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


Location: Southern California (San Diego County)

Language: Uto-Aztecan family

1770 estimate:
1910 Census: 150

The Cupeño were one of the smallest groups in early California, based both on the number of people and the size of their territory.  Their land was like a tiny bite out of the southwest corner of the much larger Cahuilla territory. Their language was much like the Cahuilla, but with some influence from the Ipai, their neighbors to the south.  In 1903, in spite of a valiant struggle to keep their land, the Cupeño were moved to Pala Reservation.


Cupeño territory covered an area about ten miles across, in the mountains at the headwaters of the San Luis Rey River.  There were just two permanent villages.  One was called Kúpa, and was located near a hot springs known as Agua Caliente on a creek of the same name.   The second village, called Wilákal, was to the south on San Ysidro Creek.  The Cupeño called themselves Kúpa-ngakitom or Wiláka-ngakitom meaning people of Kúpa or people of Wilákal. 

Within each village there were several family groups or clans, each with its own clan leader.  Each clan associated itself with one of two groups known by the totem (symbols) of the wildcat and the coyote.  The clan leader, whose position was passed down from father to son, was responsible for keeping the bundle of sacred ceremonial objects.  He also arranged trade with other groups, settled disputes, and decided when ceremonies should be held.  Most affairs of the village were decided by a discussion among the clan leaders in the village.


Houses were made of poles set in a circle and bent inward to meet at the top.  Other branches and poles were fastened across the first poles, and the entire framework was covered with brush.  This made a rounded building, with a smokehole opening in the roof where the poles met.   Each family had their own house, which they used mostly for sleeping and storing their belongings.  They preferred to do the cooking and visiting outdoors, under the shade of a thatched roof. 

Each group of related families had a ceremonial dance house.  This was usually the house where the clan leader lived, and it was larger than the other houses. 


Like most early Californians, the Cupeño depended on acorns as one of their main food sources.  Oak trees grew in the foothill areas, and each autumn the people would spend several days gathering the crop of acorns as they ripened.  Men, women, and children all worked at this task, so that a good supply of acorns could be stored for the year.

Each clan owned certain food-gathering places, and had the rights to the nuts and other plants that grew there.  There were also open areas that were owned by the village, where anyone could gather food.

It was the job of the men to do the hunting.  Sometimes a hunter went out on his own, but often a group of men formed a hunting party, with one taking the responsibility of leading the hunt.  When hunting deer, they might have to track the deer for many miles, and then work together to drive the deer into a narrow canyon where they could get close enough to use their bows and arrows.  The men also caught small animals such as rabbits, woodrats, and other rodents, and birds such as quail, geese, and doves.  They used flat, curved throwing sticks to bring down small animals and birds.  They also set traps for small animals, and used nets to capture them.  Not only the meat but also the bones of the animals were used as food.  Bones were ground into powder and mixed with other food. 

Women did most of the gathering of plant foods.  A few kinds of berries grew in the mountains, but the Cupeño depended more on a variety of small seeds.  They knocked the seeds off the plants with seed beaters, made by bending a small branch into an oval shape and fastening other branches across the oval.  The seeds were bounced up and down in a flat basket to get out the bits of stems and leaves, and then parched by tumbling them with hot coals. 

Some plant foods such as nuts and seeds were preserved so that the people would have food to eat during the winter.  Other plants such as watercress, clover, and the stalks and roots of the yucca, were eaten fresh.  Several kinds of cacti such as the prickly pear, chollas, and barrel cactus had edible fruit.


Like the other early Californians in the southern part of the state, the Cupeño did not need to wear much clothing.  The women wore an apron around their waist, with separate pieces hanging down the front and the back.  The apron was usually made of the inner bark of a tree, pounded to make it soft.  Sometimes the apron was made of cord, which was made by twisting fibers from the mesquite or other plants.  Men wore a belt from which they could hang tools or packets of food.  Children did not wear anything. 

For the times when the weather was cold, blankets were made from rabbit skins, cut into strips and sewn together.  The blankets were used for sleeping and for wearing over the shoulders like a cape.


The Cupeño used agave, deer grass, and rushes to form the foundation for the baskets that they made by the coiling method.  The coils were sewn together with fibers from sumac or tule reeds.  The coiled baskets were decorated by weaving in reddish or blackened fibers in a geometric pattern.  They also made twined baskets which were more open and not decorated.  For the frame of the twined baskets they used willow shoots, sumac, or wormwood.  Across the frame they twined fibers from rushes. 

Baskets were the most often used containers in early California.  Some were so finely made that they would hold water.  They could be used for cooking food by dropping stones, heated in a fire, into the water in a basket.  The Cupeño may have made some pottery containers from clay, as their neighbors the Cahuilla did.  They also could get pots made of steatite (soapstone) in trade from the Luiseño.


Since their territory was so small, the Cupeño did not have far to go to trade with other groups.  Their language was related to that of the Luiseño, who lived to the west of them.  From the Luiseño they could get shells and dried fish.  The shell disks strung on strings that were used as money came to the Cupeño from the Luiseño.  They also had trade contacts with the Ipai, to the south.


Ceremonies were an important part of the life of the community.  Each clan held ceremonies to which their neighbors were invited.  The clan leader had an assistant to help with the ceremonies, especially in distributing the gifts that were given to the guests.  Important events in life such as births, deaths, marriage, and young people becoming adults were celebrated with feasting, singing, and dancing.  Once a year a ceremony was held to remember those who had died.  At this ceremony, which lasted eight days, an eagle was killed as part of the ritual.

For music to go with the dancing and singing, the Cupeño had rattles made by splitting the ends of a stick so that the two parts clacked together when the stick was shaken.  Rattles were also made from turtle shells, deer hooves, and gourds. 

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