The World in a Song

The Mojave Desert–dwelling Chemuehevi Indians had few possessions, but they always had their songs. The Chemuehevi lived in the deep desert, hunting rats, rabbits, and bighorn sheep, gathering roots, tubers, beans, and berries and moving ceaselessly over a broad area. They thrived for thousands of years in desert that routinely killed settlers trying to cross it. They relied on a deep knowledge of the landscape and its resources and a few simple possessions. The most treasured inheritance of any Chemuehevi was the inherited song of his clan. These songs were really elaborate stories that often took years to memorize and days to sing. The stories accounted for the origins of the smallest features of the landscape in a vivid, funny, intricate mythology.

The songs also contained a deep code, an oral map of the desert landscape that pinpointed the location of every stream, water-filled wash, hollowed rock, prickly pear patch, or other seasonal resources. A person who knew the song that went with a certain area always knew how to find water and vital resources.

Other groups wishing to pass through the domain of the Chemuehevi would seek out the clan that claimed the territory and effectively pay a member of that claim to accompany the group through the territory. This was simple self-interest, since few people could last long in the desert without the map to the vital resources and water sources contained in the clan’s song.