A Paiute legend tells of a chieftain named Umbah who grieved for his dead wife. The god Taavotz told Umbah he would take him to see his wife, who existed happily in another place, if Umbah promised not to continue grieving after he returned. Umbah made the promise and followed Taavotz as he blazed a trail through the mountain guarding the land of the spirits to the west. There, Umbah saw his wife and stopped mourning. The chieftain and god returned east through the gorge they had cut. Taavotz ordered Umbah to keep the spirit land a secret, and he poured the Colorado River into the gorge. It is this river that the Paiutes believe will swallow anyone trying to follow it west through the Grand Canyon.
The Paiutes, like other Native Americans whose history and culture is linked to the Grand Canyon, had lived in a larger area before Anglos settled into their homeland. The Paiutes’ traditional lands extended north and west of the Colorado River into what today is California, Utah, Nevada and Arizona, from about A.D. 1300 until their removal to reservations in the late 1800s.
The Southern Paiute were living on the north bank of the Colorado River in 1869 when John Wesley Powell made his well-documented river run. Try to imagine what it must have been like for Paiutes when they saw boats coming down that powerful river, given their beliefs about it. A Paiute legend that describes the creation of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon says that it will swallow those who try to follow it west. Yet here were these strange looking men, speaking a language foreign to the Paiutes, traveling westward on the river. It is quite likely that the Paiutes had already heard of, or even met, Euro-Americans. But Powell’s was the first successful boating expedition on the Colorado River – seeing those boats should have surprised anyone.
Today, there are Paiutes living on the Kaibab Paiute Indian Reservation on the Arizona Strip, north of the Grand Canyon. The Southern Paiutes now live primarily in Utah, but members of the newly recognized San Juan Paiute Southern Paiute tribe live on 5,400 acres within the Navajo Nation of Arizona and southern Utah. Their language is distinct from that of their Navajo and Hopi neighbors.