California, at the southern end of the San Joaquin valley (Kern County)
Language: Uto-Aztecan family
1770 estimate: 500 to 1,000
1910 Census: not known
Little is known about the small group called the Kitanemuk. Talks with the few remaining members of the group in 1917 indicate that the earlier Kitanemuk way of life was much like that of their neighbors to the north and west. Though their language was part of the same family as the Serrano and Cahuilla to the south, the Kitanemuk had more in common with their other neighbors. Though some of their customs were the same, the Kitanemuk did not get along with the Yokuts, to the north.
Many of the Kitanemuk people had been taken into Missions San Fernando and San Gabriel by 1800, which led to the decline of the Kitanemuk villages and way of life.
The Kitanemuk lived in the Tehachapi Mountains at the south end of the San Joaquin valley. Their villages were along Tejon, Paso, and Caliente Creeks and other small creeks. Though some of their land was in the Mohave Desert, they lived mostly in the mountains.
The name Kitanemuk may have come from ki meaning house. In later years, the people were called the Tejon Indians. Another name by which they have been known is Haminot, which is a word from the Kitanemuk language meaning what is it?
In each Kitanemuk village there was a leader who advised the people about proper behavior and who helped to settle arguments. He had two men known as messengers, who carried his announcements to nearby villages and who sometimes spoke for him in his own village. The village also had a ceremony manager who was in charge of the gatherings, feasts, and ceremonies.
The houses in Kitanemuk villages were probably made with a framework of poles, bent in and attached to a ridge pole. The ridge pole was held up by forked poles at each end of the building. Across the framing poles, smaller poles were attached to make a crosswork, which was covered with mats made of tule reeds. Several families may have shared a large house, with each family having its own entrance to the house and its own fireplace near the center of the house.
There was very little furniture inside a Kitanemuk house. Mats made of tule reeds were used by the people to sit on and to sleep on. They may also have used a wooden frame, set on legs off the ground, as a bed. This frame would have been covered with the tule mats.
An early report from a visitor in 1776 tells of a large square house in a Kitanemuk village. This may have been a special ceremonial building, though no other descriptions of assembly or dance houses exist.
It can be assumed that the Kitanemuk village had at least one sweathouse. The sweathouse was probably built around a hole dug down several feet into the ground. A low framework of poles made a dome shaped roof over the hole. A covering of brush and earth helped to keep the heat inside the sweathouse when a fire was built in it.
The part of Kitanemuk territory away from the mountains was hot and dry. Although they did not have permanent villages in this southern portion, the people did make trips there, when the weather was cool, to gather plants and salt from dry salt lakes.
Nuts and seeds were an important part of the food of the Kitanemuk. Like most early Californians, they depended on acorns, gathered in the fall, for their meals through the entire year. Piņon nuts were also gathered and stored. Seeds from a variety of plants such as chia and wild oats were collected by beating the grasses with a seedbeater, a special basket made from tule reeds. Seeds were ground to make a kind of flour. This flour was then mixed with water and made into small cakes which were baked in an earth oven.
Many plants had roots which added to the food supply. Tule roots were dried and pounded into a flour for making mush. The roots of the brodiaea, or wild hyacinth, plant were roasted in hot coals and eaten like potatoes. The leaves and stems of other plants like clover and ferns were eaten fresh.
The streams along which the Kitanemuk built their villages supplied fish. Nets and spears were used to catch the fish. In some of the streams, fishermen could catch the fish with their bare hands. Birds such as ducks, mud hens, and geese were caught in snares set up in places where the birds came to feed. Bird eggs were gathered from nests.
Deer were found in the hills, and killed with bow and arrow. The taking of a deer was an important event. More common was catching small animals such as rabbits, ground squirrels, and wood rats.
The apron-like skirt worn by the women was made from tule reeds, fastened to a waist band woven from reeds or made from a piece of deerhide. The men often wore no clothing. Robes, made from strips of rabbit skins woven together, were worn over the shoulders in cold weather, and used as blankets for sleeping.
Sea shells and seeds were used to make necklaces and earrings. Women sometimes painted their bodies with red, white, and black paint.
From stones, shells, wood, and reeds, the people made the tools they needed. Baskets were important for carrying, storing, and cooking food. The Kitanemuk probably used both the twining and coiling methods of making baskets, with tule reeds forming the basis and other plant fibers used to finish the basket. Traps, snares, and nets were woven from cord, which was made from plant fibers.
Pieces of stone and shell were used for scraping and cutting. Obsidian (volcanic glass) for spear and arrow points was gotten through trade.
The Chumash, neighbors to the west, and the Tubatulabal, neighbors to the north, were friends of the Kitanemuk. These groups traded goods with each other. The Mohave and Quechan, who lived southeast of the Kitanemuk, also visited in Kitanemuk territory for purposes of trading. However, the Kitanemuk did not often make the trip to the Mohave or Quechan areas.
From the Chumash, the Kitanemuk got the clamshell disks that were used as money by most of the early people of central and southern California. These disks were made from broken pieces of clamshells, shaped into small circles. A hole was drilled in each circle so that the disks, or beads, could be strung on strings. The smoother and more polished a string of beads was, the more valuable it was.
The Chumash also brought sea shells for ornament, seaweed, sea urchins, and other ocean products to the Kitanemuk, as well as wooden bowls and boxes which the Chumash made.
The Kitanemuk celebrated the beginning of summer and winter by making offerings of feathers and bead. They believed that certain sacred stones would protect their houses from storms and them from illness. These stones, which had various shapes, came from the coast. They were wrapped with baby eagle feathers, seeds, and beads.