History of Twenty-Nine Palms Band of Mission Indians Subject of New Book

“A Chemehuevi Song” by historian Clifford E. Trafzer is first in-depth account of the Coachella Valley tribe

Cliff Trafzer

Clifford E. Trafzer has written the first book-length history of the Twenty-Nine Palms Band of Mission Indians.

RIVERSIDE, Calif. – Overlooked by historians and marginalized by European settlers and other Native people, the Chemehuevi of the Twenty-Nine Palms Band of Mission Indians have maintained a cultural identity that remains strong today.

Clifford E. Trafzer, distinguished professor of history and Costo Chair of American Indian Affairs at the University of California, Riverside, recounts in “A Chemehuevi Song” (University of Washington Press, 2015) how this band of Southern Paiute Indians has used sacred songs and other cultural practices to safeguard their tribal identity.

“A Chemehuevi Song” is the first book-length history of the Twenty-Nine Palms Band of Mission Indians and traces the tribe’s history and cultural practices through individual and family stories. Earlier works on Chemehuevi people briefly mentioned the Twenty-Nine Palms tribe, which lived along the Colorado River until the mid-19th century.

jacket coverTrafzer began working with Chemehuevi people from four reservations in 1997 at the invitation of Twenty-Nine Palms elders. He gathered dozens of oral histories as well as thousands of pages of historical documents, maps, books, articles and photographs.

The resulting book, a respectful collaboration with the tribe, should serve as a model for future scholars who research Native American histories, Larry Myers (Pomo), executive secretary of the California Native American Heritage Commission, wrote in the book’s forward. “I … hope this book encourages other scholars to continue to research tribal histories by conducting oral history projects and using tribal knowledge in a critical fashion in their own works,” he said.

Chemehuevi people previously lived along the Colorado River. During the 1860s many of them moved to the Oasis of Mara in the Mojave Desert, near today’s city of Twentynine Palms, where they lived alongside Serrano Indians. Late in the 19th century other Chemehuevi from the Colorado River and villages in the Mojave Desert also moved to the Oasis of Mara, forming the Twenty-Nine Palms tribe. The Twenty-Nine Palms Reservation, created in 1974 by the U.S. government, is located in the Coachella Valley near Coachella.

“A Chemehuevi Song” grew out of the oral history project, which included tribal members and tribal scholars of Chemehuevi people from the eastern Coachella Valley to the Colorado River. Trafzer gathered documents from various libraries and archives, and researched tribal census data and birth and death records of individuals listed as Chemehuevi in tribal censuses from the 1890s to the 1940s on the Cabazon, Torres-Martinez, Soboba, Agua Caliente, Morongo and San Manuel reservations. Copies of these documents laid the foundation for the tribe’s archives.

Chemehuevi culture “has changed in many ways as a result of contact with newcomers, but the essence of cultural identity remains strong among the people,” Trafzer wrote in the book’s introduction. “Songs, prayers, and stories call the spirits that have an effect on the lives of all Southern Paiute. … the people remain connected with each other, the spiritual world, and their grand landscape of mountains, deserts, and river valleys. Their spiritual connection with the world remains the core of their culture, and tribal elders pass along knowledge of spiritual matters through the oral tradition, which includes songs and stories.”

Songs tell stories about the Chemehuevi people and their communities, and the animate and inanimate life all around them, he explained. “Songs helped create the Earth and kept it going, and stories changed within the songs as the Chemehuevi changed. Today, the Chemehuevi people and their Southern Paiute relatives have many new songs to sing and share, creating and re-creating a new story based on their rich and colorful past … .”

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Among Clifford Trafzer’s newest books are a collection of oral histories from Snake River-Palouse elders and the story of revered Comanche healer Kenneth Coosewoon.

Trafzer published two additional books over the summer. “River Song: Naxiyamtáma (Snake River-Palouse) Oral Traditions from Mary Jim, Andrew George, Gordon Fisher, and Emily Peone” (Washington State University Press), which he co-edited with Richard D. Scheuerman of Seattle Pacific University, is a collection of oral histories gathered over 30 years with four Snake River-Palouse elders. These individuals had ties to leadership families on the Columbia Plateau in Washington and had lived in the traditional way.

The historian also co-authored “Comanche Medicine Man: Kenneth Coosewoon’s Great Vision, Blue Medicine & Sweat Lodge Healings” (Coyote Hill Press) with Beverly Sourjohn Patchell, a member of the Cherokee Nation and nursing professor at the University of Utah, and Ronald Ray Cooper, a member of the Comanche Nation, author, and Coosewoon’s grandson.

Coosewoon has participated in many Medicine Way conferences at UCR in recent years. The book tells the story of the renowned Comanche healer who battled alcoholism, the vision and gift of Blue Medicine that altered the course of his life, and decades spent easing the pain of others through the Sweat Lodge ceremony.

Trafzer is the author of several books, including “Renegade Tribe: The Palouse Indians and the Invasion of the Inland Pacific Northwest” and “Death Stalks the Yakama: Epidemiological Transitions and Death on the Yakama Indian Reservation, 1888-1964,” and co-editor of “The Indian School on Magnolia Avenue: Voices and Images from Sherman Institute.”

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Clifford E. Trafzer
E-mail: clifford.trafzer@ucr.edu

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