The story of Willie Boy, a love struck young Southern Paiute-Chemehuevi man who murdered for love and eluded the San Bernardino sheriff’s posse for days, is a true and timeless and living story, one that’s colored the storied inland southern California landscape where it occurred in late Sept.- early Oct, 1909.
It’s a tragic story of young, forbidden love that reaches “Romeo and Juliet” proportions and whose tellings and re-tellings in the decades since—through books, articles, theater productions, and film, told largely by Anglos—have continued to evolve across the cultural and geographic divides that comprise the Inland Empire and Mojave Desert as well as the Anglo-European worlds of the early 20th century and the ancient culture of our region’s Native Americans.
Now, a compelling and exciting new book about the Willie Boy incident, “A Chemehuevi Song: The Resilience of a Southern Paiute Tribe,” published this year by Indigenous Confluences Press, has risen on the horizon, written collaboratively by Dr. Clifford Trafzer, distinguished history professor at UCR who was appointed Rupert Costo Chair in American Indian History in 2007, along with members of the 29 Palms Band of Mission Indians in eastern Riverside county, who are descendants of the family members involved in the Willie Boy incident.
“The Willie Boy incident in 1909, which played out across the national media, was a watershed event in the history of the members of the Southern Paiute-Chemehuevi tribe who lived at Oasis of Mara (now 29 Palms Oasis) at the time,” says Trafzer, who presented a lecture at the UCR-Palm Desert campus this past October 5, to discuss his new book. “A Chemehuevi Song” is, he says, a song in itself, a song which began for him when he came to participate in tribal activities with members from the 29 Palms Band of Mission Indians in 1997, and has continued to emerge as he’s worked with tribal members to this day.
The book, while giving Native accounts of the heretofore highly disputed story of Willie Boy—especially the claim made by the San Bernardino sheriff’s posse in 1909 about Willie—also sheds light on how the incident forever and radically changed the lives of the extended family members and other Chemehuevi living at 29 Palms in 1909, as well as shaping the lives of their descendants to this day. In fact, the Oct 5 lecture was attended by many members of the 29 Palms Band of Mission Indians who worked with Trafzer to complete their book and who also spoke at the lecture, including elder Joe Mike Benitez, Dean Mike, and Jennifer Mike.
More than anything, according to Trafzer and Chemehuevi contributors, “A Chemehuevi Song” stands as a testament to the power of perseverance of this small, nomadic band of Native people, who have been largely marginalized by European settlers, other Native groups, and until now, their stories have been largely overlooked. The book reveals how members of this Southern Paiute band have survived the past two centuries without rights to their Mojave Desert homeland, or any self-governing rights, and in fact were largely “forgotten” until the creation of the 29 Palms Reservation in 1974. Since then, the tribe has formed its own tribal government and now a thriving gaming industry.
Trafzer worked with the Chemehuevi for more than 10 years, gathering stories from the tribe and other Chemehuevi across the Mojave that demonstrate how they’ve survived using sacred songs and other cultural practices to persevere with strength and independence, in spite of great odds, including the tragic and family-shattering Willie Boy incident.
By focusing on individual and family stories, “Chemehuevi Song” offers a new structure for how tribal histories can be presented and shared, and also, critically, offers firsthand indigenous accounts of the events surrounding the Willie Boy tragedy as well as how this crucial event has impacted tribal lives, even to this day, and strong evidence presented by the tribe as well as by other historians and other Native leaders in recent years has presented strong evidence that Willie Boy got away, escaping the posse not through suicide but on foot, and lived for many years afterwards in remote parts of the desert.
“A Chemehuevi Song: The Resilience of a Southern Paiute Tribe,” is a compelling and necessary read for all who are interested in Inland Empire/desert regional literature, as well as those with an interest in our region’s American Indian history and cultures and their emerging, strong voice in shaping the literature here. For this powerful new publication brings together a chorus of voices, present and past, to tell the story of the tribe’s persistent efforts to gain recognition, independence, and also to tell their own stories of their history and landmark cultural events.
This is more than a book. This is a song, comprised of many voices, a song that rings out powerfully as it’s sung across the land.