Death in the Piman and Yuman Cultures

Funerary practices and beliefs about death are more about the living than the dead. They provide some insights into the cultures of the people. The Piman (O’odham) and Yuman cultures of the American Southwest have diverse beliefs and burial practices even though they are both located in the desert regions of Arizona and Sonora, Mexico. In both of these cultural groups, cremation was a common way of disposing of the dead. Some of their funerary customs and beliefs are discussed below.

Yuman Culture:

The Yuman culture tradition is in the desert and semi-desert area along the Colorado and Gila Rivers. This area includes parts of Arizona, California, Sonora, and Baja California Norte.

The Yuma-speaking tribes can be divided into four groups:

Delta: the tribes living along the lower Colorado River. These include the Cocopa, Kahwa, and Halyikwamai. During the nineteenth century, the Kahwa and the Halyikwamai, battered by the Quechan-Mohave alliance, merged with the Maricopa.

River: the tribes living along the Colorado River where it forms the border between Arizona and California, plus those living along the Middle Gila River in Arizona. These tribes include the Quechan, Mohave, Yuma, Maricopa, Halchidhoma, and Kavalchadom. During the nineteenth century, the Halchidhoma and Kavalchadom merged with the Maricopa.  

The designation Maricopa as actually an Anglo term: the people refer to themselves as Pipatsje. They originally lived along the Colorado River near present-day Parker, Arizona, but later moved up the Gila River away from the Colorado River.

Upland: the tribes living in Northwest Arizona. These include the Walapai, Havasupai, and Yavapai. The Yavapai were traditionally divided into three groups: Yavepe (also spelled YavapƩ; Northeastern Yavapai), Tolkapaya (also spelled Tolkepaya; the Western Yavapai), and Kewevkapaya (also spelled Kwevkepaya; the Southeastern Yavapai.) The Walapai were divided politically into three subtribes: Middle Mountain People in the northwest, Yavapai Fighters in the south, and Plateau People in the east.

California: the tribes living west of the Colorado River include the DiegueƱo, Kamia, Paipai, and Kiliwa.

Among the Walapai, the dead were traditionally cremated along with their possessions. The souls of the dead departed for the ancestral land of Tudjupa in the west. There was also an annual burning of clothing and food to commemorate the dead. The practice of cremation, however, was stopped by the U.S. Army in the nineteenth century as the United States required Christian burials.

Traditionally, the Havasupai observed very little ceremony regarding the disposal of the dead. The dead were either cremated or placed in caves or rock cairns.

Among the Mohave, the deceased was cremated upon a funeral pyre. Orators would make speeches about the virtues of the deceased and songs would be sung. Articles burned with the deceased would accompany the soul to the land of the dead. After death there was a taboo on mentioning the name of a dead person.

Among the Cocopa, the soul leaves the body at the time of cremation and goes to the spirit land near the mouth of the Colorado River. However, twins go to a different place and are continuously reincarnated. After death the name of the deceased is never mentioned.

Piman Culture:

The Sonoran desert of Arizona and Sonora, Mexico is home to a number of Piman-speaking groups, primarily the Tohono O’odham (Papago) and Akimel O’odham (Pima). With regard to archaeology, the Hohokam are considered to be the ancestors of the Piman peoples.

The Pima were the village agriculturists of central and southern Arizona. The Pima call themselves O’odham which means “we, the people”. They are divided into four basic groups: (1) River Pima in Central Arizona (Akimel O’odham); (2) Tohono O’odham (also known as Papago) in southern Arizona and northern Sonora; (3) Pima Bajo in Mexico; and (4) the Sobaipuri. The Sobaipuri were driven out by Apache and Spanish and intermin-gled with the other Pima groups. Traditionally they occupied the San Pedro River valley from Fairbank, Arizona, north to the Gila River junction, and the Santa Cruz River valley north to Picacho.

The dead were buried in a rock crevice and covered with stones or in a stone cairn roofed with logs. To accompany the spirit on its four day journey to the Underworld in the east, food and possessions were also interred with the body. A short speech by a relative usually accompanied burial. In this speech, the deceased would be asked not to return.

Among the Tohono O’odham, warriors killed in battle were cremated by scalp takers.  

Among the Akimel O’odham the custom was to destroy a house where death had occurred and to build a new house a few meters away.

The Hohokam cremated their dead. Along with the body, pottery, palettes for preparing body and face paints, and ornaments were also burned.

Shellfish and The California Tribes

Long before the arrival of Europeans, the Pacific Ocean provided the Indian Nations of California with an abundance of shellfish: clam, abalone, mussel, olivella, and dentalium. These provided not only food, but the shells were the raw material for beads, jewelry, currency, and fishhooks.

Archaeology has found that clamshells – Saxidomus nuttalli and Tivela stultorum – have been used to make beads since about 1200 AD. Clamshell beads were traded inland into central California and Nevada. The clamshell beads, also called clam disc beads, are flat, white, and round. They are drilled in the center and can be up to one inch in diameter. Some of the clamshell beads made by the Coast Miwok were tiny and a great deal of work was required to grind them to a small size. Therefore, these small clamshell beads were not worn as casual or ornamental jewelry, but were considered to be a form of wealth which could be given to others or inherited.

The Coast Miwok traded clamshell beads and abalone shells to the Wappo and Pomo for obsidian. Clamshell beads were also used as a kind of money which could be used to pay for songs and prayers, dancers, doctors, and instruction in special skills. Among the Coast Miwok, men tended to be the beadmakers.

Olivella shells (Olivella biplacata) were either strung whole for jewelry or they were used for making small sequins for decorating ceremonial items. Unlike the clamshell beads, beads made from olivella were not used for money. Their use by the Hoopa, Yurok, Karuk, Wiyot, and Miwok was primarily ornamental.

Hupa Shaman

Shown above is a photograph of a Hupa shaman by Edward Curtis. Notice the shell beads.

Olivella beads were also used on baskets. Some of the large coiled baskets displayed in some museums have designs in white sequin-sized beads. Each of the beads was stitched in place as the basket was woven.

Many different species of abalone are found in the Pacific waters. Abalone meat was considered a delicacy and the shells were made into large ornaments, fishhooks, and beads.


Shown above is a Wishram woman photographed by Edward Curtis who is wearing a dentalia bridal shell headdress and earrings.  

Dentalium hexagonum is a shell which is shaped like a small tusk. While it is not native to the California area (it is found off Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada) it was widely used by the California Indians for money, ornaments, necklaces, pendants, and earrings.

In California there were two different types of shell beads. The first of these were the “money” beads which could be obtained by selling goods (both food and manufactured products such as baskets). “Money” beads could be used by anyone. Among the Yurok, Karuk, and Hupa, dentalium could be used as a kind of money for arranging marriages, settling debts, and in other situations. The shells were usually kept in long strings.  There were some individuals who had lines tattooed on their arms for measuring the strings of beads.

The Chumash also manufactured the flat shell beads which were used as a form of currency throughout California.  

The second type of shell beads were associated with social class or rank. In northern California, wealth permeated every aspect of the Native American cultures and great importance was placed on the accumulation and display of personal wealth.