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Location: Southern California coast (San Diego County, parts of Riverside & Orange Counties)

Language: Uto-Aztecan family

1770 estimate:
1910 Census: 500

The Luiseño and the Juaneño are sometimes referred to as two groups because of the two missions (Mission San Luis Rey and Mission San Juan Capistrano) built in their territory in 1776 and 1798.  Based on language and culture, they were probably one group.


Luiseño territory stretched from the ocean inland along the San Luis Rey and Santa Margarita rivers. The Juaneño were to the north of them, from the sea to the crest of the Sierra Santa Ana mountains. Villages were located both on the coast and along rivers and streams in the inland hills.  There may have been as many as 50 villages.

Each village was separate, with very little connection to its neighbors.  The village owned a certain area, and individuals and families owned places within the village area.  Village boundaries were marked and protected.  Each village had its own hunting, fishing, and food gathering areas, and the people seldom traveled far from their village.  Permission had to be given before people from one village could walk across the land belonging to another village.

The names Luiseño and Juaneño came from the names of the Spanish missions.  Before that time, the people probably had no group name for themselves.

Each village had a leader who inherited the position from his father.  The leader directed food gathering activities, religious ceremonies, and warfare.  He had an assistant who carried messages for him.


The Luiseño and Juaneño built their houses in a cone shape, with a circle of poles leaning together at the top.  The frame of poles was covered with a layer of bark, branches, or tule reeds, and then with earth.  The floor was dug out about two feet below ground level.  There was a fireplace in the middle and a smokehole in the roof.  The entrance sometimes had a short tunnel before the door. 

Most of the daily life activities were carried on outside, under thatched shade roofs.  Cooking was done outside unless the weather was too cold or rainy.

The sweathouse was built like the houses but it was smaller and oval in shape, with the entrance on the long side.  The men used the sweathouse every day to clean their bodies.


Animals hunted by the Luiseño/Juaneño were deer, antelope, rabbits, woodrats, mice, ground squirrels, mountain quail, doves, ducks, and other birds.  They did not eat tree squirrels or reptiles, but did like grasshoppers.  From the ocean they got sea mammals, fish, crabs, lobsters, and mollusks.  They caught trout and a few other fish in the mountain streams.  People who lived away from the ocean had fishing rights at certain places on the coast.  To cook meat and fish, the Luiseño/Juaneño used both open-fire broiling and cooking in an earth oven.

Acorns were the most important plant food for the Luiseño/Juaneño, as they were for many early Californians.  Each village owned an oak grove in the mountains, where they went each fall to gather the acorns.  Grass seeds and the seeds of the sunflower, sage, chia, manzanita, wild rose, holly-leaf cherry, prickly pear, and sage were also gathered.  The seeds were dried and ground up, then boiled in water to make a mush.

Other plants that added to the food supply were leafy greens, cactus pods and fruits, thimbleberries, elderberries, wild grapes, and wild strawberries.  The buds, blossoms and pods of the yucca plant were eaten, along with a variety of other  bulbs and roots.


The two-piece aprons worn by the women had a back section made from an inner layer of bark, softened by pounding.  The front section was usually made of cord, netted together.  Sandals were made from the fibers of the yucca plants.  Women sometimes wore a cap on their head, especially when they were carrying a heavy load by means of a head strap.  Men did not usually wear any clothing, but if the weather was cold, they put robes over their shoulders.  The robes were made of strips of rabbit fur woven together, or of deerskin or sea-otter skin.  Otter-skin robes were the most prized.

The men wore earrings and noserings made from bone or cane.  Necklaces sometimes had bear claws or deer hooves along with pieces of shell, bone, or clay.  Human hair was woven to make bracelets and anklets.  Both men and women tattooed and painted their bodies.


When hunting, the Luiseño/Juaneño used a shoulder-height bow made of wood, with arrows either hardened and sharpened by fire or fitted with  stone tips.  Pieces of deer antler were used to shape the quartz stone into arrowheads.  The strings on the bows were of cord twisted from plant fibers.  Smaller animals were caught with a curved throwing stick, or in a trap or net.

For fishing in the ocean, they made dugout canoes  of yellow pine logs.  They also had lightweight canoes called balsas, which were made from bundles of tule reeds tied together.  Fish hooks were made of bone or shell.  They also used basket fish traps, dip nets, and harpoons to catch fish.

Wood and stone were used to make food paddles, bowls and cups, head scratchers, and tools for drilling and pounding.  Pieces of deer antler, pounded with a stone, served as chisels or wedges when working with wood and stone.

Coiled and twined baskets were made by the Luiseño/Juaneño.  The finely-made coiled baskets were often decorated with designs in tan, red, or black.  They were used for gathering, storing, and cooking food.  Pottery jars were made from clay and fired in open pits.  The pottery was usually not decorated. 


Ownership of private property was important to the Luiseño and Juaneño.  Things that they considered valuable were trade beads, items used in their ceremonies, eagle nests, and songs.

The Luiseño/Juaneño did not make many trips for the purpose of trading with other groups.  However, they did get steatite (soapstone) from the Garbrielinos, and obsidian from people who lived to the north of them.  The clamshell beads strung on strings, common to many central and southern California people, were used as money by the Luiseño/Juaneño.


The Luiseño/Juaneño built circular ceremonial enclosures called wamkis in their villages.  The fence around the ceremonial area was made of brush.  The celebration of important events (deaths, births, or boys and girls becoming adults) included the making of sand paintings inside the wamkis.  The paintings were always done in a circle, and represented things of nature such as animals, birds, the sea, mountains, and stars.  After the ceremony, the sand painting was destroyed.  The Luiseño/Juaneño were one of the few California groups who did sand paintings.

For each ceremony there was feasting, dancing, and singing.  Music was made with bird-bone and cane whistles and flutes, clappers, and rattles made from turtle shells, gourds, or deer hooves.  Gifts were given to the guests at the feast.

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