History and culture of the Cahuila Tribe

Regarding Native American tribes in the United States, some are far more popular than others. For example, most people have heard of the Cherokee, Cheyenne, and Comanche tribes, along with many others.

However, there are hundreds of Native American people groups that are far less famous and mostly unknown to the general public today. 

The Cahuilla tribe of California is one of these many people groups. This is unfortunate, given that the Cahuilla were some of the most peaceful and artistic people to ever live in North America. 

If you’re curious and want to know more about this unique and gifted group of Native Americans, keep reading. 

Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla IndiansĀ 

History and Origin of the Cahuilla Tribe

The Cahuilla tribe has a long history that has been passed down orally for generations. It’s believed that they first settled down in Southern California in what is now the Coachella Valley. 

While the Coachella Valley is famous today for being a winter-time destination and for various art and film festivals, it was a dry, arid valley in the 1600s when the Cahuilla Indians stumbled upon it. 

Presumably, the Cahuilla tribe settled in the Coachella Valley because of the unique combination of plains, mountains, and rivers. 

When they first settled in the valley, there was also a lake there which later dried out. 

Unlike many other Native American tribes in US history, once the Cahuilla tribe settled in Coachella, they weren’t forced to relocate. To this day, they still have reservations in Coachella and other parts of Southern California. 

Tribal Bands

While the Cahuilla tribe was a single, unified people group, they lived in bands or groups of between 600 and 800 individuals. 

Each band had its own form of leadership, but the various bands were at peace with one another, spoke the same language, and lived in relatively close proximity. 

Each of the bands falls into one of three categories depending on where they lived – Desert Cahuilla, Mountain Cahuilla, and Western Cahuilla. 

Within these categories, there are nine different Cahuilla groups:

  • Augustine Band of Cahuilla Indians 
  • Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indians 
  • Cabazon Band of Mission Indians 
  • Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians 
  • Morongo Band of Mission Indians 
  • Cahuilla Band of Mission Indians 
  • Ramona Band of Cahuilla Indians 
  • Santa Rosa Band of Mission Indians 
  • Los Coyotes Band of Cahuilla Indians

Together, these bands composed the Cahuilla Nation that comprised the Cahuilla tribe of Southern California. 

Lifestyle, Language, and Living Conditions

The Cahuilla Tribe spoke a unique dialect of the Uto-Aztecan language known as Cahuillan. In their own language, Cahuilla translates to either “the master,” “the powerful one,” or “the one who rules,” depending on who you ask. 

Despite this name, the Cahuilla were known as a peaceful, humble tribe that kept mostly to themselves. 

They didn’t try to make war against other tribes or white settlers and tended to live a solitary, content life in the Coachella Valley among the San Bernadino and San Jacinto Mountains. 

The Cahuilla were a patrilineal society that lived in groups or moieties according to relationships on their father’s side of the family. The various moieties could interact freely with one another, and you had to marry someone outside of your moiety. As such, the Cahuilla tribe had a strong sense of community and friendship among the different bands and moieties. 

The Cahuilla people typically lived in small, adobe structures or sun shelters with thatched roofs. 

They would live together in small villages of up to 200 people, once again, according to their patrilineal lineage. Each village had its own net or leader, which served the same purpose as a chief in that they governed the village and helped settle disputes. 

It was also common for villages to be connected to one another via an intricate trail system. 

Culture and Economy of the Cahuilla Tribe

As we said before, the Cahuilla people were very family and community-oriented. 

They were also a very peaceful tribe that avoided contact with white settlers until the late 1700s. However, while the Cahuilla managed to avoid direct contact with the whites, they weren’t spared from their diseases, namely smallpox. 

It’s estimated that nearly 80% of the Cahuilla tribe was wiped out by a smallpox epidemic in the late 1860s, reducing their numbers to around 6,000. 

The Cahuilla were, and still are, known for their skills with pottery and basket weaving. It was a very important part of their culture, and many of the women in the Cahuilla tribe possessed these skills. 

In addition to being masters of basketry and pottery, the women were also skilled gatherers

They would plant, harvest, and gather various fruits, vegetables, and seeds, which comprised a bulk of the Cahuilla diet and economy. They were especially reliant on the honey mesquite bean, which became a major part of their economy. 

While the women gathered and planted, the men would hunt small game using clubs, poison arrows, knives, and snares. The most common hunting game was rabbits, but they also went after big-game animals such as deer and mountain goats. 

What Were the Cahuila Beliefs? 

The Cahuilla believed that twin makers created the world and that everything in the universe was connected. 

As such, they would only hunt and kill animals as needed. They also made a concerted effort never to kill plants and animals when it wasn’t necessary and were excellent stewards of the environment. 

The Cahuilla in Modern History 

The first documented encounter between the Cahuilla tribe and Europeans was in 1774, when they encountered a group of Spanish explorers. 

Their first encounter with American settlers was in the 1840s when Chief Juan Antonio of the Cahuilla Mountain Band aided a white traveler on his journeys. 

The Cahuilla continued to have a good relationship with settlers alike until the Gold Rush in 1851. For the next several years, the Cahuilla occasionally fought with white settlers but avoided any major skirmishes. 

Finally, in 1877, the US government made a treaty with the Cahuilla and set up reservation boundaries. 

Today, the Cahuilla tribe still lives on these reservations throughout Southern California. 

It’s estimated that there are around 3,000 surviving members of the Cahuilla tribe, and only 35 speak the original Cahuillan language. They currently play a major role in the tourist economy of the modern Coachella Valley. 

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