The Journal of San Diego History
Summer 1977, Volume 23, Number 3
James E. Moss, Editor
Thomas L. Scharf, Assistant Editor

Book Reviews

Douglas H. Strong, Book Review Editor

The Chemehuevis. By Carobeth Laird. Banning: Malki Museum Press, 1976. Index. Maps. xxviii plus 349 pages. Cloth, $15.00. Paper, $8.95.

Reviewed by Pamela Munro, assistant Professor of Linguistics, University of California, Los Angeles, author of Mojave Syntax (1976) and articles on Mojave, Luiseño, Chemehuevi, and other American Indian languages of Southern California and Arizona.

The Chemehuevis are a relatively small tribe most of whose members live today in the desert areas around Palm Springs and Twentynine Palms or along both sides of the Colorado River, primarily between the cities of Needles and Blythe. (Much of the area they earlier occupied in Chemehuevi Valley is now covered by Lake Havasu.) They have been almost completely ignored in both scientific and popular literature, and Carobeth Laird’s warm and sensitive study fills an important need.

It might be best not to categorize this book simply as an ethnography, because its scope is broader than even that broad term implies. Mrs. Laird certainly provides detailed information on the life style, customs, and beliefs of the Chemehuevi people, concentrating on the way things were along the River long ago, before the arrival of the first white men. There are chapters on tribal organization, shamanism, kinship, and the relationship of the people with objects and places in the natural world. In addition, however (and this is her unique contribution), Mrs. Laird gives a feeling for how these people felt and thought about what happened to them and how it fitted in with the rest of their history. Almost forty per cent of the text is devoted to Chemehuevi mythology. The stories Mrs. Laird retells can be read just for entertainment, but she also provides a “Master Key” for their interpretation, to show how the body of literature they represent reveals the essential Chemehuevi spirit.

What helps tie together this wide-ranging study of a complex people is Mrs. Laird’s conscientious attempt to show not just what the Chemehuevis did and thought, but what words they used to talk about all this. Chemehuevi words—in the old form in which they were used by earlier generations of speakers—are everywhere throughout the book, and its second appendix (the first is devoted to the excellent maps) is “A Brief Note on the Chemehuevi Language,” a succinct description of grammar and pronunciation, followed by a detailed glossary of the words and phrases which appear in the text. As a linguist whose work on modern Chemehuevi over the past few years has been somewhat hampered by the lack of any descriptions of earlier forms of the language, I can only applaud Mrs. Laird’s careful presentation of this much of the old ways of speaking: the “Brief Note” alone, in my opinion, assures the scientific value of The Chemehuevis. (I should note here, perhaps, however, that Mrs. Laird is really a little too gloomy about the competence of present-day speakers of Chemehuevi, rather like Edwin Newman on the subject of American English. The language has unquestionably changed over the past decades, like all languages, but there are still people whose pronunciation of many words is the same as that which she claims to be now totally lost!)

Carobeth Laird’s credentials for producing a study of the scope of The Chemehuevis cannot be faulted. She divorced the ethnologist and linguist J.P. Harrington to marry a Chemehuevi, George Laird (now deceased), who had learned from his grandparents how to speak the language and tell the myths in the almost-forgotten style which Mrs. Laird preserves here. Carobeth Laird burst upon the national literary scene in 1975 at the age of 80, with the publication of Encounter with an Angry God, an account of her relationship with Harrington. She has published several technical papers on Chemehuevi culture and mythology in the Journal of California Anthropology, and The Chemehuevis reveals this side of her not-inconsiderable talent to the general public.