ETHNONYMS: Cahahaguillas, Coahuillas, Cowela, Dancers, Jecuches, Kahuilla, Kawia

The Cahuilla are an American Indian group who lived aboriginally and continue to live in south-central California in a region bordered roughly by the San Bernardino Mountains on the north and Borrego Springs and the Chocolate Mountains on the south. Neighboring groups were the Mohave, Tipai-Ipai, Serrano, Gabrielino, Juaneño, and Luiseño. Estimates of the precontact population range from thirty-six hundred to ten thousand. Today, the Cahuilla number about fifteen hundred and live on or, more often, near ten reservations in southern California. The Cahuilla language is classified in the Cupan subgroup of the Takic family of Uto-Aztecan languages. Although it had nearly become extinct, efforts are now underway through language programs for Cahuilla children to maintain its use. Because of their inland location, the Cahuilla were directly influenced by Europeans later than other more western groups. First contact with the Spanish was indirect through other Indian groups where missions were established and probably mostly involved the spread of European diseases to the Cahuilla. Regular contact began in about 1819 and led to the Cahuilla's adopting farming and cattle raising, working for the Spanish, and converting to Roman Catholicism. In 1863 the Cahuilla were Seriously depopulated by a smallpox epidemic. The reservation period began in 1877, and since that time and until the last twenty years the Cahuilla have been generally dependent on and under the influence of the federal government. Despite major changes in their economy, religion, and social and Political organization, the Cahuilla continue to stress their cultural identity while also identifying with the pan-Indian movement.

Aboriginally, the Cahuilla lived in permanent villages in sheltered valleys near water sources, with seasonal excursions to gather acorns. Because they occupied an ecologically diverse region, major food sources varied from one area to another. The Cahuilla, were, however, basically hunter-gatherers with rabbits, deer, mountain sheep, and small rodents hunted and acorns, cacti roots, mesquite, berries, and numerous other plant foods gathered. Basketry was highly developed, with four types of coiled baskets made and decorated. Today, the Cahuilla are integrated, though somewhat marginally, into the White economy and derive income from wage labor, salaried positions, business ownership, farming, and cattle raising.

Aboriginal social and political organization rested on patrilineages, clans, and moieties. Both the lineages and clans were landowning units. Reciprocity was a central value and permeated all relationships, both between humans and between humans and the supernatural world. The key leadership positions were the lineage leader, his administrative assistant, and the shamans. Tribal affairs are today managed by reservation business councils and administrative committees and through participation in interreservation associations.

The traditional religion emphasized the performance of individual rituals as a means of maintaining balanced relationships between all things and events in the universe. Traditional practices are still used in funeral ceremonies, though most Cahuilla are now Roman Catholics and some are Protestants.


Bean, Lowell J. (1978). "Cahuilla." In Handbook of North American Indians. Vol. 8, California, edited by Robert F. Heizer, 575-587. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution.

Bean, Lowell J., and Harry W. Lawton (1965). The Cahuilla Indians of Southern California. Banning, Calif.: Malki Museum Press.

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Jan 23, 2013 @ 8:20 pm
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