Chemehuevi Cultural Preservation Project 

“Without your language or your land, you are not who you say you are.”

― Loretta Afraid of Bear, Oglala Lakota

As part of My Philanthropies’ commitment to the preservation of cultural integrity and diversity, we have formed an alliance with The Cultural Center of the Chemehuevi Tribe, headed by Director Bridget Sandate. Located in Havasu Lake, California, the Chemehuevi have a rich cultural tradition of which huge portions have been lost over generations, due to a lack of funding to support willing custodians able preserve the history of tribal knowledge and artifacts. It is our project’s mission to help mitigate this erosion, and prevent further loss.

Ms. Sandate is Director of the Cultural Center located on Chemehuevi land, and is working with one of the few remaining speakers of their native tongue. As she learns, she passes this knowledge on to future generations through weekly classes and camps; these activities are also open to adults, and it is her hope that teaching Chemehuevi youth about their language and ancestry will not only ignite a sense of pride in their personal heritage, but will also inspire them to share this knowledge with the generations above and below them in age. Unfortunately the Tribe’s membership was geographically dispersed for many decades, resulting in a loss of continuity with regard to indigenous knowledge and proximate identification. Per the Cultural Center’s website:

As part of the Great Basin Culture Area, the Chemehuevi are a branch of the Southern Paiute who had historically been persistent occupants of the Mojave Desert. Known to themselves as Nüwü, (The People) they have been nomadic residents of the Mojave Desert’s mountains and canyons and the Colorado River shoreline for thousands of years.

In 1853, the people lost their traditional lands when the Federal government declared these lands public domain. Hostilities with the neighboring Mojave scattered the people, then numbering no more than a few hundred. By 1885 they had reunited in the Chemehuevi Valley, and Federal authorities established the Chemehuevi Valley Reservation in 1907. This protected some 36,000 acres of Chemehuevi homeland; however, the Tribal members were soon relocated to the Parker area, and the Chemehuevi’s status as a tribe was taken away. In 1929 came the formation of the Metropolitan Water District, and in 1935, Congress authorized the acquisition of as much of the reservation as necessary for the Parker Dam Project. In 1940 the flood gates closed, and nearly 8,000 acres of traditional Nüwüvi lands were drowned.

From the early 1940s on, a persistent desire for recognition and self-determination fueled the struggle to achieve Federal recognition. Thirty years later, on June 5, 1970, the Nüwü were formally reinstated as the Chemehuevi Tribe. Today, the Reservation comprises approximately 32,000 acres of trust land that includes thirty miles of Colorado River frontage.

Today, there is a critical need to reclaim the native knowledge of oral histories, indigenous crafts, and most especially the Tribal language, before that knowledge is lost with the lives of those few who know it. Ms. Sandate’s priorities are building a database of the Chemehuevi language, consisting of both a digital recording of pronunciation, and a continued expansion of the existing and ongoing written dictionary.

She is also contacted often by various universities, government entities, and individuals looking to repatriate cultural and historical artifacts that fall under laws like NAGPRA (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act). These rare and invaluable items require appropriate storage and preservation conditions, and adequate security measures. Currently these needs are not being met, and she is having to decline the items at this time. It is her goal to make the Cultural Center both a living entity which teaches language, craft, and promotes inter-generational dialogue, but also to equip it in such a way that it could also act as a responsible conservatory for priceless traditional artifacts.

The Chemehuevi reservation and Cultural Center stands as a representative microcosm of the larger issue faced by California and the rest of the country, in that we are losing the priceless resource of embodied knowledge of our human history. It is our sincere hope that in raising support to assist Ms. Sandate in realizing her vision to reinvigorate enthusiasm for embracing her ancestral customs and traditions, the Chemehuevi will reclaim their rightful place as an integral part of the California landscape.

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