ETHNONYMS: Kern River Indians, Te-bot-e-lob-e-lay

The Tubatulabal inhabited the drainage area of the upper Kern River in California's southern Sierra Nevada foothills region. They were loosely organized into three politically discrete bands (Pahkanapil, Palegawan, and Bankalachi [Toloim]) having a high degree of internal unity. They spoke mutually intelligible dialects of Tubatulabal, a Uto-Aztecan language. Only the Pahkanapil survived the intensive White settlement of their territory that began in the 1850s. Each band had a chief ( timiwal ) who, though he had little authority, acted as arbitrator and band representative; he also had some politicoadministrative duties. The timiwal was usually elected by the elder males of the various band hamlets. A number of mobile family groups made up a band. These lived in semipermanent hamlets near the rivers during the winter months but roamed widely during the remainder of the year. The individual households contained a single, biological, bilateral family, but also contained dependents of various types. Marriage was of two forms—gift exchange and groom service. There was no marriage ritual or postmarital residence rules. There was little inheritance since most personal possessions were destroyed after death. Real property was not inherited. Limited warfare occurred with the neighboring Yokuts, Koso, and Kawaiisu, motivated by revenge for attacks by them. The timiwal was expected to settle hostilities. There was much trade, both long and short distance, especially for white clamshell discs, a form of money.

First contact occurred in 1776 with the visit of Francisco Garces. In the ensuing years the Tubatulabal came into Contact with the Spanish on trading trips to the California coast, but they were not missionized by the Spanish. Extensive Contact with European-Americans began in the 1850s with the establishment of ranches in the area followed by the 1857 gold rush. Some conflicts with local Whites and the U.S. Army resulted in many deaths. By 1875 most male Tubatulabal were employed by White ranchers, and in 1893 the surviving Pahkanapil and Palegawan were allotted land in the Kern and South Fork valleys. Most still live in the Kern River valley area. In 1972 there were forty-three full- and mixed-bloods living there, with seven that could be counted in other parts of California.

Aboriginal material culture was simple. During winter, circular domed brush- and mud-covered one-family houses were used. Unwalled shelters were used during the warmer months. Most hamlets had an associated sweat house made of branches, poles, and brush, covered with mud and located near a natural or dammed pool. Women made coiled and twined baskets of split willow or yucca roots and deer grass, and coiled pottery. Self- and sinew-backed bows were used for hunting and warfare. Many varieties of nets, traps, snares, and throwing sticks were used in hunting. Basket traps, nets, harpoons, fishhooks, and corrals were used for fishing.

Subsistence was based on hunting, fishing, and gathering; there was no horticulture. Acorns and piñon nuts were staples, with fish second in importance. A variety of small seeds, shoots, leaves, bulbs, tubers, and berries was collected. Most gathering was done by the women. Rock salt, collected by men, was used for seasoning and preserving meat. Large game (deer, bear, mountain lion, mountain sheep, antelope) was hunted. Communal antelope drives were made with the Yokuts and Kawaiisu in the San Joaquin valley. Rabbits were the only small game actually hunted, usually in communal rabbit drives.

The Tubatulabal lacked any concept of a supreme deity, but believed in a number of spirits, both human and animal, and all treated with respect. Both men and women could become shamans. Male shamans had both curing and witching powers; the females had only witching power. Jimsonweed was used to cure sickness and obtain supernatural help. All misfortunes and death were attributed to witchcraft. There were no puberty rites.


Smith, Charles R. (1978). "Tubatulabal." In Handbook of North American Indians, Vol. 8, California, edited by Robert F. Heizer, 437-445. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution.

Voegelin, Erminie W. (1938). Tubatulabal Ethnography. University of California Anthropological Records, 2(1), 1-84. Berkeley.

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