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A 500 year Family Reunion...
Paipai Indians of Mexico provide
important links to Yavapai Indians
by Pamela Williams


Five hundred years and finally a family reunion has taken place.

A reunion of the Paipai Indians of the Baja California region and their ancestral relatives of old, the Yavapai. Despite the time that has passed, relatives have greeted each other with just as much excitement and anticipation to catch up on things as any other family would in a reunion.

The Paipai Indians of Baja California have been coming up into the states and visiting the various Pai tribes of Arizona including the Yavapai of the Verde Valley, for the last year. Bringing their traditional wares, knowledge, language and understanding of plants and medicine, the Yavapai Indians of Prescott and the Verde Valley are gleaning a host of traditions long forgotten or lost in their own culture.

Pai tribes, including Havasupai, Walapai, Yavapai and Paipai are all interrelated. Archeologists, such as Mike Wilkens who works directly with the Paipai, say it is uncertain as to when the separation occurred, but it is guessed it began 2,000 years ago when changing climatic conditions forced some of the Yuman tribes from around the mouth of the Colorado River to look for more favorable lands for survival. With the Paipai's linguistic similarities to the other Pai tribes along with common biological features, and traditions, it has become more and more evident that they had been peas of the same Pai pod at one time.

Wilkens said the Paipai have remained traditionalists all of these years, mostly out of necessity. He adds that the uniqueness of their situation as a tribe nearly unmarred by outside influence has been due to their continual honoring of their heritage's importance, which they held tightly to despite everything else.

Other tribes weren't so lucky. During the time of Spanish missionary influence and displacement due to disease and other prevailing factors, many of the native tribes in the region were absorbed into another culture. There once were 50,000 natives but today only 1,200 remain, all within eight indigenous communities and four tribes.

"These people had to sacrifice their way of life of traveling from the mountains to the ocean," Wilkens said. "They hid from the Spanish in the mountains and near small water holes. And those who didn't later intermarry or die, continued the knowledge and traditions of the Pai Indians."

Today, because these indigenous tribes continue to live in their traditional manner, most are without the modern conveniences of electricity, running water and modern health care. In contrast, the other Pai tribes of the United States, such as the Yavapai, who have wealth through gaming, are often without traditions and culture. With this, the two tribes have decided to make an exchange.

The Yavapai have asked to receive the traditional knowledge and the Paipai, food, clothing and medical care.

"For the native people of Baja California ­ struggling to hold on to their land, needing to create jobs in their communities, and with difficult access to health care - the support of their northern relatives has been crucial in helping to turn their situation around," Wilkens said.

The Museum of Northern Arizona has known about the quality craftsmanship among the Paipai as well as all other Pai tribes for some time. This is why each year they conduct the Pai Festival. Last year was the first time the Paipai Indians were able to represent themselves at the festival though.

But crafts are not the only thing the Yavapai are interested in gleaning from the Paipai. Other important missing links to their heritage include the identification of local plants and their medicinal uses. Last year, Paipai elders Josefina Ochurte, Benito Peralta and Teodora Quero made a special trip to the Verde Valley to help teach the Yavapai what they could about the plants.

Spending a week with tribal members, elders and Flagstaff ethnobotanist Phyllis Hogan, they were able to find, identify and label a large variety of native plants in the Verde Valley and Sedona Region. With Baja California having a similar ecosystem to the Verde Valley, many common plants were discovered.

Hogan said the plants were catalogued for the Yavapai-Apache Nation's upcoming cultural center for future reference and use.

"We are pressing plants and putting them on herbarium sheets so that any university or specialist can look at specimens, identify them and see the correct scientific language and use by tribes," she said. "They will then be housed in a special cabinet that the tribe has agreed to buy and will be placed in the future Yavapai-Apache Cultural Center."

The group identified 40 specimens during their four-day stay. Katherine Marquez, Yavapai Cultural Department director said that this opportunity to learn about the traditional medicines has been very important to the Yavapai and now the knowledge can be offered to the whole tribe.

"There are so many medicines out there we didn't even know about. The root for the Four O'Clock we found can be used for depression. There are many plants for diabetes, ulcers, kidney problems. I am so happy that we found the Paipai."

Because the Paipai are so connected to their native traditions, Wilkens formed the CUNA Institute in Baja, California which offers the opportunity for other artists or anthropologists to come down and study these unique people's ways. In addition to helping educate outsiders, the Paipai use the funds to help alleviate some of the poverty they face.

Wilkens future goals for the CUNA Institute are to create a website where the villagers' crafts can be displayed and sold and to take more groups of Pai Indians to visit their ancestors north of the border, including the Supai Reservation. He says that the Supai's language and the Paipai are the closest of all Pai dialects. He believes this is due to Supai receiving the least amount of influence by other people's words.

Despite the slight language barrier between the Yavapai and Paipai, the chance for Yavapai elders to share similar words, hear ancient stories they had never heard spoken in a similar tongue and listen to the wisdom of the Pai elders, has been worth the 500-year wait.

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