Location: Central California (Tulare County & northern Kern County)
Language: Uto-Aztecan family
1770 estimate: 1,000
1910 Census: 150
The Tubatulabal people are divided into three groups: the Pahkanapil, the Palagewan, and the Bankalachi. The languages of these three were very much alike. The Tubatulabal were also known as the Kern River Indians. They were a branch of the Shoshoneans, who lived in the Great Basin area that extends into Nevada.
Tubatulabal villages were located along the valleys of the Kern River and the South Fork Kern River, especially near the junction of these two rivers. These valleys are at 2,500 to 3,000 foot elevations. Summers in these valleys were hot and dry; winters were cold and rainy, with some snow. The rest of Tubatulabal territory was mostly mountains rising as high as 14,500 feet.
The name Tubatulabal is a Shoshonean word meaning pine-nut eater. This name was used for them by the Yokuts to the west and the Kawaiisu to the south, as well as by the Tubatulabal themselves.
Each of the three groups of Tubatulabal had a headman whose duty was to represent the group in disputes. The headman was chosen by the people for his honesty and good judgment. The old headman's son or brother was often chosen, but only at the consent of the people. The three groups joined together in times of crisis.
Villages were small, with two to six families. The Tubatulabal lived in their villages only a few months during the winter. The rest of the time they moved around, gathering food.
In the winter villages, houses were made with a frame of poles bent together to form a round dome shape. The frame was covered with brush and then with mud. The houses were small, holding a single family. Mats made from tule reeds covered the floor.
Much of the year the family worked, ate, and slept in a shelter that had a roof but no walls. Four poles stuck in the ground with two poles between them supported a roof of brush that gave shade from the sun. A similar but larger building, sometimes with two brush walls, was used by a group of families for special ceremonies. On some trips to gather food, groups of people slept in large areas surrounded by a brush fence but without any roof. This type of enclosure was also used for guests when they came to a ceremonial dance.
Most villages had a sweathouse built near a pool or stream. The sweathouse was round and made of branches and logs covered with brush and dirt. In Tubatulabal villages, women and children as well as men used the sweathouse.
The Tubatulabal gathered acorns from the Greenhorn Mountains in the late fall, and piņon nuts from the eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in the early fall. Acorns were picked up from the ground, dried in the sun, and stored in granaries built up off the ground. Piņon nuts were knocked off the tree branches and heated in a fire to make them open. Then the nutmeats were taken out of the shells, dried in the sun, and stored in large round pits lined with stones. Granaries for storing acorns were located in the winter villages. The pits for storing piņon nuts, however, were placed in the area where the nuts were gathered.
Other plant foods gathered by the Tubatulabal included seeds (chia, wild oats), leaves, bulbs, tubers and roots, and berries (juniper, manzanita, gooseberries, boxthorn berries). Plants were cooked by boiling them into a mush with water, or by roasting or baking them in earth ovens. When berries were pounded and mixed with water, they could be shaped into cakes, dried in the sun, and stored for the winter. Sugar crystals were gathered from the stalks of honey dew cane. Rock salt came from dry salt lakes in the Mojave Desert.
Fish were an important part of the food supply. Large animals such as deer, bear, mountain lion, mountain sheep, and antelope were hunted with bow and arrows. Traps and snares were used to catch rabbits, squirrels, and mice. Birds such as quail, pigeon, teal, and coot were caught near water holes. Meat and fish were cooked by roasting or broiling over an open fire, or salting and drying for use later.
The women wore the double apron-type skirt like many other early California groups. The skirts were made of deerskin. In warm weather, men did not wear any clothing. For colder weather, men and women wore vests or sleeveless jackets made of deerskin. When on trips to gather food or hunt, both men and women sometimes wore moccasins made of deerskin with pitch on the bottom.
Women decorated their bodies with tattoos, and wore earrings, noseplugs, and necklaces made of clamshells or olivella shells. Men wore decorations only for special dances or ceremonies.
Baskets were made from split willow branches or yucca roots. The Tubatulabal used both the twining and coiling methods of making baskets, but they put designs only on the coiled baskets. Pieces of tree yucca roots made red patterns; pieces of devil's claw made black ones. Baskets were used for carrying food, sifting grains, cooking, and serving food. The Tubatulabal also made pots from the red clay that was found in the South Fork Kern valley. The pots were formed by stacking rolls of clay on top of each other and pinching them together. The pots were dried in the sun and heated in an open fire until they were a grayish color.
For hunting, bows and arrows were used. The arrows had obsidian (volcanic glass) tips set on wooden shafts with feathers. Many kinds of nets, traps, and snares were woven from plant fibers. For rabbit hunts, a very large net was set up across a canyon, and the rabbits were driven into the net. Deer bone was used as a scraping tool, and for shaping stone into knives, hammers, grinders, and pounders. The sharp-pointed spines from the barrel cactus were used as needles for sewing and basketmaking.
Clamshell disks were used as money. Pieces of clamshell were shaped into round beads, holes were punched in the middle, and the beads were strung on strings. Clamshell beads were used by a young man's family to pay for a bride. The clamshell money was also used in trade with neighboring groups.
A participant in Tubatulabal ceremonies was the clown, or dance manager. This position was passed on from father to son. The clown's face was painted with red and white stripes for ceremonies. He danced backward and spoke nonsense lines, to bring humor to the solemn ceremonies. If the people wanted to get rid of their headman, the clown was the one to speak critically of the headman and to call for his replacement.
For music with their dances, the Tubatulabals had several kinds of rattles, a quill whistle, a flute made from an elderberry stalk, and a musical bow. Both men and women took part in the dances, which were usually round dances. The dancers formed two circles around the fire, with the women on the inside.