About ID Bio Homelands Lifeways Powwows Music Photos
Adapting to the Desert
All photos are by Max and his friends


When Max lived on his land in Chemehuevi territory in the summer of 1992, he walked down from camp every morning to collect his drinking and cooking water from the ephemeral stream in the canyon, and in the evening he returned to bathe. A running stream is a very rare luxury in the desert!

Paiutes carried water for dozens of miles across desert basins in beautiful, tightly woven basket canteens sealed on the inside with melted pine pitch. Their backpacks were large conical burden baskets. For multi-day treks, Max has been using an old Swiss Army surplus rucksack - often repaired - for the past 25 years. Here, he's at the end of an overnight trip over the mountains into a waterless basin in 95-degree weather, having carried 10 liters of drinking water in collapsible plastic canteens.


Max's Paiute skills class prepares jerky and sausages from the sheep they slaughtered earlier in the morning.

On Max's land, one of his biologist friends serves salad made from cabbage and other ingredients he grew in his garden. Cabbage is a desert favorite since it stays fresh longer than other greens and resists wilting in dry air.

Fuel & Fire

One of Max's artist friends tends the cooking fire in his cave in Chemehuevi territory. Max and his friends collect deadwood for cooking fires from buckhorn cholla and catclaw acacia, plentiful and fast-growing shrubs that burn hot.

While camping in the backcountry, Max builds the smallest cooking fires from sticks no thicker than his thumb, as he was taught in the Paiute skills class.


Max and Katie in their cave in Chemehuevi territory, December 1985. They spent a week making the rockshelter weatherproof, comfortable and secure, and it's still usable after 30 years.

Instructor Cody and student Ron, repairing a traditional Paiute winter lodge, high in an aspen grove in Kaiparowits territory.

Max's mother enjoying the lightweight shade structure he designed and built from cheap hardware-store components in 1991. He named it "yatampi" after the Chemehuevi name for the creosote bush, whose gentle curves deform gracefully in response to high winds without breaking.

Max putting the finishing touches on his traditional Paiute shelter, made with salvage materials from 19th century mining ruins.


Max gathering materials for a fire drill in Panaca territory, at the northern end of the Southern Paiute homelands, in 1990.

Spear thrower made by Max and a young desert friend. Archaeologists say that spear throwers, or atlatls, were used by desert Indians before they adopted the bow and arrow, but it is possible that they were simply alternative options for different purposes.

Atlatl in use.


Max inherited his desert hat from a friend. Here, he begins an autumn backpack to the top of a mountain range in Chemehuevi territory, in 1985.

In the heat of summer 1991, Max strips down to his loincloth and Jesus sandals.

Art & Music

Two of Max's artist friends pose with their finished work.

"Afternoon at the Cave" was improvised in Max & Katie's rockshelter on a summer's afternoon.

Max and his friends used powdered tempera paint which weathered off the boulders in a few months.

Since the mid-1980s, much of Max's art, and most of his music, have been inspired by experiences and visions from the desert.

Ratpenis was a legendary Chemehuevi runner who could cross vast distances in the old way, in the blink of an eye.

In 2002, Max set up studio in an old ranch building on an ecological preserve in Chemehuevi territory, where he furthered his Pictures of Knowledge project while studying ecology.

Max combined a diagram of the seasonal cycle with traditional artifacts: fire drill, dancing bells, sage bundle, split-twig figurine, and stone knife.


In 2005, Max organized a reunion of wildlife biologists from his field trips in the early 90s, and they hiked to the top of a desert mountain range to track radio-collared bighorn sheep.

In 2011, Max follows biologist friends on one of several nighttime field studies of endangered leopard frogs at a remote spring in Moapa Paiute territory.


Max's Paiute skills class climbed from a deep canyon to ridgetop to get their bearings while migrating 30 miles between camps.

Life Cycle

Two of the many friends given to Max by the desert give themselves to each other. They're now raising children in Chemehuevi territory.

Max and a young desert friend making a spear thrower in the workshop of an ecological preserve in Chemehuevi territory. Max learned shop skills from his grandfather beginning at age 8.

Fathers and sons relax in camp after a long day on the desert.

Max's love of wild nature and camping came from his father, who fell in love with the deserts of Nevada and eastern Oregon in the 1970s. But he lost the ability to travel and explore just as Max was being seduced by Chemehuevi territory. Seeing photos like this of Max's land, his father wished he could get out there too. As Max was leaving Powwow 2009, he regained a phone signal and learned that his father had died while he was camping in the mountains.

All contents Copyright © 2010-2019 Max Carmichael