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


Joshua Tree National Park was originally set aside as Joshua Tree National Monument, taking its name from the Joshua Tree, a tree Yucca (Yucca brevifolia) that grows in forests in widespread parts of the Mojave Desert. (Bean and Saubel 1972:153; Jaeger 1967:15-22).

The peoples who occupied and used portions of the area now set aside as Joshua Tree National Park before the arrival of Europeans in 1769 were the Serrano, the Cahuilla, the Mojave, and the Chemehuevi. The Serrano village of Mara at the present-day oasis at Park headquarters was, according to the Serrano creation story as told by elder Dorothy Ramon (Ramon and Elliot 2000), occupied from the time the Serrano arrived on earth until sometime between 1850 and 1870 by the Maringa Serrano. Thereafter it was occupied by the Chemehuevi, who, since they were a broad-ranging people, may have occupied the oasis alternately with the Serrano in some periods until all the Serrano had left and Chemehuevi moved in, especially after the Chemehuevi war with the Mojave in the late 1860s. The southern part of the park was Cahuilla territory.

Mojave and Chemehuevi use of the park in traditional times was probably seasonal and transitory, as was the use of areas of the park in areas distant from the oasis at Mara. People came to the area to harvest the area's plant, animal, and perhaps mineral resources when they became available, or crossed the area on the way to somewhere else. Mojaves used the area primarily as a place through which they traveled on visits to and from the coast to trade goods and visit with the Gabrielino and Chumash on the coast, and with other people en route. The oasis at Mara many have served as a ritual center where trade and exchange among the peoples of the desert took place.

Songs and stories, as well as material goods, were exchanged from one group to another, i.e., birdsongs of the Cahuilla might be sung by the Mojave. The source of the songs or stories was usually acknowledged, i.e., people might mention that "this is a Serrano song which we gave to the Mojave, which they sing with their own variations." In addition, many cultural ways, ritual objects, and the rituals themselves might be given to, or adopted by others. Curing practices and knowledge might be given to or adopted by others. The role of trader, one who routinely visited for purposes of trade served as an intercultural "newsperson," as well as a carrier of goods and ideas from one place to another. The rituals themselves required persons from many groups to attend them. These institutions thus served as exchange and communication events.

Elizabeth Campbell, who with her husband William H. Campbell conducted the survey of the area that has resulted in the collection of artifacts and data assembled at the Joshua Tree National Park Museum Collections' Facility and the Southwest Museum, addressed the question of which Indians had lived there in her "Archaeological Survey, Twenty Nine Palms Region" (1931). The Campbells were fortunate that one of the two individuals who preceded them in the central part of the area was a prospector, William McHaney, who had arrived in 1879, and was eager to share his observations with them. McHaney had been a keen observer as he did his prospecting, noticing the signs of Indian occupation. He had been friendly with the Indians who lived in the area, and had taken careful note of the ways they coped with their difficult environment. When he first arrived in the area, it was devoid of Indians, an epidemic having emptied the area of its human occupants, but he knew the people who came in 1890, who were Serrano and Chemehuevi. These last inhabitants did not make pottery themselves, but appropriated that left in the caves by their predecessors (Walker 1931:11, 19).

Campbell reported that Francisco Patencio, a Kauisik Cahuilla of the Agua Caliente Band at Palm Springs, told them that the Oasis was mostly Serrano at the time of his father and grandfather. McHaney confirmed that Serranos lived there circa 1875, but also said "there were as many visiting Indians that came into the district periodically. These Indians called themselves Paiutes and Chemehuevis (Campbell 1931:88-89). Although Patencio disclaimed any Cahuilla presence at Twentynine Palms, the Campbells asserted that there "certainly appears to be Cahuilla influence in this district, at least in the southern part." The pottery was Cahuilla in style, having jars with black patterns; the seed beaters found by the Campbells resembled those Kroeber had identified as Cahuilla; the large storage baskets and the arrow-straighteners they found were like those Kroeber had illustrated (Campbell 1931:88-89). A careful analysis of the Campbell collection and artifacts that have been found in subsequent archaeological surveys will probably show that a fair percentage of the collection can be attributed to one group or another.

The Campbells found most of the sites from which they collected artifacts within a 25 mile radius of the Mara Oasis, but they also searched other areas in the larger desert. There were open springs at Mara, but for miles in all directions there was no apparent surface water. There was water as close as 12 feet below the surface, but the Indians in this area are not known to have dug wells, as the Cahuilla in the Salton Sea area did. What water was accessible to the Indians lay in "gravel-covered reservoirs" known as "blind tanks," whose location was a secret the Indians held closely. The remains of Indian encampments were the most visible clues of their presence. For short periods after rainfall there was also water in some canyons. Barrel cacti served as a water source where they grew. When cattlemen arrived in the area, they built small dams with rock and cement in canyons and rock formations to catch water for their cattle (Walker 1931:10-11).

McHaney reported that when he arrived in the area, there were numerous pronghorns dotting the basins.1 "Wolves, coyotes, foxes, swifts, racoons, skunks, badgers, lynx, and wildcats" were popular with trappers. Bighorn sheep were abundant, but rarely seen, and there was an occasional wildcat. A few deer came "down from the San Bernardino Mountains" in the western part of the area. Beyond these, the area abounded in "rattlesnakes, horned toads, chuckwallas and other lizards, tortoises, packrats, gophers, ground-squirrels, antelope chipmunks, kangaroo rats and other rodents, ducks and geese when the lakes had water, quail and doves, jackrabbits and cottontailes, crickets and grasshoppers," all of them available as food for the Indians (Walker 1931:14).

1In view of this assertion, it is puzzling that Warren and Schneider (2001), in their review of what was learned from surface surveys in the park in 1992, note that no pronghorn bones were identified at sites.

Walker noted that the area did not look like a desert when seen from afar, much of it, thanks to stands of creosote bushes, appearing as a "solid mass of green-olive drab in winter, emerald in spring." Individual plants tended to be separated by spaces of bare ground, but this was not obvious from a distance. Fan palms, Washingtonia filifera were found at the oasis of Mara, and in Forty Nine Palms Canyon; Joshua Trees, at higher altitudes (above 2,000 feet). Mesquite and screwbeans grew in abundance, especially before the mining era that began in the 1860s, when many were cut by the freighters to sell for firewood in Los Angeles (1931:14).

In addition to these staples, there were "smoke trees, wild olives, desert willows, bladder pods, catclaws" in the washes, and "junipers, manzanitas, piñons and live oaks, grasses, sage brush, various cacti and many kinds of bushes" in the mountains. Piñon nuts, live oak acorns, and manzanita berries were important in the Indian diet. McHaney, who pronounced the Indians in this area the fattest he'd seen anywhere, noted that their food-gathering made it necessary to "lead a migratory existence, changing camp frequently in order to get mesquite beans, piñon nuts, ducks, mountain-sheep and so on. Finding it inconvenient to transport all their possessions, they would leave cooking-pots and ollas near a camp site ready for their return, particularly if there were suitable caves for storage close by" (Walker 1931:15).

Although the Indians of the area had a migratory life style, they had within the district most of the resources they needed: water, foods, "manzanita and desert willow for bows; arrow-canes and arrow-weeds for shafts; flints for arrow points; mesquite gum for attaching the points; clay for pottery; piñon pitch for mending the pottery; animals furnishing hides for moccasins, and pelts for robes and quivers;" and so on (1931:15). Camping, Walker thought, must have been a delight, since the sun almost always shone, the heat in summer was dry and thus bearable, and the winters rarely colder than 20°F. The Indians, when the first explorers arrived, usually wore little or no clothing, except for rabbit-skin robes in coldest winter, but by the time McHaney arrived, they wore white man's clothing except that they continued to wear their traditional moccasins (1931:16).

Warren and Schneider (2001:3.10) suggest that subsistence systems over the years no doubt diversified under environmental stress, hypothesizing that "As environmental stress increases, diversification within the subsistence system increases;" that "the form that diversification takes, in response to initial environmental stress, is a broader application of existing production systems;" that "during initial environmental stress, the subsistence focus, with its relative variation of tool forms and application of tools, will tend to be applied more broadly and to incorporate more innovations than other production systems;" and that "under extreme environmental stress (when population approaches and exceeds critical carrying capacity), the process of subsistence focusing diminishes and diversification increases in all production systems. New production systems are more likely to be adopted."

One might add to these responses three other categories; namely, increasing the marriage networks so that an individual group would have access to the assets of more distant territories and different economic resources; moving to areas where one has relatives, developing new "myths" regarding history and territory, increasing trade relationships with other groups; and redefining territorial boundaries by poaching and invading even if it leads to conflict or war. In addition, it is possible that peoples adopted new forms of environmental management, such as proto-agricultural techniques, and the adoption of plants used by neighboring groups. Certainly they did these things when Europeans entered California. Many of the Euro-American agricultural techniques and other ways were rapidly spread throughout the area, including horses, guns, clothing, etc.

There were red, black, and white pictographs in some of the caves, and petroglyphs on some canyon walls and boulders, some described by Julian Steward in "Petroglyphs of California and Adjoining States" (1929). Shallow and deep mortar holes on other rocks testified to the preparation of food by grinding, and thus were an indication of sites used for camping, but many sites were indicated only by "scattered flakes of flint and some tiny potsherds." Camp sites might be near covered water-holes, but were as much as a mile and a half away from open water lest the presence of people discourage animals from approaching the water (Walker 1931:18).

The dead, according to McHaney, were burned at camp sites and their ashes scattered. Their belongings were broken up. By the time the last Indians lived at the oasis, they buried their dead, and some of their possessions, but broke up other possessions. The homes of deceased made of brush were burned, but those of adobe were dismantled, the wood burned, and the adobe bricks broken up (1931:18-19).

Thus far, we have been discussing the peoples who occupied the Project Area in the nineteenth century. Now let us look at the culture and history of the various ethnic groups of which these peoples were members. The three of them who are known to have made their homes in what is now the park, the Serrano, Chemehuevi, and Cahuilla were speakers of Shoshonian languages, which are part of the Uto-Aztecan language family. The Chemehuevi, a branch of the Southern Paiutes, spoke a Numic language, related to that of the Utes and other Paiutes. The Serrano and Cahuilla spoke Takic languages, related to that of the Gabrielino, Acagchemem, and Luiseno further west, and more distantly to that of the Hopi. The Serrano language was very similar to that of the Gabrielino, even though their culture was closer to that of their neighbors, the Cahuilla. The Cahuilla and Luiseno languages were similarly close. All of these three groups were non-political ethnic nationalities; that is, they did not have a name for their nationalities, did not make a political claim to their territories, and did not make war as whole groups. Instead they had clan and lineage names, had property rights as clans and lineages, and went to battle as clans and/or lineages. The Mojaves, on the other hand, knew themselves by their name, claimed the whole Mojave desert, and went to war as a people.

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Last Updated: 02-Aug-2004