Cahuilla Tribe of California

Published on September 17, 2010 by Alice

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The Cahuilla, a Uto-Aztecan-speaking tribe, lived between the Little San Bernardino Mountains and the Santa Rosa Mountains in present-day Riverside and San Diego Counties of California. Their branch of Uto-Aztecan, which they shared with the CUPEÑO, GABRIELEÑO, Kitanemuk, LUISEÑO, and Serrano, is known as Takic. A Cahuilla subgroup discussed as the Desert Cahuilla held territory at the northern end of the Colorado Desert; the Mountain Cahuilla, in the moun­tains south of San Jacinto Peak; and the Western, or Pass, Cahuilla, in Palm Springs Canyon. Some Cahuilla, like other CALIFORNIA INDIANS in the region, were con­verted to Christianity by Spanish missionaries, becoming known as MISSION INDIANS, but most resisted relocation to missions successfully. Cahuilla, sometimes spelled as Kawia and pronounced kah-WEE-ya, is the Spanish name for the tribe and is probably derived from kawiya, meaning “masters” or “powerful ones.”


The Cahuilla lived in small villages of both dome-shaped and rectangular dwellings, covered with brush or thatch, typically placed near a water supply. They also built sun shelters without walls. The tribe as a whole was orga­nized into two groups known as moieties—Coyote and Wildcat—consisting of various politically autonomous clans. The dozen or so clans each controlled a territory of several hundred square miles. Clans gathered for cere­monies, one of them being the nukil during which the dead were honored with an oral recitation of the clan’s belief system and history. In the Cahuilla creation myth, the Creator is know as Mukat.

The Cahuilla collected as many as 200 plants for food, medicine, and building materials. Among the food sources were acorns, piñon nuts, mesquite beans, and cactus buds. With bows and arrows, throwing sticks, clubs, and traps, they hunted bighorn sheep, mountain goats, deer, antelope, and smaller mammals, especially rabbits. Living in the desert, their hunting-gathering way of life resembled that of GREAT BASIN INDIANS to the east and north, such as the PAIUTE, another Uto­Aztecan-speaking people, and some SOUTHWEST INDI­ANS to the east, such as the YUMA (QUECHAN) and MOJAVE. They also practiced some farming of corn, beans, and squash. The Cahuilla were skilled in making baskets, typically using the coiling method to weave them. They also made pottery, a skill perhaps taught to them by the Paiute.

Contacts with Non-Indians

The first known contact between the Cahuilla and non-Indians occurred in 1774 when a Spanish expedition led by Juan Bautista de Anza—in search of a trade route from present-day southern Arizona to the San Gabriel Arcangel Mission near present-day Los Angeles—tra­versed their lands. Since the Cahuilla lived in more iso­lated desert and mountain regions, they managed to maintain their traditional way of life through the first half of the 19th century, unlike tribes to the west that fell under the influence of Spanish missionaries early on.

In 1849–50, Cooswootna, a Mountain Cahuilla leader known to non-Indians as Juan Antonio, offered support to the U.S. military, helping protect an expedition under Lieutenant Edward Fitzgerald Beale against attacks by the UTE. In appreciation, Beale, presented the Cahuilla chief with a set of military epaulets that he wore as part of his ceremonial clothing. In 1851–52, Cooswootna helped suppress a Cupeño uprising led by Antonio Garra. In spite of Cooswootna’s aid, the California senate refused to ratify an 1852 treaty giving the Cahuilla control of their lands. In 1854–55, Cooswootna himself led attacks on settlers, but when attempts at an alliance with the Yuma and Mojave failed, he ended the resistance. In 1863, Cooswootna died in a smallpox epidemic that ravaged the tribe. (Almost 100 years later, in 1956, in the course of an archaeological exca­vation at San Timoteo, an Indian skeleton was discovered with military epaulets, which were used to identify it as that of Cooswootna; his remains were reburied with tribal honors.) Starting in 1877, the U.S. government established reservation boundaries that significantly reduced Cahuilla lands. The development of Palm Springs as a resort area led to further cultural dispossession.

Helen Hunt Jackson and Ramona

In 1882, the Department of the Interior appointed Helen Hunt Jackson as a special agent to investigate the problem of non-Indian encroachment on the reservations of Cali­fornia’s Mission Indians. Jackson, a writer from Massachu­setts and an activist on American Indian issues, had earlier supported the PONCA in their legal struggle for a homeland in Nebraska and had published the work A Century of Dis­honor just the year before this new assignment. Her report resulted in the Interior Department’s being granted the authority to use military force to remove non-Indian set­tlers from Indian lands. Her findings also resulted in a con­gressional appropriation enabling Indians to homestead their lands and acquire individual titles without cost. Her experience as a special Indian agent in California inspired her next book, Ramona (1884), the fictionalized account of a Cahuilla woman who, as a Native American, was not allowed to testify as the only witness to her husband’s mur­der, resulting in the acquittal of the white man involved. The popularity of the work led to a newfound interest in California Indians and visitors to the region. A pageant based on the book came to be held annually in the town of Hemet. The real Ramona, known for her basketwork, was interviewed by the researcher George Wharton James, who published Through Ramona’s Country in 1908.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Native American Tribes by CARL WALDMAN Unabridged
Based on the collective work of, © 2015 Native American Encyclopedia.
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