Cupeño Indians

The Cupeno Indians are a Native American tribe from Southern California who traditionally lived about 50 miles (80 km) inland and 50 miles (80 km) north of the modern day U.S.-Mexico border in the Peninsular Range of Southern California.  This mountainous district on the headwaters of San Luis Rey River was not over 10 miles long by 5 miles wide.

Their name in their own language is Kuupangaxwichem, meaning “people who slept here.” Cupeno comes from the name of one of their villages, Kupa.

They spoke a dialect belonging to the Luiseno-Cahuilla branch of the Shoshonean division of the Uto-Aztecan linguistic stock

Roscinda Nolasquez(1892–1987) is considered the last truly fluent Cupeño speaker.

The language is widely regarded as being extinct. In 1994, linguist Leanne Hinton estimated one to five people still spoke Cupeño, and nine people in the 1990 US census said they spoke the language. Educational materials for the language exist and young people still learn to sing in Cupeño, particularly Bird Songs.

Cupeno Settlements and Villages 

There were only two Cupeno villages: Kupa, near the famous hot springs of Warner’s Ranch, and  Wilakal, at San Ysidro.

The tribe is divided into two moieties, the Coyote and Wildcat, which are divided into several patrilineal clans. Clans are led by hereditary male clan leaders and assistant leaders. Marriages were traditionally arranged.

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 or 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 is called a wickiup.

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. 

Cupeno Food and Clothing

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 until they reached puberty. 

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.

Cupeno Tools and Trade

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.

Cupeno Ceremonies

Ceremonies were an important part of life in the Cupeno communities.  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. 

Cupeno History

Several different groups combined to form Cupeño culture around 1000 to 1200 AD. They were closely related to Cahuilla culture.

The Cupeño people traditionally lived in the mountains in the San Jose Valley at the headwaters of the San Luis Rey River. They lived in two autonomous villages, Wilákalpa and Kúpa, also spelled Cupa, located north of present-day Warner Springs, California.

They also lived at Agua Caliente, located east of Lake Henshaw in an area crossed by State Highway 79 near Warner Springs. The 200-acre (0.81 km2) Cupeño Indian village site is now abandoned but evidence of its historical importance remains.

Spaniards entered Cupeño lands in 1795 and took control of the lands by the 19th century. After Mexico achieved independence, its government granted Juan Jose Warner, a naturalized American-Mexican citizen, nearly 45,000 acres (180 km2) of the land on November 28, 1844.

Warner, like most other large landholders in California at the time, depended primarily on Indian labor. The villagers of Kúpa provided most of Warner’s workforce on his cattle ranch.

The Cupeño continued to reside at what the Spanish called Agua Caliente after the American occupation of California in 1847 to 1848, during the Mexican-American War.

They built an adobe ranch house in 1849 and barn in 1857, which are still standing.

According to Julio Ortega, one of the oldest members of the Cupeño tribe, Warner set aside about 16 miles (26 km) of land surrounding the hot springs as the private domain of the Indians.

Warner encouraged the Cupeño to construct a stone fence around their village and to keep their livestock separated from that of the ranch. Ortega felt that if the village had created its own boundaries, the Cupeño would still live there today. 

In observing the Cupeño’s living conditions in 1846, W. H. Emory, brevet major with the United States Army Corps of Engineers, described the Indians as being held in a state of serfdom by Warner, and as being ill-treated. 

In 1849, Warner was arrested by the American forces for consorting with the Mexican government and was taken to Los Angeles.

In 1851, because of several issues of conflict, Antonio Garra, a Cupeño from Warner’s Ranch, tried to organize a coalition of various Southern California Indian tribes to drive out all of the European Americans. 

His Garra Revolt failed, and settlers executed Garra. The Cupeño had attacked Warner and his ranch, burning some buildings. They lost structures at their settlement of Kúpa, too.

Warner sent his family to Los Angeles, but continued to operate the ranch through others.

After European contact and prior to the time of their eviction, the Cupeños sold milk, fodder, and some craftwork to travelers on the Southern Immigrant Trail, as well as to passengers on the stagecoaches of the Butterfield Overland Mail, which stopped at Warner’s Ranch and passed through their valley.

The women made lace and took in laundry, which they washed in the hot springs.

The men carved wood and manufactured saddle pads for horses. They also raised cattle and cultivated 200 acres (0.81 km2) of land.

In 1880, after numerous suits and countersuits, European-American John G. Downey acquired all titles to the main portion of Warner’s Ranch.

In 1892, John G. Downey, former governor of California and owner since 1880, began proceedings to evict the Cupeño from the ranch property.

Legal proceedings continued until 1903, when the court ruled in Barker v. Harvey against the Cupeño. The United States Government offered to buy new land for the Cupeño, but they refused.

In 1903, Cecilio Blacktooth, Cupeño chief at Agua Caliente, said: “If you give us the best place in the world, it is not as good as this. This is our home. We cannot live anywhere else; we were born here, and our fathers are buried here.”

On May 13, 1903, the Cupa Indians were forced to move to Pala, California on the San Luis Rey River, 75 miles (121 km) away.

Indians at the present-day reservations of Los Coyotes, San Ygnacio, Santa Ysabel, and Mesa Grande are among descendants of the Warner Springs Cupeño.

Many Cupeño believe that their land at Kúpa will be returned to them. They are seeking legal relief to that end. The Cupa site serves as a rallying point for the land claims movement of contemporary Indian people, particularly their effort to regain cultural and religious areas.

Today their descendants are members of the federally recognized tribes known as the Pala Band of Luiseno Mission IndiansMorongo Band of Cahuilla Mission Indians, and Los Coyotes Band of Cahuilla and Cupeno Indians.

The Cupa Cultural Center was founded in 1974 in Pala, California and underwent a major expansion in 2005. The center exhibits artwork, hosts classes and activities such as basket making and beading, and offers Cupeño language classes.

During the first weekend of every May, Cupa Days is celebrated at the cultural center.