Copyright © by Toucan Valley Publications, Inc. | Source Citation


Location: Eastern California, in the Tehachapi Mountains (San Bernardino County & parts of southern Inyo & eastern Kern Counties)

Language: Uto-Aztecan family

1770 estimate:
1910 Census: 150

Because their lands lay on both the east and west sides of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, the culture of the Kawaiisu was related both to the California groups to the west, and the Great Basin groups to the east in Nevada.  In earlier times, the Kawaiisu may have been part of the Chemehuevi, their neighbors to the east.


The Kawaiisu were mountain people.  Their territory ranged from 1,000 to 7,500 feet above sea level.   

People lived in family groups.  Families who lived close to each other were usually related to each other.  One or two men in each village were considered to be the leaders.  They were responsible for organizing celebrations, and had to provide food  and dancing for the guests.  A leader did not inherit his position from his father, but was chosen by the people because of his leadership skills or his wealth.

The Kawaiisu called themselves niwi (meaning person) or niwiwi (meaning people).  They have also been known as the Tehachapi or Caliente Indians.


During the winter, the people lived in circular houses made from poles and brush.  A number of forked poles were bound together at the top, leaving an opening for a smoke hole.  Other poles were tied across the standing poles, and all the spaces in between the poles were filled in with brush.  Mats made from bark or tule reeds were placed on top of the brush, to keep out the rain.  A tule mat was used to cover the door opening. 

In summer, shade was more important than warmth.  The women did their work under a flat shade roof, open at the sides.  At certain times of year, the entire group would move to a new location where food was plentiful.  They put up brush fences around the area to serve as windbreaks, but did not build houses except in places where they would spend the winter.

The Kawaiisu men used sweathouses to cleanse themselves.  The sweathouse was smaller than the homes, and the pole framework was covered with earth.  If possible, the sweathouse was located near the water source, so the men could jump into the cold water after being in the hot sweathouse.


Acorns were the main food for the Kawaiisu.  There were seven kinds of oak trees that grew in their territory.  Since the acorns could be gathered only in the fall, the people always hoped for a harvest large enough to last them through the winter.  They stored the acorns, as well as other nuts and seeds, in special little buildings set on poles several feet off the ground, to keep animals from getting their food.

Other edible plants that grew in the Tehachapi Mountains were wild celery, wild parsley, rice grass, fiddleneck ferns, box thorn, chia, and other grasses.  A few varieties of berries could be found.  In addition to acorns, buckeye nuts were gathered and ground into flour and then used to make mush or flat cakes.  The Kawaiisu could get other plants, such as mesquite, from the nearby desert, but desert plants were a small part of their diet. 

The favorite meat of the people was deer.  There may have been times when the Kawaiisu joined with the neighboring Chumash and Yokuts in an antelope hunt.  They also ate many smaller animals, rodents, birds, and some insects.  A certain type of caterpillar was a common food.  The Kawaiisu knew how to catch fish with bone hooks, but seldom had fish to eat because there were not many rivers in their area. 


Kawaiisu women and older girls wore a two-piece skirt, one part hanging in front and the other behind, fastened around the waist.  The skirt was usually made of deerskin.  Men wore a piece of  deerskin around their hips.  Children wore no clothing except when it was very cold.  Then babies were wrapped in wildcat skins or in blankets made of rabbitskin.  Rabbitskin blankets were also used as cloaks or robes by both men and women in cold weather.

On their feet the people wore shoes made of deerskin, the bottoms covered with pitch and ashes to make them sturdier.  Before using deerskin to make shoes or clothing, they had to treat the skins by soaking them and then scraping them to remove the hair.  They made the skins soft by working them between their hands.

It was common for women to have their ears and noses pierced.  They decorated themselves with strings of beads in their ears, and small bone nose plugs.  Both men and women often had tattoos on their hands, arms, and face.  Women also used face and body paint, when it was available.  Men usually painted themselves only for ceremonies. 


The baskets made by the Kawaiisu were somewhat different from those of other California groups.  They used both the twining and the coiling methods, but in the coiled baskets they used a technique called wicikadi, meaning wrapped around, in which they wrapped the coils around the foundation rods, rather than sewing them.  Willow, oak, rosebush stem, and deergrass were used to make baskets.  The baskets were sometimes decorated by patterns made by weaving in black fibers, or the quills of birds.

The Kawaiisu may have gotten some pottery pots from their neighbors to the east, but they probably did not make pottery themselves.  They made baskets that would hold water by weaving them very finely and covering the baskets with pitch.

For hunting, bows and arrow were used.  The bow was made of juniper wood, and the bowstring of twisted sinew (animal tendons).  Arrows had points made from obsidian (volcanic glass), bound to the arrow shaft with sinew. 

Obsidian was also used to make knives.  Handles for the knives were made from a substance called lac gum, which was deposited by aphids on sagebrush.  Nets were woven of cord, which was made by twisting three strands of fiber from milkweed stems.


The Kawaiisu had trading relationships with all the groups around them, though they probably traded less with the Chemehuevi in the desert to the east than they did with the Yokuts and Tubatulabal to the north and the Chumash, on the west coast.  From those to the north they got obsidian and salt in exchange for acorns. 

When goods could not be traded for other goods, shell beads were used as money.  These beads came from the Chumash, who lived on the sea coast.


Dancing was an important part of every ceremony.  Musical instruments were used by the Kawaiisu at their dances.  They had a flute with six holes made of elderberry wood.  They used split pieces of  cane as clappers, and cocoons and deer hooves as rattles to keep the rhythm for the dancing.

Both men and women had special clothing for ceremonies.  The men wore aprons made from the soft feathers of baby eagles, and they painted their bodies with white paint.  Women used red paint on their faces, and baby eagle feathers in their hair.

Other groups were invited to come when the Kawaiisu held a ceremony in remembrance of those who had died.  Brush and bark shapes were dressed in the clothing of the dead.  The images were then thrown into the fire.

Go to Top