Cultural History - San Juan Southern Paiute

A small band of Paiute living near Glen Canyon have emerged as an example of the ability of a people to maintain cultural identity after being dominated for 200 years by two major cultures, Navajo and Anglo.

First Known Encounter Between Paiute People and Anglos In 1776, at the same time the Dominguez/Escalante expedition was struggling through central and southern Utah, a single Franciscan priest, Francisco Garces, was exploring northern Arizona on his own. Having left Tucson, he went northwest to the Colorado, was the first white man known to visit the Havasupai in the Grand Canyon, the second to traverse the South Rim, and the first to travel the well used trail from the South Rim to Cameron through Moenkopi Wash to the Hopi villages. At the springs along Moenkopi Wash he found several Paiute, Ute, Havasupai, and Hopi families farming the area. An extensive irrigation system brought water to the fields.

To the Indians, the entire area from the Little Colorado River, 100 miles north to the San Juan River, was considered Paiute land. They gathered food though out the area and farmed the few places with adequate water. The main concentration of Paiute communities was on the mesas around Navajo Mountain and in the canyons on each side of the San Juan River. These communities remained unknown to Europeans until gold prospectors arrived in the 1880s. For most of this time, Navajo people were not in the area.

Navajo and Mormon People Enter Traditional Paiute Lands

Around 1858, the Paiute people were pressured by two new people - from the east, the Navajo; from the west, the Mormons. When the United States took over New Mexico in 1846, it also assumed the conflict with the Navajo people in the northwest corner of the state. From, 1859 to 1868, the U.S. Army actively campaigned against the Navajo. To escape the fighting, may Navajo moved west into the Paiute territory. Navajo tradition says that some Navajo families hid in the most isolated canyons near Navajo Mountain, on the east side of Glen Canyon, and were aided by local Paiute farmers.

At the close of the war, the Navajo were granted a reservation on the New Mexico-Arizona border directly east of the San Juan territory. The Navajo soon moved off their reservation in large numbers and spread out in all directions. Many settled on San Juan Paiute lands. The herds of sheep and goats brought by the Navajo were the most serious competitors the Paiute had ever faced. The grass and other plants eaten by the sheep would not produce the seed that the Paiute had gathered by the ton each fall.

The entire canyon country of the Colorado River from the Spanish Trail crossing at Moab to the mouth of the Virgin River was unknown to the Mormons in 1858. Brigham Young sent Jacob Hamblin, president of the Southern Indian Mission, to find a way across the wilderness to the Hopi Indians. With Kaibab Paiute guides, they followed Escalante's route (unknown to them) to the Ute Crossing in Glen Canyon (later called the Crossing of the Fathers), and on the Oraibi, where they were well received. They met no other Indians on the way.

On a third trip in 1860, Hamblin's party met a group of Navajo that were also exploring the area north of Moenkopi Wash to locate places to settle. The Indian group was very hostile to Hamblin's attempts at peaceful dialogue, and one of the Mormons was killed. Hostile encounters between the two expanding frontiers, Navajo and Mormon, continued for nine years.

In 1869, Hamblin and John Wesley Powell negotiated a "peace treaty" with Navajo leaders at Ft. Defiance that in effect agreed that the Navajo people would settle the lands east of the Colorado River and the Mormons would be granted safe passage through these lands to settlement areas along the Little Colorado River and south into central Arizona. Any considerations of Paiute needs or claims are not mentioned.

The Mormon Church quickly opened a wagon road to settle Arizona that crossed the river at Lees Ferry, went south through Paiute lands along the Echo Cliffs to Moenkopi Wash, was settled by Mormons to provide a secure stop on the Arizona Road. Named for a prominent Hopi man who farmed nearby, the settlement was welcomed by the Paiute and Hopi as providing protection from the Navajo. John D. Lee worked on the construction while hiding from the threat of federal arrest, and Jacob Hamblin developed a farm at nearby Moenave Springs, where he lived for several years. Many Hopi families moved into the area and founded the community of Moenkopi overlooking the farmlands.

The few Paiute near Tuba City seemed to have vanished from the official record, but they were still there, struggling to make a new life under changing conditions. The Paiute near Navajo Mountain remained isolated from most events around them, but had contact with relatives to the south. With traditional wild foods destroyed by gazing, both groups of Paiute intensified farming using modern techniques, and began herding sheep and goats.

Wedding Baskets
In the 1890s, Paiute women began weaving special baskets for sale, and in a surprising economic development, their main market became Navajo Indians. The traditional Navajo wedding ceremony includes the bride and groom feeding each other bits of corn meal from a round, almost flat basket, decorated with a circular pattern of points. Today, many "Navajo wedding baskets" are made by Paiute women. They sell for hundreds of dollars and are the foundation of the San Juan Paiute economy.

A Short-Lived Reservation, and Oil on the Paiute Strip

Prompted by Laura Work, superintendent of the Paiute Indian boarding school in Panguitch, Utah, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) investigated the conditions of the Kaibab and San Juan Bands in 1905 and recommended reservations be set up. Two reservations were established west of Fredonia, Arizona, for the Kaibab Paiute, and the "Paiute Strip" in southeastern Utah, for the San Juan. The latter included all the land south of the San Juan River to the Utah/Arizona border and east to about the 110th Meridian. It included Navajo Mountain and the as yet "undiscovered" Rainbow Bridge. Excluded were several valid mining claims along the river and a couple patented (private) properties. (See the Zahn brothers in the "Gold in Glen Canyon Fact Sheet"). The Paiute received no federal agency of their own. Instead, like the Navajo and Hopi, they were placed under the jurisdiction of the Western Navajo Agency in Tuba City. No land near Tuba city was designated for the use of the Paiute that still lived there.

In 1921, Leroy A. Wilson of the Paradise Oil and Refining Company requested permits from the BIA to drill for oil along the San Juan River. He was told that the only way he could get a permit would be if the land was returned to the public domain. What followed is typical of what often happened to Indian land claims across the west:

"The BIA was at the time under the jurisdiction of the Secretary of Interior Albert Fall. Fall was later sentenced to prison for his unethical practices in what became known as the Teapot Dome scandal, in which he pursued a policy of opening public lands to wholesale exploitation by oil and mineral companies by providing them with unauthorized and improperly awarded leases. Under Fall's instructions, the BIA officials reported falsely that the San Juan Paiute were not using their reservation. In July 1922, the Paiute Strip was returned to the public domain." (The Paiute, Franklin & Brunte)

Members of the newly formed Navajo Tribal Council, individual Navajos, and BIA officials immediately pressured Washington to add the Paiute Strip to the Navajo Reservation. They stated the "Indians" had used the land from time immemorial and that it should be returned to reservation status. They did not say that it was Paiute land. In 1933, the Paiute Strip was made part of the Navajo Reservation. The small San Juan communities remained isolated from mainstream American society. Until the 1960's, few San Juan Paiute people had any formal education. Government programs to teach English and non-Indian social practices did not reach the Paiute. Nevertheless, the Paiute have been in close contact with their Navajo and Hopi neighbors. Dr. Franklin states that neither group has attempted to alter the San Juan Paiute's traditional ways.

The San Juan Paiute in Modern Times

The San Juan Southern Paiute Tribe had about 200members in 1990. Most lived in two areas of the western Navajo Reservation. The area to the south is called Atatsiv, meaning "the sands". It is named after the sandy, pinion-juniper country where one group of families grazes its livestock on a mesa top northwest of Tuba City. Nearby are farms at Willow Springs, and a small group of homes at Hidden Springs, both close to Highway 89.

The northern settlement area is called Kaivyuaxaru, or "the Mountain Place", after their name for nearby Navajo Mountain. The Paiute's homes and grazing areas are north and northeast of the mountain, and to the shores of Lake Powell in the area in southern Utah earlier set aside as the Paiute Strip. The farms of Kaivyazaru are in Upper Paiute Canyon in Arizona, to the southeast of Navajo Mountain.

"Culturally, the San Juan Paiute have kept a great many of the "old ways". Southern Paiute is usually spoken among the community members and many children learn it as their first language. The San Juan are the only Paiute group that still practices the traditional rituals.

For example, most young women still undergo the first menstruation ceremony and most married couples participate in the first childbirth rituals. Many older San Juan, and even some of the younger tribe members, still make morning sun prayers, build bonfires for the Thunder People in the spring, and feed the fire with scraps of food. The San Juan also still perform traditional funeral ceremonies. When a tribe member dies, the relatives of the deceased kill his horse and burn and otherwise dispose of the dead person's property. Unlike the Kaibab and other Paiute groups to the west, the San Juan have not adopted the Cry ceremony (a two day funeral). The San Juan held one Cry in 1983 but have not done so since." (The Paiute, Franklin & Brunte)

In 1990, the San Juan Southern Paiute still had an almost traditional government. They debated and decided tribal issues in council meetings, the council being all adult members of the band. They were headed by a chief (or "niavi") appointed by the council. Evelyn James was chosen in that way and is the direct descendant of the last three tribal leaders. When the tribe sought and then received federal recognition in 1989, they had to change their system to meet the U.S. government's official guidelines for tribal governments. Members of the "Tribal Council", and "presidents", "chairmen" or "chiefs", must now be elected democratically.

Hopi-Navajo Land Dispute

While preparing the petition for tribal recognition, attorneys found that portions of Atatsiv might be affected by a federal lawsuit between the Hopi and Navajo tribes concerning "joint-use" lands. The San Juan were advised to intervene in the lawsuit to prevent their lands from being awarded to either the Hopi or Navajo. A federal court attempted to partition the lands on 1977 but ignored the Paiute claims as they were as yet unrecognized. The Hopi village of Moenkopi and Paiute settlements of Atatsiv were all placed under Navajo control. Years of lawsuits and negotiations by court appointed mediators have produced many revisions of the original plan. The fight for a designated San Juan Paiute reservation continues.

Further Readings

    Franklin, Robert and Pamela A. Bunte - The Paiute, Chelsea House, New York, NY, 1990

Content of this page was provided by the National Park Service.