Cahuilla People

The Cahuilla People

The Cahuilla People are the first known inhabitants of the Coachella Valley. They have lived in the Coachella Valley and surrounding mountains for over 3,000 years. This region provided the Cahuilla tall mountains, deep valleys, rocky canyons, passes and arid desert land for sustenance, shelter and places to escape in times of heat and cold. Long before the United States of America came into existence and long before the first Europeans first set foot on the North American Continent, Cahuilla People called this area their home. In the late 1700’s, according to the record of the White Man, the Cahuilla population was estimated to number about 6,000. There are some Cahuilla who believe the number was actually closer to 15,000. With the arrival of Europeans came diseases that killed many Cahuilla People. In particular a smallpox epidemic in the year 1863 wiped out over eighty percent of the Cahuilla population. Today the population is slowly starting to grow once again. There are now approximately 3,000 enrolled members in the nine Cahuilla nations.

The Cahuilla can be generally divided into three groups based on the geographical region in which they lived: Desert Cahuilla, Mountain Cahuilla and Western (San Gorgonio Pass) Cahuilla. All three spoke the Cahuilla language, had similar lifestyles and practiced the same traditions. The Augustine Band of Cahuilla Indians are Desert Cahuilla, and are one of a total of nine Cahuilla Indian nations. The other eight are: 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 and Los Coyotes Band of Cahuilla Indians. The websites for these other Cahuilla tribes can be found in our links section.

The word “Cahuilla” has been interpreted to mean “the master,” “the powerful one,” or “the one who rules.” The Cahuilla language is of the Takic division of the Uto-Aztecan family of languages, the most well-established linguistic family of the Americas. A 1990 census revealed that there were only about 35 people left who could speak the Cahuilla language. The language is nearly extinct, since most speakers are middle-aged or older. 

Bird Songs

One way the Cahuilla People are able to teach the Cahuilla language to the younger generation is through the traditional “Bird Songs.” Sung in Cahuilla, bird songs tell stories of the origin of the Cahuilla People and their travels in ancient times. These songs are passed down from generation to generation. They are referred to as “bird songs” because often the stories are told from the perspective of birds. They are typically sung for special occasions and are considered social songs. Anyone can sing them, men or women, the young or the elderly. They are not like special ritual songs that can be sung only by certain individuals.

Many songs tell of the journey of the Cahuilla People and their return home. According to Cahuilla legend, life began in the Coachella Valley and surrounding mountains when the Cahuilla People were created by their god, Mukat. When Mukat died turmoil erupted. The Cahuilla People were dispersed, they left the Valley and went far far away. Some believe they went as far away as South America. Bird songs tell of the story of their journey and return home.

Wildcat or Coyote

The Cahuilla People were divided into two moieties: Wildcat (Tuktum) and Coyote (Istam). Every Cahuilla was a member of his or her father’s moiety. In the Cahuilla culture members of one moiety were not allowed to marry a member of the same moiety. This helped to build strong social and economic alliances.

Moieties were comprised of subgroups known as Sibs. Membership in a Sib was determined according to relationship, or common descent, to the patriarch of the family (patrilineality). Up to 2,000 people could be members of the same Sib. They usually lived near one another in clusters of villages. Each Sib had their own territory.


Sibs in turn were divided into 3 to 10 Lineages. Each Lineage lived together in a village and could be made-up of as many as 200 people. Each village was an economically independent family-unit that had its own designated territory for gathering and hunting purposes. Thus, Cahuilla villages were made up of extended families: the father and his immediate family, married sons and brothers. Cahuilla women went to live in their husband’s village when they married. The leader of a village was called a “net.” The net presided over all village ceremonies and was responsible for resolving disputes.

Important Cahuilla villages were connected to one another by very well-defined trail systems that made movement from village-to-village relatively easy. The trails also connected the villages to gathering and hunting areas.

The Honey Mesquite Bean

Historians and researchers who visited Cahuilla villages in the 1890’s and early 1900’s reported that many of these villages were established near dense forests of honey mesquite trees. In fact, this was true of Temal Wakhish, later to become the Augustine Reservation. It’s easy to understand why. One of the most important food plant for the Cahuilla was the mesquite tree. It played a very important role in the life of a Desert Cahuilla. Not only did the mesquite bean, “menyikish,” provide a very nutritious food source, but the tree itself provided valuable construction material and provided a habitat that attracted important Cahuilla game animals, especially rabbits.

Mesquite trees produced edible blossoms in June and seed pods in July and August. The blossoms were roasted and eaten, or sun dried and placed in water to produce a refreshing beverage. The pods could either be eaten fresh or mashed and mixed with water to make a creamy fresh juice especially enjoyed by Cahuilla children. This drink was referred to as “menyikish pishpakhatem.” After a hard day’s work of gathering, children were happy to hear their grandmother say: “Today we’re going to drink menyikish.” The honey mesquite beans could be dried and eaten immediately without any preparation, or ground into a flour to be stored for later consumption. The ground powder would be made into a cake and stored. This cake could be consumed as either a drink or porridge, or eaten dry. The Cahuilla would also store the mesquite honey beans in large storage baskets.

The honey mesquite bean was considered very sweet and palatable. From a nutritional standpoint it was also very nutritious. Experts have described them to be approximately 8% crude protein, 54% carbohydrate and a little more than 2% fat.

Gatherers & Hunters

Plant foods, like the mesquite bean, provided the majority of the sustenance for the Cahuilla. In addition to food, plants also provided material necessary for shelter, clothing and tools. The Cahuilla women were the gatherers. Each village was designated its own gathering area in which exclusive gathering rights were held. Boundaries were determined by individual mesquite trees. Often would be heard these words to describe the boundaries: “Pe’hiwenet , pen pe’ hiwinet pen pe’ pika” (“That one there, and that one there and those over there.”). If certain trees had a bad year in terms of yield, neighbors would allow others to pick from their trees. However, if intruders were found trespassing in another’s gathering area without permission this could result in fights between the women.

The Cahuilla People were very respectful of nature and were very grateful for the nourishment nature provided to sustain life. During gathering activities women would make sure only to take that which was needed, and effort was made not to damage the plant. While gathering women would often say such things as: “Ne pishkal henyekawish etu’i. Penwenik pa’ipa peshkwa’iktem. Metewet etu’i tawpakhichi. ‘Amna’a hiwkal. Ahchama.” (“I have come to gather your fruit. I will store for later on something to eat. Plentiful your fruit this year. God lives. Thank you.”)

Although there was a great deal of emphasis on plant foods, many animals were also hunted and trapped for food and other raw materials.

Cahuilla men were the hunters. Hunting would take place on an as needed basis. The Desert Cahuilla would hunt big game animals such as deer and mountain sheep in the Little San Bernardino Mountains to the north-east and the Santa Rosa Mountains to the west. Before a big game hunt men would spend time in a sweat house for sweat bath purification. Special herbs would be used to remove human scent. During the purification process ceremonial songs would be sung that described the movements of the deer and asking for good luck during the hunt.

Hunting Practices

Small game animals provided the bulk of the meat protein in the Cahuilla diet. Small game was hunted in the Valley floor. Rabbits were especially bountiful and were prized not only for their meat, but also for their fur that was used to make soft warm clothing. Rabbits were hunted in a variety of ways. In preparation for a ceremony when a great deal of meat was needed, communal hunts would be organized and nets would be used. Other times rabbits would be hunted using bows and arrows and a special boomerang-like weapon called a “vukiva’al” (“rabbit stick”). In the hands of a skillful hunter, the “vukiva’al” was an effective weapon at a distance of up to fifty feet.

The Desert Cahuilla would make seasonal trips to the Santa Rosa Mountains to visit their brothers the Mountain Cahuilla. It was a Cahuilla custom never to visit someone empty-handed. Desert Cahuilla woman would take mesquite meal, powder and cakes. Oh how the Mountain Cahuilla would love this because they didn’t have mesquite trees. When the Mountain Cahuilla would visit the desert to attend ceremonies, they too would bring special gifts such as roasted agave and piņon nuts. During these seasonal visits up the mountain the Desert Cahuilla would spend up to two weeks. While the women gathered plant foods, the men would take advantage of the time and hunt deer. When it was time to return home both the dried meat and gathered plant food would be carried down the mountain in large burden baskets.


The Cahuilla women were experts in making baskets called a “nčat.” The baskets made were especially fine. They were made of grass and were either twined or coiled. The colors that were chosen to decorate the baskets included dark yellow, rich red, white and black. The particular designs were selected to represent the world in which the Cahuilla People lived. They would include flowers, eagles, lightning and whirlwinds. In early times the baskets were put to multiple uses. They were used for storing, sifting and carrying food, carrying babies, roasting seeds and even cooking. Cahuilla women could weave a basket so tight it could be used to carry water. When used for cooking the baskets were filled with water and hot rocks were placed in the basket to bring the water to boil.

With the Europeans came metal. The Cahuilla People were soon exposed to such items as metal pots and pans, kettles, buckets and cans.

There became less and less need for the Cahuilla basket and many women stopped making them. However, when more and more people started moving to the Coachella Valley, art collectors who valued the art and skill that went into making a traditional Cahuilla basket, soon created a demand for them. Cahuilla women began once again to make them. This was good for the Cahuilla women as the demand provided a source of income that could be used in the new cash economy to purchase such commodities as sugar, coffee, cloth and other necessities.

What started out as an art created out of necessity, soon evolved into a form of expression. Cahuilla women would express themselves by the baskets they made. Each would create baskets that expressed both their skill and personality. The baskets that were created reflected the artist’s creativity, imagination, design and organizational skills and, perhaps most of all, their patience.

Water Wells

For the Cahuilla People, living in a hot and dry desert environment, water has always been considered a precious natural resource essential for survival. Cahuilla villages were often located near a reliable water source such as a creek, a spring or hand-dug well. In the early years the Cahuilla were blessed with an underground aquifer that flourished with clean and pure water. So plentiful was the water that in some places artesian wells would form where the water would rise up to the surface without the need of pumping. The Desert Cahuilla were one of the few American Indian tribes to dig their own water wells. A few of these ancient wells still exist in the desert floor today. The Cahuilla called these wells “temakawomal” or “earth olla.” These hand-dug wells descended in a series of stair-steps down into the earth. The wells were dug gradually as the water table lowered. Paths were dug deeper and deeper to maintain access to the water. This practice also provided animals with access to water to drink, thus assuring their continued presence.