Joshua Tree
The Native American Ethnography and Ethnohistory of Joshua Tree National Park
An Overview
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by Cultural Systems Research, Inc.
August 22, 2002


A. Major Sources.

The major sources on the ethnography of the Cahuilla include Francisco Patencio's Stories and Legends of the Palm Springs Indians (1943), and Desert Hours (1971); Lowell John Bean's The Wanakik Cahuilla (1960) and Mukat's People: The Cahuilla Indians of Southern California (1972), Philip Drunker's Culture Element Distributions V: Southern California (1937); A. L. Kroeber's "Ethnography of the Cahuilla Indians" (1908), and his chapter on the Cahuilla in his Handbook of the Indians of California (1925); Herbert E. Bolton's Anza 's California Expeditions, Vols. I-IV (1930); W. D. Strong's Aboriginal Society in Southern California (1929); Bean and Sylvia Brakke Vane's "Persistence and Power: A Study of Native American Peoples in the Sonoran Desert and the Devers-Palo Verde High Voltage Transmission Line" (1978), "Chapter V. Ethnography and Ethnohistory" in "Archaeological, Ethnographic, and Ethnohistoric Investigations at Tahquitz Canyon, Palm Springs, California, Vol. I" (1995), and "The Ethnography and Ethnohistory of Western Riverside County, California" (1997); and the field notes of Eric Elliot and Bean.

Sources on the ethnohistory of the Cahuilla include Bean's 1978b [in Stanley]; Bean and William Marvin Mason's The Romero Expedition, 1823-1826: Diaries and Accounts of the Romero Expeditions in Arizona and California (1962); Bean and Vane's "Chapter V. Ethnography and Ethnohistory" in "Archaeological, Ethnographic, and Ethnohistoric Investigations at Tahquitz Canyon, Palm Springs, California, Vol. I" (1995), and "The Ethnography and Ethnohistory of Western Riverside County, California" (1997); and Beattie and Beattie's Heritage of the Valley: San Bernardino 's First Century (1951).

B. Traditional Territory.

In the Claims Case, the Cahuilla claimed the following:

Beginning at a point which is approximately 7'/2 miles North and 10 miles East of Volcan Mountain; thence Easterly in an irregular line to a point in the area of the Salton Sea, which is approximately 14 miles West from the town of Niland; thence Northeasterly in an irregular line to a point which is approximately 12 miles West of the Colorado River and three miles South of the Riverside-San Diego County line; thence Northerly in an irregular line parallel with and approximately 12 miles Westerly of the Colorado River to a point due West from Blythe; thence Westerly in an irregular line to the approximately area of the present Hayfield Reservoir on the Colorado River Aqueduct; thence Westerly in an irregular line following the line of said Aqueduct to a point due North from San Jacinto Peak; thence South in an irregular line to the approximate area of San Jacinto Peak; thence Southeasterly in an irregular line to the approximate area of Lookout Mountain; thence Westerly in an irregular line to Coahuilla Mountain; thence Southwesterly in an irregular line to a point approximately 2 miles South from the town of Sage; thence Southeasterly in an irregular line to a point which is approximately 9 miles Northwest from the top of Hot Springs Mountain; thence Southeasterly in an irregular line to a point which is approximately 4 miles North from said top of Hot Springs Mountain; thence South in an irregular line approximately 4 miles to the approximate area of Hot Springs Mountain; thence Easterly in an irregular line to a point that is approximately 3 miles North from the point of beginning; thence South approximately 3 miles to the point of beginning (U.S. Court of Claims 1950-1960: Docket 80).

The Cahuillas' easternmost known rancherias lay in the Coachella Valley at the northern end of Lake Cahuilla. Cahuillas from here, and perhaps from other Cahuilla groups, hunted in the desert areas to the east, and entered the Project Area from time to time to gather special plant resources. Saturnino Tones, an elder at Tones-Martinez Indian Reservation, remembers hunting in the Eagle Mountain area when he was young (Bean and Vane 1990).

C. Subsistence Resources.

1. Plants. See Bean and Vane' Ethnobotany; Bean and Saubel's Temelpakh (1972).

2. Animals. Subject of proposed Ethnozoology. (See Bean and Vane 1995).

D. Material Culture, Technology.

The Cahuillas hunted with throwing sticks, clubs, nets, traps, dead falls with seed triggers, spring-poled snares, arrows (often poison-tipped) and self-backed and sinew-backed bows. They sometimes fired bush clumps to drive game out in the open, and flares to attract birds at night. Baskets of various kinds were used for winnowing, leaching, grinding, transporting, parching, storing, and cooking. Pottery vessels were used for carrying water, for storage, cooking, serving food and drink. Cahuilla tools included mortars and pestles, manos and metates, fire drills, awls, arrow-straighteners, flint knives, wood, horn, and bone spoons and stirrers, scrapers, and hammerstones. Woven rabbitskin blankets served to keep people warm in cold weather. Feathered costumes were worn for ceremonial events, and at these events the Cahuilla made music using rattles derived from insect cocoon, turtle and tortoise shell, and deer-hoofs, along with wood rasps, bone whistles, bull-roarers, and flutes, to make music. They wove bags, storage pouches, cords, and nets from the fibers of yucca, agave, and other plants (Drunker 1937; Bean 1962-1972; Bean 1972, 1978). Remains found in the area show that they stored food and supplies in caves, often in baskets.

Cahuilla families usually lived in circular domed houses with a central fire pit. They varied in size and material, and often had attached ramadas or arbors for shade. It is probable that within the Project Area, Cahuillas, who would have come there to harvest particular crops, would have built brush houses that were fast to build, but would protect them from the sun, rain, or wind, as necessary (Bean 1972).

E. Trade, Exchange, Storage.

The Cahuilla used huge basketry granaries set on poles for storing acorns, mesquite beans, screw beans, and other foodstuffs. Seeds, dried fruits, and raw materials were stored in ceramic ollas. Fruits, blossoms, and buds were dried in the sun to preserve them, and other foods were preserved by sealing them hermetically with pine pitch.

Cahuillas' favored trading partners were the Halchidhoma, before the 1830s, and the Gabrielinos. Many exchanges were on a basis of reciprocity (Bean 1978:583).

6. Social Structure.

Like Serrano clans, Cahuilla clans belonged to either Wildcat or Coyote moieties, which were exogamous, non-political, and non-territorial. Cahuillas were forbidden to marry within five degrees of consanguinity. Each clan was composed of three to ten landholding patrilineages. The net of each lineage was its administrator of political, economic, and religious affairs. He was helped by an administrative assistant, the paxa, and other officials (Bean 1978).

7. Religion.

World View. The Cahuilla believed that they lived in a systematic, but unpredictable, universe, in which one could maintain existence only by being able to access and use "?iva?a," or power, which was also unpredictable, and potentially dangerous. They accordingly were constantly in a state of apprehension about the future, an attitude that was realistic in the desert environment of their homeland (Bean 1972:161-164).

They believed that "?iva?a," was differentially distributed, a fact that explained unusual talents or abilities, and unexpected events. It was possessed by both animate and inanimate beings, any of whom could use it for both negative and positive actions. They believed also that human beings and other parts of the universe made up an interacting system, a belief that fostered an ecological ethic (1972:163-165).

According to Cahuilla tradition, each individual had a tewlavelem, or soul spirit, that persisted after his or her death in temelkis, the land of the dead, where all the tewlavelem and the nukatem (people from Creation Time) lived, and which was located somewhere to the east. It could usually be reached only after an arduous ritual in which both the telmekis and the living survivors of the deceased participated. Once there, the tewlavelem could still hold some communication with the living, sending them advice and help (1972:168-169).

The Cahuilla creator gods were twin brothers, Mukat and Temayawet, who fought over who was the older, in keeping with Cahuilla respect for the aged, a useful adaptation in a difficult environment since it encouraged younger people to draw on the wisdom of their elders in threatening situations. Mukat, who worked slowly and carefully at the task of creation, and who promoted caution, precision, and orderliness in the face of challenge, won out over his brother, who "worked rapidly and injudicially" (1972:171). The latter departed for the underworld. Unfortunately, Mukat was not consistently benign. He taught his people how to live, but tended on occasion to give them bad advice in a spirit of trickery. He also violated Menily (moon maiden), who gave people additional advice on how to live. His people for these reasons magically killed him, and as he lay dying, he gave instructions for his cremation. Despite precautions, Coyote managed to steal Mukat 's heart from his burning corpse and to run with it into the desert, where it left red pigment where it was put down. The story of the cremation is sung at Cahuilla nukil ceremonies, sung ceremonially every year or two in memory of those who have died since the last nukil. These were the Cahuilla's most sacred ceremonies (1972).

Reciprocity was an important value in Cahuilla rules for living. Not only were humans to give and receive freely in relationships with each other, but "humans were to reciprocate with supernatural powers to maintain the world order," with the humans being responsible for performing ritual in return for Mukat's and the nukatem's "support of man's existence" by using "?iva?a" (Bean 1972:174). It was so important that rituals be conducted with absolute accuracy that most traditional rituals are no longer performed, there being no individuals remaining who can be trusted to perform them without any deviations from the proper form. Bean points out that in order to live successfully in a difficult environment, the Cahuilla needed to value precision and order as they did. They had to have a comprehensive understanding of what we know as botany, zoology, and geology if they were to be successful hunters and gatherers in their desert and mountain territory. They also had to be able to communicate precisely with respect to directions and distance in space (1972:174-177). The Serrano creation story, as described above, was similar to that of the Cahuilla, as were their religious beliefs and practices in general.

In considering the places and natural features of a place such as Joshua National Park, that the Cahuilla nukatem or early people are associated with certain kinds of natural features should be taken into consideration. These included:

Taqwish, who travels about the area at night or in the early morning, leaving his home on San Jacinto Peak to capture souls, and is seen as meteor or "an anthropomorphic form shooting sparks." He was the first puul, or wielder of supernatural power, appointed by Mukat, and often acted as mentor to other puvalem. He tends to bring trouble to humans, in opposition to Mukat's intent (1972:166). (People whose souls are stolen become ill or die.)

Kutya?i, or firewind, is a similar being, in that he travels at night capturing souls. He manifests himself as a whirlwind and is dangerous. Tenauka, wind action, also travels about to catch souls, but in daytime. A white deer may be a manifestation of Pemtexweva, the master of hooved animals, who is associated with beings called pa?vu?ul, who can transform themselves into other beings such as deer and antelope (1972:166-167).

Springs may harbor Pa?ahniwat, who may take the form of a serpent or a water baby, that could often be heard crying out. He also acted as sponsor for puvalem. Palpuhawil, in Strong's version of the Cahuilla creation story (Strong 1929:132) is a water demon who emerged from the water to live in the sky, but sometimes is manifested as a water spout in association with thunder clouds (Bean 1972:167).

"A flash or streak in the air" may be Tematsuwet, another daylight soul catcher, who ordinarily is seen as a star. A wind, and especially the northwind, is Yavi, who dries things up. Another being, whom Bean does not name, is associated with the rain, who was created during creation time and sent to the sky to make things grow, and thus was a more benevolent nukatem than some (1972:167).

The eagle, Aswut; the wildcat, Tukut; and the coyote, or ?isily, are all nukatem area or primal beings who "connect the distant past with the present," and thus are sacred to the Cahuilla (1972:166-168).

H. History.

1. Early History. The history of the Cahuilla in general has been told in various Bean and Vane reports (1978; 1991; 1995; 1997), and in Bean and Mason 1960. Some history is contained in Mukat's People (1972). Archaeological data suggest that they have occupied their traditional territory in the central part of the southern California area south of the San Bernardino Mountains for some two thousand years.

2. The Arrival of Europeans and Euro-Americans. The arrival of the Spanish and Mexicans in southern California in 1769 may have pushed them further inland and further into the mountains. Otherwise, they were less impacted by the Spanish intrusion than their neighbors. Few were baptized in the coastal Spanish missions until the 1820s, when some were brought into Mission San Gabriel. Others were baptized at a later time at the San Ysabel Asistencia (later the Franciscan Indian Mission) established in the Santa Ysabel Valley southwest of Warner Springs by Mission San Diego, and at the church of Our Lady of Snows, which Santa Ysabel established on Cahuilla Reservation (Bonaventure 4/25/1945). Not much has been reported about Cahuilla involvement in the Project Area, but it is remembered that the southern part of Joshua Tree National Park was within the area in which Cahuillas from the settlements at the northern end of the Salton Sea hunted and gathered plant products.

In 1874 gold and silver was discovered in the vicinity of Twentynine Palms, bringing it about that numerous prospectors procured themselves mining outfits and headed for the mines. A reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle wrote about his own trip. His party left the stage road at Whitewater and branched off to the left into the desert. Eventually it reached the Blue Jay mine. The Eagle and the Valentine had not yet been as thoroughly prospected, he wrote. Supplies were brought in by the Cahuilla Indians from Agua Caliente, who had "some fine ranches and now find a profitable market for their products." It was said that the mines had been discovered by the Cahuillas. "Some of them have some very fine specimens of gold quartz which they freely exhibit, but are very reticent when questioned as to the locality in which they found it" (San Francisco Chronicle 3/7/1874).

3. Reservations. Reservations began to be established for Cahuillas in the 1870s. The nearest of these to the Joshua Tree National Park was Morongo Indian Reservation, first permanently established in 1877. Although it had been intended as a home for all the Shoshonean-speaking Indians of southwestern California, it was the Cahuillas and Serranos who became its residents. Over the years people there have maintained a fairly close relationship with the Indians who used and occupied the area now set aside as the park. Clara True, the Indian agent who was most interested in the Twentynine Palms Reservation, had her main office at Morongo, from which she traveled by buggy to visit the people at Twentynine Palms.

Twentynine Palms people have also interacted often with the Cahuillas at Tones-Martinez Indian Reservation, Augustine Indian Reservation, Cabazon Indian Reservation, and Agua Caliente Indian Reservation-all in the Coachella Valley, and came to share a reservation with those at Cabazon, as we have noted. Los Coyotes Indian Reservation, Santa Rosa Indian Reservation, Cahuilla Indian Reservation, and Ramona Indian Reservation, for the most part in the Santa Rosa mountains, are S also Cahuilla reservations. These reservations, for good and ill, have had considerable attention from Mission Indian agents over the years. There were reservation schools on most of them until about 1915 when Indian children were allowed to go to public schools. Sherman Institute, founded about the turn of the century, was also available to them, as was St. Boniface School in Banning, the latter operated by the Catholic Church.

Beginning in the early years of the twentieth century, the Indian Irrigation Service (IIS) began to build irrigation systems on a number of reservations set aside for the Cahuilla, including Torres-Martinez, Agua Caliente, Morongo, Santa Rosa, and Cahuilla reservations. To some extent, these systems accomplished their purpose of improving the agricultural potential of reservation lands, but the IIS was persistently underfunded, and never managed to keep its irrigation systems in good enough condition to make agriculture a feasible means for Indians to earn a living. By the 1920s, farming was already taking second place to wage labor.

Indian agents, not understanding the important role of the ceremonial events that came to be known as fiestas, tried to bring them to an end. This was so serious a threat to their communities that School Superintendent William H. Stanley, whose policies had been particularly destructive to the fiesta tradition, was murdered on Cahuilla Reservation in 1912. Stanley's murderers were sent to prison for subsequent years in the encouragement of Indian participation in county fairs as a substitute for fiestas. Indian babies were entered in "best baby" contests; jams, jellies, and baked goods made by Indian women vied for prizes; and laces and embroideries made by Indian women were likewise entered in the competitions. Indian agents continued to make the rules for holding fiestas more stringent.

There was also, during the period following Stanley's murder, a decrease in the amount of self-government permitted the Indians. On some reservations, at least, such offices as Indian judges and Indian police disappeared, as Indian agents took upon themselves the right to make decisions for the reservation. Unbeknownst to them, the traditional tribal structure still held, and the nets, paxas, and other tribal officials still wielded considerable power, but without public display. Also "underground" were the beginnings of a new political force, the Mission Indian Federation (MIF), which first became public in 1918 when its leaders from most of the southern California Indian reservations participated in a well-publicized meeting at the home of a non-Indian sponsor, Jonathan Tibbets, in Riverside. For the next two decades, the MIF was a force in southern California Indian affairs westward from the Little San Bernardino Mountains. It attempted to have a shadow governing body at each reservation, working to get rid of the Office of Indian Affairs. It was instrumental in getting passed a law that permitted the Indians of California to sue the federal government for taking their lands without a treaty, and without payment. This law led in the end to the Claims Cases of the 1940s and 1950s. Cahuillas were very active in this organization, along with Luisenos, Serranos, Gabrielinos, and Kumeyaay (Bean and Vane 1995, 1997).

Cahuillas were very active in the 1920s and 1930s in the struggle to resist the allotment of reservation land to individual Indians, but eventually Morongo, Agua Caliente, and Tones-Martinez reservations were allotted. When some Agua Caliente lands became extremely valuable in the 1950s, the U.S. Congress mandated an equalization process that gave all band members as of 1957 allotments of as nearly equal value as could be arranged.

Cahuillas served in the armed forces, and worked in war industries during World War II, and thereafter moved more rapidly into the mainstream of American life than had hitherto been possible. The number living on reservations, where sanitary facilities and other utilities were very slow to appear, in part because the U.S. government at the time was bent on termination of the reservations and providing special services to Native Americans. In the 1960s, the government began again to take an interest in the Indians, and took steps to bring living conditions more up to date. Natural gas, electricity, water, and telephone service gradually became more available, and housing was improved as part of the "Great Society" laws of the Johnson administration. Reservation people began to move back to the reservations, often given an impetus by the high cost of living in urban areas. As noted in the "Chemehuevi" section of this report, the Twenty-nine Palms Band of Mission Indians is now closely identified with the Cahuillas of the Coachella Valley, and shares the Cabazon Reservation. The descendants of the Cahuilla who once lived at Twentynine Palms have scattered, but many of them are enrolled at Morongo Reservation, which has a successful casino, and is the home of Malki Museum, the first museum in California established and run by Native Americans.

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Last Updated: 02-Aug-2004