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Location: South central California, inland desert area (Riverside County)

Language: Uto-Aztecan family

1770 estimate:
1910 Census: 800

The Cahuilla were far enough away from the coast to avoid early contact with the Spanish missions.  A few were taken into the missions at San Gabriel, San Luis Rey, and San Diego, but not until 1819 were mission outstations established in Cahuilla territory.


The area where the Cahuilla lived was crossed by mountain ranges, canyons and valleys, and desert.  The elevation ranged from 11,000 feet in the San Bernardino Mountains to 273 feet below sea level near the Salton Sea.  This was a harsh land of extreme changes of temperature and high dry winds.  Water supply was often a problem.  Lakes formed when the high snows melted, and dried up in the summer.  Springs and wells were the only year-round sources of water.  Villages were placed near these water sources, usually in canyons.

The Cahuilla divided themselves into two groups based on their family heritage.  The groups were known as the Wildcats and the Coyotes.  Those animals were the totem figures (symbols) for the groups.  Members of both groups might live in the same village.  The village leader inherited the position from his father.  He organized the food gathering and hunting, settled disputes, arranged ceremonies, and decided issues of trade and war. 

It is not certain what the name Cahuilla means, nor whether it was used by the early people to refer to themselves.  More likely, they called themselves by the name of their language.


The Cahuilla built several kinds of shelters.  Some were open all across the front.  They were made by setting several poles in a line in the ground and topping them with a ridge pole.  More poles were slanted down from the ridge pole to form back and side walls, which were covered with brush.  Other houses were dome-shaped with an entrance opening.  These houses were also made on a framework of poles covered with brush.  Sometimes earth was packed against the brush on the outside walls.  The home of the village leader was usually the largest house in the village.  Shade roofs were sometimes attached to the house, to provide working areas outside that were protected from the sun.

Some Cahuilla villages had sweathouses, built low to the ground, and ceremonial houses used for special rituals and social activities.


Game animals were not as plentiful in much of the Cahuilla area as they were for many early Californians.  Although the men hunted deer and rabbits, the people depended more on desert plants for their food supply.

Acorns were important to the Cahuilla, but because of the lack of water and the desert conditions, oak trees did not grow in much of Cahuilla territory.  A more common food for the desert dwellers was the fruit of the mesquite tree, which has roots that can go deep down for water.  In the spring, mesquite blossoms were boiled and eaten.  In the summer, the green bean pods from the tree were ground up and used to make a drink.  After the pods dried on the mesquite trees in the fall, they were gathered and either eaten right from the tree, or ground into a meal and made into mesquite cakes, which could be stored for a long time.

The agave and yucca plants were also used for food.  A variety of desert cacti produced edible fruit, as did the palm tree.  Seeds from the juniper and pine trees were harvested by the Cahuilla.  They also had chia seeds and the seeds of other plants.  The seeds were dried or roasted with coals shaken in a basket, and then ground into a meal which could be eaten dry, boiled, or baked into cakes.  In addition, several kinds of berries were dried and ground into meal. 


Unlike many early Californians, the Cahuilla often wore sandals on their feet.  The sole of the sandal was made either of several layers of deerhide, or of mescal (a type of cactus) fibers woven together and bound with cord.  The sole was held onto the foot by thongs of cord or deerhide.  The cord was made by twisting together mescal or yucca plant fibers.

Cahuilla women wore skirts made from the bark of the mesquite tree, which was softened by pounding it.  The skirt was a double apron type, with one piece covering the front and another piece in the back.  Sometimes the skirt was made of tule reeds, and sometimes of deerskin.  Cahuilla men usually wore a loincloth of deerskin.  Blankets were made by sewing together strips of rabbit skin.


The Cahuilla were one of the few early California people to make pottery.  The methods they used were like those used in the Colorado River area to the east, in Arizona.  The clay was rolled into long ropes and then coiled in circles to form pots, bowls, or dishes.  Crushed rock was sometimes mixed with the clay, to make it  stronger.  After the bowl or pot was formed, it was allowed to dry in the sun and then was baked in a fire.  Sometimes the pots were decorated with designs in red dye.  The pottery was light and thin, and broke easily. 

Cahuilla baskets were made using several kinds of grasses woven together, and decorated with yellow, red, brown, and green fibers of the juncus plant.  Baskets made by the coiling method were either flat to be used as plates or trays, round to be used for storing things, or deep and cone-shaped for carrying things.

The Cahuilla men hunted with bows made of willow or mesquite wood and strung with mescal fiber or a strip of sinew (animal tendon). They used curved, flat throwing sticks when hunting small animals.  

Stone mortars and pestles were used to grind seeds and nuts.  The Cahuilla of the desert areas also used a wooden mortar sunk into the ground for grinding mesquite beans.  For this grinding process, a slender  stone pestle about two feet long was needed.


Cahuilla territory was crossed by a major trade route, the Cocopa-Maricopa Trail, that brought people from the east to the Pacific Coast.  The Santa Fe and Yuman trade routes also bordered Cahuilla land.  Some Cahuilla people became known as expert traders, traveling west to the ocean and east to the Gila River carrying goods for trade.  From the Gabrielino they got steatite (soapstone) and objects made from steatite.  The shell beads that served as money also came to the Cahuilla by way of the Gabrielino.  These were the olivella shells, shaped into disks and strung on strings.

From people living along the Colorado River, the Cahuilla traded for food (corn, melons, squash, and gourds), turquoise, and axes.  With all of their neighbors, they traded their crafted items such as baskets, pottery, bows and arrows.


The village leader was responsible for keeping the bundle of ceremonial objects safe, and for assuring that the ceremonies were carried out properly.  Singing was important to the Cahuilla.  Both women and men sang as they worked and as they competed in games.  At special ceremonies, a song leader who knew all the ceremonial songs led the singing.  Some songs were very long, taking several days to sing through.  The songs told the history of the people.  Music for the singing was made with flutes, whistles, and rattles made of turtle shells, or gourds.

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