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Bringing Creation Back Together Again: The Salt Songs of the Nuwuvi

Matt Leivas, Sr. singing at the Old Woman Mountains Preserve photographed by Kim Stringfellow in 2019.
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The Mojave Project is an experimental transmedia documentary and curatorial project led by Kim Stringfellow exploring the physical, geological and cultural landscape of the Mojave Desert. The Mojave Project reconsiders and establishes multiple ways in which to interpret this unique and complex landscape, through association and connection of seemingly unrelated sites, themes, and subjects thus creating a speculative and immersive experience for our audience.

It is no surprise that Matt Leivas, Sr. is a ram. By this, I mean he is a Na, a direct descendent of the Chemehuevi Mountain Sheep Clan. An all-star high school linebacker, Leivas’ formidable stature suggests that of Ovis canadensis nelsoni but it could be said that his serene demeanor resembles one as well.[i] As if to confirm this fact, in July 2016, while singing traditional songs during a healing retreat at Painted Rock, a sacred ancestral site within the Old Woman Mountains Preserve, a mature ram seemingly appeared out of nowhere drawn in by Leivas’ enduring song. Looming thirty feet above, Leivas’ had not noticed this ungulate observing him. After he finished singing the lone ram had moved on.[ii]

At 67, Leivas is a respected Chemehuevi elder, Salt Song singer, Tribal scholar and environmental activist. His intensely compassionate eyes, warm presence and wry sense of humor (an endearing trait shared by many Chemehuevi) are particularly disarming, but it is his detailed and comprehensive knowledge of his people’s history, culture and the landscape they inhabit — along with the varied complex issues affecting contemporary Chemehuevi people — that are most impressive.  

Leivas, is the youngest of two brothers, five sisters and several older half-siblings from his father’s previous marriage. He was born and raised at Hanks Village, an Indian allotment in the Parker Valley at the Colorado River Indian Tribes (CRIT) reservation. 

The federal government originally established CRIT in 1865 for the both the Mojave and Chemehuevi people — even though the region was traditional Mojave territory and the two groups were at war.[iii] By 1867, when the conflict had subsided, many Chemehuevi relocated to Parker Valley from Chemehuevi Valley — considered to be their traditional territory along the western shore of the Colorado River — now the site of Lake Havasu.[iv] It is important to state that in 1853, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) had already conveyed Chemehuevi Valley into the public domain.

At the beginning of the hostilities some Chemehuevi, including past relatives of the contemporary Twenty-Nine Palms Band of Mission Indians, had fled to various parts of the Mojave Desert to escape violence wrought by the conflict. The Chemehuevi band at Twentynine Palms, California, would choose to remain at the Oasis of Mara (Mar’rah), sharing the village with the Serrano, until the tragic Willie Boy saga had unfolded in 1909.[v] Other Chemehuevi bands had dispersed into the Mojave River watershed at present-day Victorville, California, but it should be noted that ancestors of the Chemehuevi had thrived throughout the Mojave Desert since time immemorial.

Matt Leivas, Sr. shown in front of a painting representing his ancestors at the Chemehuevi Cultural Center, Havasu Lake, CA. Photo: Kim Stringfellow.
Matt Leivas, Sr. shown in front of a painting representing his ancestors at the Chemehuevi Cultural Center, Havasu Lake, CA. Photo: Kim Stringfellow.
A painting representing Chemehuevi Valley village life in the conference room of the Chemehuevi Cultural Center, Havasu Lake, CA. Photo: Kim Stringfellow.
A painting representing Chemehuevi Valley village life in the conference room of the Chemehuevi Cultural Center, Havasu Lake, CA. Photo: Kim Stringfellow.

By the turn of the twentieth century, most Chemehuevi were settled at reservations in the Parker Valley or in southern California’s Coachella Valley but some had chosen to return to Chemehuevi Valley. In an apparent about face, the federal government established the Chemehuevi Valley Reservation in 1907. However, with the eventual construction of Hoover Dam in 1935 and Parker Dam in 1939, the Chemehuevi who had returned to the area would once again be displaced. After Parker Dam became operational and the river’s waters rose, nearly 8,000 acres of fertile reservation farmland was flooded the following year. Leading up to the dam’s construction, those residing in the valley were again forced to relocate south to the Parker Valley. Additionally, Chemehuevi tribal status would be revoked after the tribe was officially consolidated into CRIT. However, unbeknownst to them, their Chemehuevi Valley land holdings would remain in trust — but in limbo — for over fifty years until the mid-1960s when tribal member Herb Pencille learned through his persistent research that these lands still belonged to the Chemehuevi people.[vi]

Leivas regards Parker Valley as his first home — where many of his relatives continue to reside today — but considers Chemehuevi Valley his true home. Leivas’ mother, Gertrude Hanks Leivas, whose Chemehuevi name is Kankewa or “Hillside,” vividly recounted her family’s relocation to Parker Valley as a small child during the mid-1920s when plans to construct of Parker Dam had begun. During her interview for William Logan Hebner’s "Southern Paiute: A Portrait," she stated that their journey began after a big Sing took place with the entire community gathering to sing traditional songs “to the land, the ancestors, [singing] goodbye to everything.”[vii]

A prehistoric Native American travel route near West Well with a view of Lake Havasu in the distance. Photo: Kim Stringfellow.
A prehistoric Native American travel route near West Well with a view of Lake Havasu in the distance. Photo: Kim Stringfellow.

Gertrude’s family traveled on foot alongside her father, Henry Hanks,[viii] who pulled a wagon with all of their belongings thirty or so miles southward. As they plodded through the desert mountain canyons, Gertrude took in the stunning scenery but never forgot her homeland where dense cottonwood groves lined the formally formerly-unbridled river and seasonal flooding kept the land along it lush and fertile. Throughout her life, Gertrude would implore her family to return to their true homeland — the Chemehuevi Valley. By the time she passed in 2007 she would be the last full-blooded Chemehuevi to have been born and buried here.

By 1970, after much concerted effort by Pencille, other tribal members and the California Indian Legal Services, the Chemehuevi’s federal tribal status was formally reinstated. Under executive order, two adjacent parcels of their former lands on the California side of the river, each approximately 16,000 acres with a total of thirty miles of Lake Havasu shoreline, were returned to the Chemehuevi to repatriate. Consider that 8,000 acres of their original lands,along with prime lakefront property, had been long submerged and was now leased to non-Indians. Many Chemehuevi, including the extended Leivas family, decided to leave Parker to rebuild their lives back up north. The transition proved at times to be difficult —t hey would need to reestablish themselves in a land now partially occupied by outsiders. Plus, for most of the younger tribal members, including Leivas and his siblings, the land was foreign.

A vintage postcard showing the Mission Revival architecturally styled Sherman Institute, Riverside, CA. Credit: Sherman Indian Museum.
A vintage postcard showing the Mission Revival architecturally styled Sherman Institute, Riverside, CA. Credit: Sherman Indian Museum.

Leivas, like his mother before him, attended Sherman Institute in Riverside, California during the 1960s.[ix] Sherman is an off-reservation boarding school established in 1902 that continues to this day to be operated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Department of the Interior. Like the hundreds of Indian boarding schools established by the federal government during the late- nineteenth century, Sherman’s history is storied and controversial. For one, the goal of these programs were was to completely expunge student attendees of their Native heritage and culture — including their appearance, language and spirituality — in order to “assimilate” them into mainstream or white society. Children, as early as four four years of age, were sometimes removed from their homes forcibly. Other families sent their kids willingly because they felt they had no other option — unfortunately the cycle of extreme poverty continues for many indigenous people. Students would attend Sherman for up to ten years. Most were unable to visit their familiesy while enrolled because of sheer distance combined with economic disadvantage. 

Young women attending Sherman Indian School were in the past trained as domestic workers. Credit: Sherman Indian Museum.
Young women attending Sherman Indian School were in the past trained as domestic workers. | Sherman Indian Museum

Sherman’s early educational program was structured as vocational; girls were trained as domestic workers or nurses; while boys studied agriculture, carpentry, tailoring and other trades. Program administrators in all tribal education programs believed that by “civilizing” these Native children they would, in turn, influence their parents and families once they had returned to their respected respective reservations. Over time, Sherman would become academically focused, providing college preparation courses by the 1970s.

Young men preparing pancakes for Sherman Indian School students. Credit: Sherman Indian Museum.
Young men preparing pancakes for Sherman Indian School students. | Sherman Indian Museum

But a dark period from Sherman’s past would linger well into the future when a Riverside Eagle Scout discovered sixty-seven graves of former students in 2003 who had attended the program from 1904 to 1955. [x] The cemetery had been neglected and long forgotten. Many of Sherman’s deceased children were buried in unmarked graves, likely because these students had arrived as orphans. Officially, the deaths were primarily attributed to disease or “accidental death.” Leivas’ shared that his mother and her friend who attended Sherman together would cover their mouths and speak in hushed voices well into old age out of habit — cautious that a head mistress from their past would discipline them for doing so. Regardless, Gertrude expressed mostly fond memories of her time spent at Sherman.

In 1971, Sherman Institute was renamed Sherman Indian High School, serving grades nine to twelve. Leivas and other students from his senior class that year were instrumental in securing California state accreditation, which guaranteed graduating students a high school diploma. As one of four federally-administered off-reservation Indian boarding schools in operation today, Sherman celebrates Native American culture rather than suppressing it — representing over seventy-six federally recognized tribes with about 68 percent of their students attending from reservations across the country.[xi] Native Americans manage administration and operations and additionally oversee and teach Sherman’s curriculum, which includes American Indian history, languages and culture.

A prehistoric Native American encampment near West Well. Photo: Kim Stringfellow.
A prehistoric Native American encampment near West Well. | Kim Stringfellow.

Leivas moved to Chemehuevi Valley in 1977. His mother and two sisters, Mary and Irene followed in 1980, after their homes had been constructed. Leivas worked as the area’s chief tribal game warden from 1977 to 1989 where he was responsible for patrolling 32,000 acres of desert by himself. While doing so, his appreciation of the area’s native ecology deepened as he “relearned” the landscape. During repeated management excursions on foot, truck, plane or boat Leivas began to notice the subtle physical signature of cultural sites such as ancient sleeping circles within the landscape. Initially, these ancient village sites were difficult to make out with the naked eye but, with time spent in the land, they became more apparent.

Matt Leivas, Sr. shown at the spring he revived near West Well. Photo: Kim Stringfellow.
Matt Leivas, Sr. shown at the spring he revived near West Well. |  Kim Stringfellow

Around this time Leivas’ spiritual awakening began to take hold. Leivas shared that he would “feel the spirit” while patrolling his people’s ancestral lands.  During which, he became acutely aware of the multitude of connections between himself and the lives of his ancestors, the animals, plants, rocks, springs, sky, the river and other natural physical features he encountered. At one point, on his off days, he began driving out to West Well to clear up a dried-up natural spring located at an ancient Chemehuevi camp that had served as a stagecoach stopover during the late- nineteenth century. The spring was no longer flowing, choked with non-native vegetation. On one of these visits, Leivas had found a crooked two-foot- long arrow weed branch (Pluchea sericea) that became his Poro or sacred prayer stick. Having heard about a Hopi elder who revived a long dead spring by blessing it in the traditional way he decided to attempt this for himself. During a return trip to the spring Leivas burned t local mountain sage from the Old Woman Mountains and solemnly prayed over the site. He prodded theto earth with his prayer stick several times — and miraculously water began to slowly percolate from below. The spring continues to flow to this day. 

Matt Leivas, Sr. photographed at the historic West Well cultural site located south of Chemehuevi Wash and west of Lake Havasu. Photo: Kim Stringfellow.
Matt Leivas, Sr. photographed at the historic West Well cultural site located south of Chemehuevi Wash and west of Lake Havasu. Photo: Kim Stringfellow.

West Well or Hawaiyo is an important cultural site for the Chemehuevi located just south of Chemehuevi Wash. Detailed petroglyphs at West Well describe various natural resources and sacred sites throughout the region. Although Leivas had contemplated the meaning of these inscriptions for some time, one day he realized that a large, stylized drawing near the top of the bolder was in actuality a map of the Colorado River—with its various channels, bays, points and islands — etched as a wayfinding tool for Native travelers.

Matt Leivas, Sr. interprets this ancient petroglyph at the center of the photo as the map of the Lake Havasu region before colonization. Photo: Kim Stringfellow.
Matt Leivas, Sr. interprets this ancient petroglyph at the center of the photo as the map of the Lake Havasu region before colonization. | Kim Stringfellow.

Around this time Leivas became increasingly involved in environmental justice issues, affecting both Native people and the larger regional community. He joined with other tribal members to halt the construction of a coal slurry pipeline and incinerator in the Ivanpah Valley near Primm, Nevada—considered traditional Chemehuevi territory. 

In 1986, Leivas, while accompanied by a BIA representative, seized illegally- acquired Native American artifacts—several large boulder faces with ancient petroglyphs that were being displayed as lawn ornaments at a prime lakefront property in The Colony—a retirement community located on Chemehuevi land that had been leased to non-Indians prior to the 1970 turnover. 

The homeowner, a California game warden, was away at the time but his next-door neighbor, a San Bernardino County sheriff, came outside to contest the removal of the artifacts stating that boulders had originated from the New York Mountains, not Chemehuevi Valley. However, Leivas suspected that they were taken from a locale much closer, possibly West Well. 

Leivas and the BIA representative responded that removal of culturally significant artifacts from public land was in violation of federal law. The sheriff continued to block their recovery effort by attempting to call San Bernardino County deputies from Needles to assist him, but after negotiation he allowed the two to confiscate the boulders without further incident. The artifacts are now on display at the tribe’s cultural center museum. Not long after the confrontation both homeowners vacated their properties. Eventually Tthe Colony became a tribal subdivision after the homes were renovated and awarded to their current owners through a lottery.

During the late 1980s, and later as tribal chairman, Leivas  (and later as tribal chairman), joined with other Chemehuevi, Fort Mojave, Quechan, Cocopah, CRIT and many other regional tribal members, along with several non-tribal environmentalist  groups, in their continuous occupation of Ward Valley. This non-violent act of solidarity began a fifteen-year watershed battle against a proposed low-level nuclear waste dump that was being fast- tracked for development within this sacred valley, which is located less than twenty miles from the Colorado River and also considered prime habitat for the desert tortoise. Leivas is credited with helping the various tribal groups come together when internal negotiations had been strained due to the hardship of maintaining the vigil for over a decade.