The Cahuilla have been historically divided into “Mountain,” “Desert,” and “Pass” groups by anthropologists. Today there are nine Southern California reservations that are acknowledged homes to bands of Cahuilla people.
The Cahuilla, Iviatim in their own language, are Native Americans of the inland areas of southern California. Their original territory included an area of about 2,400 square miles (6,200 km2). The traditional Cahuilla territory was near the geographic center of Southern California. It was bounded to the north by the San Bernardino Mountains, to the south by Borrego Springs and the Chocolate Mountains, to the east by the Colorado Desert, and to the west by the San Jacinto Plain and the eastern slopes of the Palomar Mountains.
The Cahuilla language is in the Uto-Aztecan family. A 1990 census revealed 35 speakers in an ethnic population of 800. It is nearly extinct, since most speakers are middle-aged or older. The name of their language is Ivia. Cahuilla is an exonym applied to the group after mission secularization in the Ranchos of California. The word “Cahuilla” is probably from the Ivia word kawi’a, meaning “master.”
The first encounter with Europeans was in 1774, when Juan Bautista de Anza was looking for a trade route between Sonora and Monterey in Alta California. Living far inland, the Cahuilla had little contact with Spanish soldiers, priests, or missionaries. Many of the Europeans viewed the desert as having little or no value, but rather a place to avoid. The Cahuilla learned of Spanish missions and their culture from Indians living close to missions in San Gabriel and San Diego. The Cahuilla provided the vaqueros that worked for the owners of the Rancho San Bernardino, and provided security against the raids of the tribes from the desert and mountains on its herds.
The Cahuilla did not encounter Anglo-Americans until the 1840s. Chief Juan Antonio, leader of the Cahuilla Mountain Band, gave traveler Daniel Sexton access to areas near the San Gorgonio Pass in 1842. The Mountain Band also lent support to a U.S. Army expedition led by Lieutenant Edward Fitzgerald Beale, defending the party against attacks by Wakara and his band of Ute warriors.
During the Mexican-American War, Chief Juan Antonio led his warriors to join Californios led by José del Carmen Lugo in attacking their traditional enemy, the Luiseño. Lugo led this action in retaliation for the Pauma Massacre, in which the Luiseno had killed 11 Californios. The combined forces staged an ambush and killed 33-40 of the Luiseno warriors, an event that became known as the Temecula Massacre of 1847. (Academic historians disagree on the exact number of deaths, the estimate is 33-40; Luiseno oral tradition holds that more than 100 warriors were killed.) In the treaty ending the war with Mexico, the US promised to honor Mexican land grants and policies. These included recognition of Native American rights to inhabit certain lands, but European-American encroachment on Indian lands became an increasing problem after the US annexed California.
In addition to the influx of Anglo-American miners, ranchers and outlaws, and groups of Mormon colonists, the Cahuilla came into conflict with the neighboring Cupeño tribe to the west. In November 1851, the Garra Revolt occurred, wherein the Cupeno leader Antonio Garra attempted to bring Juan Antonio into his revolt. Juan Antonio, friendly to the Americans, was instrumental in capturing Antonio Garra, ending that revolt.
When the California Senate refused to ratify an 1852 treaty granting the Cahuilla control of their lands, some tribal leaders resorted to attacks on approaching settlers and soldiers. Juan Antonio did not participate in this as long as he lived.
To encourage the railroad, the U.S. government subdivided the lands into one-mile-square sections, giving the Indians every other section. In 1877 the government established reservation boundaries, which left the Cahuilla with only a small portion of their traditional territories.
The Cahuilla have intermarried with non-Cahuilla for the past century. A high percentage of today’s Cahuilla tribal members have some degree of mixed ancestry, especially Spanish and African American. Individuals who have grown up in the tribe’s ways and identify culturally with the Cahuilla may qualify for official tribal membership by the tribe’s internal rules. Each federally recognized tribe sets its own rules for membership.
The Cahuilla bands (sometimes called “villages”) are:
- Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians of the Agua Caliente Indian Reservation
- Augustine Band of Cahuilla Indians
- Cabazon Band of Mission Indians
- Cahuilla Band of Mission Indians of the Cahuilla Reservation
- Los Coyotes Band of Cahuilla and Cupeno Indians (formerly the Los Coyotes Band of Cahuilla and Cupeno Indians of the Los Coyotes Reservation)
- Morongo Band of Cahuilla Mission Indians of the Morongo Reservation
- Ramona Band of Cahuilla Mission Indians
- Santa Rosa Band of Cahuilla Indians
- Torres-Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indians