Southern Paiute (and Chemehuevi) - Orientation

Identification. The name "Paiute" is of uncertain origin. It first appeared in the Spanish literature (Yutas Payuchis, Payuchas) in the 1770s. Other versions were recorded after U.S. expansion into the region in the 1820s. There is some uncertainty as to its application when other "Paiute" groups speaking different languages were encountered in southern California and western Nevada (Owens Valley Paiute, Northern Paiute). After a period of much confusion, some of which persists in the popular literature today, the name "Southern Paiute" was imposed in the first decade of the twentieth Century. "Chemehuevi," the name of a Southern Paiute subgroup that has developed a historically distinct identity, has an origin equally obscure. Although "Paiute" and "Chemehuevi" are used as self-designations when speaking English, the people's native name is nimi, niwi or niminci, "person," depending on dialect.

Location. Aboriginally, the Southern Paiute occupied lands north and west of the Colorado River extending from southern California through southeastern Nevada, Northwestern Arizona, and southern and central Utah. The Chemehuevi held the southernmost section. Environmentally, this vast tract is diverse, taking in lands within the Mojave Desert (low, hot, and dry), the adjacent Great Basin Desert (semiarid steppe country), and parts of the Colorado Plateau (unevenly elevated, often forested, but still semidesert).

Demography. Population figures are difficult to evaluate. A major problem is that several subgroups were terminated from federal supervision in 1957, thus deflating federal figures. There has also been migration to urban areas, further deflating figures unless people identify themselves on a general census. Reinstatement of the Southern Paiute in 1980 may have been in time for formerly terminated individuals to have been counted, but probably not with a high level of accuracy. The 1980 census figure for people on or adjacent to reserved lands is roughly 1,400. The total 1980 Southern Paiute population is estimated at 1,750. The population in 1873, approximately thirty years after settlement by non-Indians, was estimated at 2,300.

Linguistic Affiliation. The language belongs to the Numic branch of the widespread Uto-Aztecan family. It is one of two languages within the Southern Numic subbranch, forming a pair with Kawaiisu of southern California. The Southern Paiute language, including Chemehuevi, is itself a dialect of Ute, the latter term often used to designate the other member of the Southern Numic pair (Kawaiisu, Ute). There is, or better, was measurable dialect diversity. Original dialect distributions are obscured today owing to intrasubgroup marriages and language loss.

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