Originally published Sunday, May 13, 2018 at 06:02a.m.

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Yavapai Baskets. (Sharlot Hall Museum/Courtesy. Historic Photos Collection, Call #1512.2110.0001)

Many American Indians have been popularized in books, documentaries and provocative motion pictures.  The Yavapai Indians, however, have been largely absent from such published or dramatized history.  Much of this is the result of a tradition that enabled the Yavapai to survive from prehistoric times to the present—that of preserving their culture within family groups.

Records about the Yavapai are hidden in early Spanish documents where several expeditions recorded their encounter with the Yavapai.  Most of these encounters were friendly, as the Yavapai Indians were known by many surrounding Native American tribes as “Cruzados” because of distinctive crosses they wore as items of apparel and body decorations.  The cross was a symbol of their “Nation” as early Spanish documents record.  This fascinated the Conquistadors and enabled peaceful interactions between them.  The Spaniards were looking for valuable silver and gold deposits, and the Yavapai were happy to show them their mines in the Jerome area.  The tradition of the cross continued well into the Indian war years, where it was used as a “message stick” to carry information for long distances between Yavapai groups.

Yavapai are people of an ancient culture recognizably here in America for more than 10,000 years.  Their oral history, recorded in both song and narrative carefully kept by knowledgeable elders, relates that they have always been here — from “time immemorial.”  There are no migration stories, and the Yavapai maiden who survived the “Flood” walked these lands, and her grandson, Skatakaamcha, named the mountains of their landscape, taught healing to the medicine people and cleared the land of many prehistoric predators.  These narratives are also documented in Yavapai “libraries,” which are the petroglyphs and pictographs dating to an estimated 8,000 years ago.

In 1900, the Yavapai returned to Prescott, the heart of their homeland, establishing Camp Yavapai on the outskirts of town. Archaeologists track the aboriginal territory of the Yavapai to over nine million acres.  Yavapai groups used descriptive landscape names, such as “Wii-guvdtepai” (Granite Mountain People), for the Yavapai-Prescott group to record for posterity where their ancestors called home. The name “Yavapai” refers to a geographical concept—an easterly direction, toward the sun, which has traditional meanings as well.  All the groups are Yavapai, but they also have a name describing their area of ancestry within their vast territory.  In this way the Yavapai were able to maintain their control of such a tremendous amount of territory. 

The evidence of their presence can be found in small scatters of broken stone and distinctive Pai-points knapped by Yavapai hunters.  These points rank alongside the most finely-made arrow points found anywhere in the world.  It is recorded also that the Yavapai made many of the prehistoric “stone houses” nestled in rock shelters and strategic locations.

On their foraging treks to seasonal gathering places, Yavapai took time to make ceramic vessels, which were carefully stored for use when needed for collecting and storing plants as they ripened.  They gathered great varieties of plants for food, tools and medicines and cultivated plants normally associated with village agriculture.  By cleverly seeding corn and squash in areas they visited in the spring, they would have an additional bounty for the fall hunt.  Processed agave, rich in sugar, carbohydrate, calcium and vitamin C, was prized for its nutritional value.

The Yavapai made some of the most beautiful baskets in the world, and examples have been documented as a “Local Legacy” for Arizona in the Library of Congress.  Sharlot Hall Museum and the Arizona State Museum are repositories of many beautiful Yavapai baskets, along with major museums across the United States and in foreign countries.

Today’s Yavapai continue their culture through classes for language, traditional basket weaving and pottery.  Life-skills classes are often held in the mountains and valleys of their homeland, where traditional structures are lived in and hunting and gathering skills are practiced.

Linda Ogo, Culture Research Director for the Yavapai-Prescott Indian Tribe invites you to join her for a FREE presentation at Sharlot Hall Museum to learn about the culture and history of the Yavapai-Prescott Tribe.  Her lecture on Song and Dance of the Yavapai will be on Saturday, May 19, 2018 at 2 pm. in the West Gallery of Sharlot Hall Museum’s Lawler Exhibit Center.

“Days Past” is a collaborative project of the Sharlot Hall Museum and the Prescott Corral of Westerners International (www.prescottcorral.org). This and other Days Past articles are also available at www.sharlot.org/library-archives/days-past. The public is encouraged to submit proposed articles to dayspast@sharlot.org. Please contact SHM Library & Archives reference desk at 928-445-3122 Ext. 14, or via email at dayspastshmcourier@gmail.com for information.