Iretaba: Mohave Chief and Diplomat
by Jay Cravath, Ph.D.
During the mid-19th century in west and central Arizona territory, Iretaba, a Mohave chief, was often called upon by agents of the U.S. Government to act as guide, broker peace, and perform other acts of diplomacy. This he did with intelligence, courage and grace. Iretaba is also directly responsible for the creation of the Colorado River Indian Reservation. Sent as an emissary by government leaders in Arizona, he met with President Lincoln and convinced him to set aside land along the Colorado River, from the Parker area to Ehrenburg. Born around 1814, Iretaba was tall, with a heavy jaw, broad shouldered and of tremendous physical strength. One soldier described him as “gentle and calm in demeanor.”
The name Irateba is an Americanization. Struggling with pronunciation of Native languages, early American explorers sounded out the syllables in English as best they could. His Mohave name was Eecheyara tav, meaning Bright Bird—shortened to Yara tav. Yara tav and Cairook were members of a small company of professional war leaders called kwanami, meaning fearless. The kwanami secured the land along the Colorado River from what became southern Nevada to Yuma. Other tribes would live on the corridor at the pleasure of the Mohave. Their reputation as fierce warriors spread over centuries as the kwanami conducted raids to the Mission tribes in California and as far east as the Navajo and Hopi. It allowed them to trade readily with others, for the villages the Mohave entered would dare not cause harm for fear of swift reprisal.
Kwanami grew up knowing these trails. They heard physical descriptions in the Great Tellings as young boys. As with other Indigenous peoples, their “Old Testament” was recounted over a period of days during various ceremonies. Whether, puberty, healing, war and other rites, the Mohave sang and told of the origin, the great flood, and travel of the great heroes to disparate place. In these tales, was a kind of poetic map describing the topography and physical characteristics of the trading trails.
Yara tav first steps onto the pages of western history in 1849. Captain Amiel Whipple, exploring a land route up the Colorado River, mentions him as a sub-chief of the Mohave.
During Whipple’s expedition of 1853-54, exploring a route for the Southern Pacific railroad along the 35th parallel from Arkansas to Los Angeles, California, Yara tav met the party. Whipple wrote in his journal about his time with the Mohaves: “Every day that these Indians have passed with us has been like a holiday fair, and never did people seem to enjoy such occasions more than the Mohaves have done. They have been joyous, singing, laughing, talking, and learning English words, which they perfectly pronounce. Everything that seems new or curious they examine with undisguised delight.” Whipple allowed the Mohave to mix freely and trade with members of the expedition. He reported that the Mohave “rendered good service, giving valuable information and faithful guidance.” When it was time to cross, Whipple pulled out an India rubber pontoon, which was inflated and wagons and instruments floated across. The Mohave, as well, lent a hand to get the provisions and wagons to the California side. All were amazed by the honesty of the Mohave. One member of the corps related that even stray sheep were carried and placed back in the herd. This was in stark contrast to the thievery the corps had experienced with most tribes since leaving Arkansas. The Whipple party laid by the day after the big crossing, to dry all the items that had been soaked during transport. Yara tav and Cairook then guided Whipple west of the Colorado on the Mojave Trail—the same shown Garces, the Jesuit explorer, years before. It became known as the Spanish Trail—later the Mormon Road. When they reached the area of what is now Barstow, the two guides turned back. The corps heaped praise and gifts on the men for having guided them through a most desolate and confusing country. Surveyors like Whipple and Ives always brought artists as cameras were much in practical use. A German named Baldwin Mollhausen drew sketches and rendered paintings of the Hopi, Navajo, Yavapai, Hualapai, Chemehuevi and Paiute. These and illustrations of other southwest Indians represent the first visual record by European explorers.
Lt. Christmas Ives, who had been with Whipple, came back to continue exploring the Colorado River during 1857 and ’58 to confirm navigability. He and his party were left at the isthmus of the Colorado River. There, they assembled a small steamboat, loaded their supplies, and headed upriver. He was looking for Cairook and Yara tav to help guide him up the river. In his journal on February 17, 1858, Ives wrote that he observed: “an Indian seated for a long time near the end of the plank. …he was constantly regarding me with a half smiling, half embarrassed air, and looking at him more intently, discovered that it was my old friend Ireteba. He had been too modest to introduce himself. He was delighted at being recognized and at the cordial greeting he received. I at once proposed to Ireteba to accompany me on the boat, and upon the arrival of the pack train (a resupply train had been scheduled to arrive from San Francisco in a week).”
Yara tav accompanied Ives on the boat up to Black Canyon, where further navigation was impossible due to chilling waters and extreme rapids. He then led the corps over Railroad pass by land and to the Grand Canyon. At this point, Yara tav found friendly Hualapai guides to continue as scouts. Ives planned to visit the Maricopa and Pima and the chief wanted nothing to do with them.
The year before, a Mohave raid to Maricopa ended in disaster. Only a handful of the kwanami returned in what is considered the last major Indian battle in America. Called the Battle of Pima Butte, Mohave, allied with the Yuma, raided a Pima village on May 31, 1857 and burned it. Tired and hungry, they made the grave mistake of stopping to eat and rest. The villagers had run to the safety of Pima Butte and lit a warning fire. In a counterattack, a huge contingent of Pima and Maricopa surrounded the raiders. Traveler, John Hilton—three months later, reported coming upon a pile of 90 bodies in all sorts of positions.
Less than 3 months after Yara tav left Ives, Mohaves attacked a wagon train of California-bound Mormon settlers taking the old Spanish Road. When news of the attack reached the War Department, it was decided to establish a military post at Beale’s crossing of the Colorado. 500 U.S. troops marched to an area near present-day Needles. On April 23, 1859, a meeting was held between the troops and 6 Mohave chiefs including Yara tav and Cairook, and Ft. Mojave was built. The establishment of the fort stilled the attacks on settlers. However, disagreements between the Mohave war leaders—the kwanami—remained. Homo-se quahote, another Mohave chief, talked most of the tribe into staying in the area of the future Ft. Mojave Indian Reservation, near Needles. A smaller group followed Chief Yara tav southward onto other Mohave lands that would soon become the Colorado River Indian Reservation. He felt the land was much better for agriculture, knowing the government would force them to become farmers.
Yara tav was seen by the U.S. Indian agents to be Chief of the Mohave. “His was a nationalist leadership,” writes Clifton Kroeber, son of Alfred. In early 1863 the chief was busy in peacemaking with enemies and renewed visiting of friends. In the manner of the Mohave, he was a great traveler. He took a trip with a Paiute leader and introduced the Yavapai to the earliest gold prospectors in north-central Arizona to promote peace. The confirmation of Yara Tav as Chief of the Mohaves by Superintendent of Indian Affairs George Dent, was considered an insulting and controversial act by those of the band who stayed north.
In mid 1863, Yara tav participated in a peace negotiation at Agua Caliente near the Gila River. Likely prompted by John Moss, a prospector, and Pauline Weaver, the old mountaineer, the Mohave and the Pima-Maricopa made their final peace. Also attending were Antonio Azul, Pima chief and Juan Chivaria, war leader of the Maricopa. Other tribes as well attended: the Yavapai, Yuma, Tonto Apache and perhaps Hualapai. Weaver tried to ensure safety for the tribes through a series of passwords they could use if confronted. With so little of the territory policed, it was a tenuous proposition.
Charles Poston, Indian agent for Arizona at the time, and others, decided to send Yara tav to Washington to see the power of American force and meet Lincoln. In November of 1863, Yara tav left for San Francisco with John Moss. Moss’ ulterior motive was to take the respected chief to meet with mining capitalists in the east to hopefully get a commission with them—meaning the tribe would let them mine on tribal land. That eventually happened. In fact, the government confiscated part of the reservation for that purpose and only recently returned it. A bustling city, one of the San Francisco newspapers wrote of Yara tav: “He sports a full suit of black and an immense light felt sombrero, big enough for two chiefs. He has left his wigwam to visit the great town of the Pacific and with his body guard creates no little sensation. The chief has been voted the freedom of the town and last night improved it by taking a trip through Jackson Street.” The chief was essentially given the key to the city, and encountered busy scenes with more people than he had ever imagined.
It was not until January 1864 that Moss was able to engage passage for himself and Yara tav on the steamer Orizaba bound for New York. They went south to Panama, took a transport overland across the isthmus on mule-drawn wagons and boarded another vessel for the journey to New York. Yara tav and Moss found a busy port when they arrived in the city. Sailboats were still the main mode of water transportation, including large clipper ships. They would have also seen the Castle William—an army post at the mouth of the harbor. It remains there today—in Liberty Park. It is said, Yara tav also met with Olive Oatman—who had been a captive of the Mohave and adopted as one of their own. She was originally traded to the Mohave from the Yavapai, who had captured her and her sister—who died of pneumonia while with the tribe—and returned to Ft. Yuma after two years. A year after leaving captivity, Olive began a national tour recounting her adventures. She retained the chin scarification typical of Mohave women.
When Yara tav and Moss arrived in Washington D.C., the nation’s capitol was under construction. One account describes him taken to a large outdoor restaurant. The chief did not recognize that the patrons were eating, then leaving, for later, when they walked by after a tour of the mall, he appreciated that the people were still enjoying more food—a social act of the Mohave during ceremonies when food was plentiful.
At the time, the civil war was still raging and Lincoln was deeply involved to end the conflict. Still, it is certain that he met with Yara tav. The result was the Colorado River Indian Reservation, signed into law by the President in March of 1865. Yara tav and Moss returned to San Francisco, then to Los Angeles, arriving on May 14. They took a freight wagon to the Colorado River where an eyewitness account reads: “One day, word came that Iretaba was en route home. A cloud of dust on the western horizon disclosed a freight wagon descending the slope to the river. Sam Todd, the ferryman, had his boat at the landing and Iretaba was seen by some of his tribe.” The narrative continues: “He had on a cocked hat or chapeau and was attired in a full major general’s uniform, on his breast ribbons and orders; on his shoulders epaulettes. and there were shoes to match.” The next day it was reported that Yara tav’s shoes were off and he was dressed the traditional Mohave way.
Yara tav’s granddaughter told George Deveroux, an ethnologist who did extensive research on the Mohave, that the chief’s trip to New York and Washington impressed him with the uselessness of opposing the whites. Though Deveroux kept trying to get her life story, Tcac insisted on making sure that her grandfather’s important work for the tribe was documented. So, during the interview, she would only speak of Yara tav. She told Deveroux of Yara tav’s decision to go to Washington to ask the President for land. “He told the people in Washington that he would be just like a brother to the Whites, and would lay aside his bows and arrows, and be a brother to everyone who came to his valley. However, the Whites must send some good White man to this country to look after the Indians and the dealings of the White man.”
Yara tav continued to serve the interests of the U.S. Agents. He conducted meetings with Yavapai leadership to stop their raids on settlers. At first, Yara tav’s stories of his trip to the “Great White Father” were met with interest by his fellow Mohaves. After awhile, however, many began to think they were made up, and he had gone a bit crazy. He was essentially ignored. The old chief lived like a “white man”—it was reported, residing in an adobe house rather than the traditional mud, wood, sand and lats.
When the Prescott Miner wrote his obituary, it related that Yara tav’s tribe was “thrown into a period of deep mourning during which time they abstained from food of any kind and would not so much as touch salt; they even carried their demonstrations so far as to burn their own village.” Yara Tav was between 55 and sixty years old when he died. His remains and all possessions were burned as is the Mohave custom. This chief, warrior, man of vision and intelligence had recognized the futility of resisting the onslaught of the white man.
It was through his efforts as a diplomat and statesman—a peace-making nationalist, that peace between the tribes and settlers in western Arizona was expedited—and that the Colorado River Indian Reservation came to be.