bandanna. Women wore their hair long and straight, with bangs.
Adornment: Both men and women painted their faces and bodies for ornamental and ritual purposes. Men wore shell ornaments in pierced ears. Deer-bone blades hung on cords from the arms were used to wipe off perspiration.
Housing: Originally concentrated in nine rancherias, the Cocopah built two different types of homes. In winter they built conical, partially excavated (later four-post rectangular) structures, covering the walls of sticks with earth. In summer they built oval-domed, brush-covered huts. They also used a circular, unroofed ramada for dwelling and/or cooking and small granaries with elevated floors for storing food.
As recently as the 1960s, a number of tribal families lived in traditional arrow weed-thatched homes, and until 1968, there were few houses and gravel roads. In the late 1970s and 1980s, the Tribe began acquiring additional land, constructing homes, installing utilities, developing an infrastructure system and initiating economic development.
Subsistance: Corn, beans, black-eyed peas, pumpkins, and later melons were planted, usually in July. Gathered food, such as the seeds of wild saltgrass, roots, fruits, eggs, and especially mesquite, were also important, as was fish (such as mullet and bass) from the river and the Gulf of California.
Wild game included deer, boar, and smaller animals. Much of the food was dried and stored for the winter. In general, the women gathered and cooked food, and the men hunted.
The Cocopah planted seeds in holes rather than rows in order to preserve topsoil. They used pottery (jars, seed-toasting trays), crude baskets, fire drills, vegetable-fiber fishing nets, clubs and bow and arrow for warfare, stone and wooden mortars, and stone and clamshell tools. Their musical instruments included a scraped and drummed basket, gourd rattles, and cane flutes and whistles. They also used small earthen dikes for irrigation.
Trade contacts stretched west to the Pacific, northwest to northern California, northeast to much of Arizona, and southeast well into the Sonoran Desert. Cottonwood dugouts (the larger ones featured clay floors) or tule or brush rafts were used for river travel. Large baskets were used to transport small items or children on the river.
Their weapons were the war club, bow and arrow, lance, and deerskin shield. Warfare united the Cocopah. They observed formalized war patterns and respected special war leaders. They prepared for war by dreaming, fasting, and painting their bodies and underwent purification rituals upon their return.
The term Patayan is used by archaeologists to describe the prehistoric Native American cultures that inhabited parts of modern day Arizona, California and Baja California, including areas near the Colorado River Valley, the nearby uplands, and north to the vicinity of the Grand Canyon. The makers of this prehistoric culture may have been ancestral to the Cocopah and other Yuman-speaking groups in the region. The Patayan peoples practiced floodplain agriculture where possible, but they relied heavily on hunting and gathering.
Economy Today: A few people practice subsistence farming, but most Cocopah Indians work off-reservation for wages. Much land is leased to non-Indian farmers. The Cocopah Bend recreational vehicle park provides numerous public recreation facilities. There are also a bingo hall and casino on the reservation. Unemployment peaked at around 90 percent in the 1970s. Tourists buy fry-bread and crafts such as beadwork and reproductions of ceremonial clothing.
A small health clinic on the reservation attempts to cope with the people’s numerous health problems. Local housing, formerly grossly substandard (consisting of cardboard hovels as late as the 1970s), is now generally considered adequate. Elders may live in special housing on the reservation.
Religion & Spiritual Beliefs: The Cocopah creation myth, like that of other Yumans, mentions twin gods living under the waters who emerged to create the world. Cocopahs revered the sun. They believed that life is directed by dreams in nearly every regard and relied on the dreams of shamans for success in war and curing.
Burial Customs: The Cocopah cremated their dead, including their possessions, following a special rite. Relatives cut off their hair in mourning, and the name of the dead person was never spoken.
They still burn and otherwise dispose of the possessions of their dead and perform the mourning ceremony.
Wedding Customs: Marriage and divorce ceremonies were informal.
Education: Children attend public schools.
Famous Cocopah People:
Spanish explorer Hernando de Alarcon, a member of Coronado’s marine expedition, traveled the river in 1540 and described members of the Cocopah Indian Tribe as tall, well-built people who carried wooden maces and bows and arrows.
Westward expansion in the 1840s and the discovery of gold in California in 1849 brought many migrants through the area near the mouth of the Colorado River and the Grand Canyon region. The strategic importance of the river crossing was recognized by the U.S. government, and the United States Army established Camp Independence in 1850 to protect the entry route through the tribe’s territories. The following year the camp was moved to the site of an old Spanish Mission later named Fort Yuma, which still stands today.
Throughout the mid 1800s and early 1900s, the Cocopah Indian Tribe effectively resisted assimilation to an established reservation and maintained its social, religious and cultural identities.
In the last half of the nineteenth century, the steamboat business became important to the Cocopah people. Cocopah men, known for their skillful river navigating, were valued pilots.
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