The Yuma Indians of Colorado live on the banks of the Colorado or Red River, which is very long and flows between high banks. In the Mohave country it passes through the Grand Canyon of the Colorado, a gorge quite as broad and as deep as the famous Yosemite Valley of California. After leaving the Grand Canyon, the red waters of the river flow through the most barren country of our land. Sometimes there is not one drop of rain for as much as three years, and the vast region is like the Desert of Sahara except right along the river banks.
The officers and soldiers at Uncle Sam’s army post, which is called Fort Yuma, have made ditches from the river, and by watering the land it has become a real garden. They raise vegetables and have planted rows of trees, which grow well, for the soil is rich when it is watered, but dry as a bone when left alone. There are wonderful magnolia trees here, high, with broad branches, the pure white blossoms looking like so many doves among the green leaves. The century plant and palmettos stand guard along the roadways within the stockade, and hedges of cacti form impassable barriers. Prickly pears and figs grow in abundance, and everything is green and beautiful, but only because here water has been brought to land, which was once called the American desert.
The Indians knew long before Uncle Sam’s soldiers came that water makes a wonderful difference in this country, so they clung to the river, never moving far away from its banks, and for this reason are called Yumas, meaning ‘‘Sons of the River.”
When the tribe was large they cultivated the land along its banks, pine woods sheltered them, and they kept everything green while the river gave moisture to their land, so that things grew, which gave them food and support.
Later, the tribe became small because so many had been killed in battle; and then they were very, very poor. The men, it is true, needed little clothing, but what they had was in rags. They were tall, large, fine-looking men, but their hair was rough and coarse, unkempt, and falling loosely over their shoulders. Some of the girls were good-looking, wearing fresh cotton skirts and many strings of beads, silver ornaments and thin shawls which they drew over their faces as the Mexican women do when they are spoken to. They pride themselves upon their fine beaded moccasins also. first saw these Indians when President Grant sent me to see what could be done to make them more comfortable. When I reached Fort Yuma it was hard to believe that the country was such a desert as I had been told it was, for the fort was really an oasis. On my way to the place where I was to meet the Indians I passed through a Yuma village and saw women trying to cook over small sagebrush fires, using broken pots and kettles for boiling some poor vegetables. Children were playing on the high banks, which overhung the river. Some had bows and arrows, some slings with which they were shooting pebbles as far as they could into the river below them. Their hair fell down like a pony’s mane, floating over their backs and half covering their shoulders. They were without clothing, but I heard their ringing voices, and they seemed as happy as other children. When I left the village I went by boat to the camp of the chief. It was like a poor gypsy camp, an irregular bivouac under some scrubby trees. A great many Indians, both men and women, had rowed over with us to join the Council, and it was a strangely mixed assembly. They clapped their hands and gave an Indian whoop as Captain Wilkinson and I sat down upon three-legged stools, made of pieces of plank a foot square.
The chief, Pasqual, was about eighty years old. He was very tall and thin, his dirty, tattered cotton shirt was open in front, exposing the bones of his chest. He wore no leggins, but some old moccasins on his feet guarded them from the thorny bushes. His gray hair was put back from his high forehead and reached to his shoulders. He received us with the dignity of a king, holding himself as straight as an arrow without a bend in neck or body, then sat upon a bench lower than ours. The interpreter, a merchant of the village, who had acted as Indian agent for Pasqual, knelt near me, and all the Indians clustered around, while a dozen or more Mexicans and Americans took positions where they could see and hear.
Perhaps because of my own rank and because I was a messenger from the President, this old chief seemed somewhat humbled as he sat upon that low rough bench and began the story of his life. He began, as Indians always do, with compliments, saying that it was kind of me to come and see such a poor Yuma chief, and that he heard very good things of President Grant, for the Indian agent said he was a true friend to his poor Indians.
“But I was not always poor,” he said, and then went on with his story. He was born on the banks of the big, red river, but far from this place. When he became a young man he learned to shoot with a a long, tough bow, and had plenty of arrows in his belt. His father was killed on the Gila in a battle with the Tontos, and he was made war chief and “head chief” of the Yumas in his place. At that time the Yumas held all the land from Colorado to the great sea west and on this side north to the great bend of the Colorado River. East, they reached as far as the Tonto-country.
Then the white people came and fought with the Mexicans under Santa Anna, the man with one leg, and took California and the Yuma country on both sides of the Colorado River. At this time the Yumas and the Mohaves were one nation. All planted fields together and had enough food, but some soldiers and “white teachers” quarreled with the Yuma Indians.
Suddenly the Indians were surprised by white soldiers, who came upon them under a very fierce and terrible captain.
Pasqual got his warriors together and fought very hard. They drove the white men back many times, but the great captain had great guns and powder and balls, and the Indians had only spears and bows and arrows.
Twenty-five years later I met this great captain of whom Pasqual spoke. He fought the Yuma nation and defeated them more than once in 1848. He told me that the right way to deal with the savage Indians was to fight them, fight them, fight them, till they gave up. Then they would always be good, peaceable Indians. He said that the Yuma Indians were often gigantic in size and could beat the soldiers skirmishing. They ran behind rocks, logs, or knolls, and sometimes even came out boldly to face the regulars, but they had only bows and arrows, knives and spears, while we had cannon and muskets. This may be one way to get the country, but I cannot think it the right or the best way. At any rate, Pasqual’s warriors were killed and many more wounded and carried away prisoners by the great captain.
Then the young chief’s heart was broken, and he gave up the fight. The captain talked well, but after this the Yuma Indians grew poorer and poorer. Although they made ditches and tried to raise corn and vegetables and trade with soldiers, white men, and Mexicans, still they remained poor and sick.
Now, the old chief had come to implore help for his children. He begged me to ask the President to give money for a big ditch to bring water to make the poor land better, and for more good land for the Yumas. Then, if they would let the bad Mexicans and white men alone and work on their own ,land, he hoped the tribe would rise up again and be strong and happy.
The old chief was greatly loved by his people. I saw one little fellow about five years old run to him and look up in his face. The old Indian smiled upon the boy and ordered a woman near the shore to give him a piece of bread. The chief guessed the meaning of my questioning look and told me the little fellow’s name, “Juanito.”
Fourteen years after this Council, Pasqual came to see me in San Francisco. He was one of the oldest Indians I have ever seen, about ninety-four years of age, but, if anything, brighter than when I visited him in Arizona. With him came a young Indian who spoke English and acted as his aide and interpreter, and this Indian was the boy Juanito. The aged chief had taken this long journey to ask me once more to help his children, the Yuma Indians. They did not want to be sent to live with the Mohave tribe, for these Indians, he said, did not like the Yumas and would not treat them well. After he had spoken for his people, who were always nearest his heart, he enjoyed looking at the new surroundings. Although he was nearly one hundred years old he had never seen a large city before. How happy and childlike he was about it all! To walk in the streets, leaning on the strong arm of Juanito, who was as curious and observing as he; to watch the crowds of people and the many new and strange things; but above all to ride up and down the hills on the cable-cars.
He stood straight and tall before me as he said good-by and started back by a coast steamer. Then he went up the Colorado in a smaller boat, finally landing in safety on the east bank of his beloved Red River.
Without Christian teaching, without reading a book, only once visiting a large town, this dignified hero studied the wants of his people, fought their battles, behaved nobly under defeat, and was too noble ever to be completely crushed, though he lived for many years in neglect and extreme poverty. May this great son of the river, Pasqual, find his reward in the better land.