The Cocopah Tribe of Arizona are descendants of one of seven groups that the Spanish called the Yuma. When the Spanish first arrived in the lower Colorado River area in the early 1500s, they noted the smoke from the thousands of cooking fires throughout the region. In their Cocopá language, the Cocopah call themselves Xawiƚƚ kwñchawaay, which means “Those who live on the Cloudy River,” a reference to the fog that once hung above the Colorado River and its wetlands.
The Cocopah also call themselves the River People, and their relationship with the Colorado River is an important part of their heritage. The river provided irrigation for crops of corn, beans, squash and wheat. It provided fish, and its wetlands plenty of game and berries for foraging. Its willows and arrow weed shrubs provided materials for baskets, homes, arrow shafts and clothing.
The Cocopah would also venture to the mountains to gather oak for bows and to hunt bighorn sheep. The Cocopah impressed the Spanish when contact was made in 1540. Spanish explorer Hernando de Alaron traveled the Colorado River that year, and in his writings described the Cocopah as “tall, well-built people who carried wooden maces and bows and arrows. The men were dressed in loincloths and the women wore willow-bark skirts.” He wrote that they gifted the Spanish with shells, beads and well-tanned leathers and food. This positive relationship with the Spanish would extend through the centuries, from Spanish missionaries such as Father Kino traveling the region to establish missions to the Anza Party in 1776. As crossing the Colorado River here became a strategic route for the Spanish and later the Americans, the Cocopah Indian Tribe fought to keep their land and culture intact.
The California Gold Rush of 1849 dramatically increased traffic in Yuman territory as Americans crossed the Colorado River to and from California. In the late 1800s, as steamboat traffic increased on the then-undammed Colorado, Cocopah riverboat pilots were valued for their navigation skills and knowledge of the river. President Woodrow Wilson signed the executive order creating the Cocopah Indian Reservation in 1917, and today the Tribe of about 1,000 members operates several successful business ventures on their land as they continue to preserve their culture and language. There are also about 300 Cocopah in bordering Mexico.