Tubatulabal Indians of California

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The Tubatulabal Indians originally lived in three autonomous bands: the Pahkanapil, Palagewan, and Bankalachi, or Toloim. Tubatulabal was a subgroup of the Uto-Aztecan language family.

Tubatulabal means “pine nut eaters.”

Location: In the early nineteenth century, the Tubatulabal lived in the southern Sierra Nevada and their foothills and in the Kern, South Fork Kern, and Hot Springs Valleys. Today many live on reservations in Tulare County.

Population: A population of up to 1,000 Tubatulabal lived in their region in the early nineteenth century. In 1990, roughly 400 Tubatulabal Indians live in the Kern River Valley, and possibly another 500 live elsewhere.

History:  This group of Indians entered the region at least around 1450 and perhaps as early as 2,000 years ago. They first encountered Spanish explorers in the late eighteenth century.

By the mid-nineteenth century, miners, ranchers, and settlers began taking their land. The Kern River gold rush began in 1857.

In 1862, a few Tubatulabals joined the Owens Valley Paiutes in fighting the Whites in the Owens Valley. In the following year, whites massacred Tubatulabals in the Kern River Valley.

By 1875, most male survivors were working for local ranchers. In 1893, survivors of the Pahkanapil Band, the only one left of the original three, were allotted land in the Kern and South Fork Kern Valleys. The people experienced severe epidemics of measles and influenza in 1902 and 1918. During the twentieth century, many Tubatulabals moved to the Tule River Reservation and throughout California. After the last hereditary leader died in 1955, a council of elders carried on leadership through the 1960s. In the 1970s, the Tubatulabal, Kawaiisu, and Canebrake area Indians formed the Kern Valley Indian Community and Council, a goal of which is to obtain federal recognition.

Religion :According to traditional belief, numerous supernatural spirits often took human or animal form. They were treated with respect, in part because they could be malevolent.

Shamans used jimsonweed, believed to have special powers, as an aid in curing. They also used singing, dancing, herbs, blowing tobacco smoke, and sucking techniques, calling upon their supernatural guardian helpers for assistance.

Shamans could be either men or women, but only men could cure: Female shamans were considered to be witches, the most feared members of the community (men could also be witches).

Chronically unsuccessful shamans might be accused of witchcraft and killed. Shamanism was considered an inborn quality that could not be acquired.

Government: The three bands were composed of several family groups, mobile throughout much of the year except during winter, when they settled in hamlets of between two and six extended families.

Each band was headed by a chief, generally hereditary, occasionally female. He or she arbitrated disputes, represented the band, and organized war parties.

A “dance manager” or “clown” instigated public criticism of the chief preparatory to the appointment of a new chief. He also acted the clown at ceremonies.

Although the three bands were politically autonomous, people often visited back and forth and intermarried.

Customs: Neither men nor women underwent formal puberty rites. Marriages were formalized by gift exchanges or the groom’s service to his in-laws.

Each band claimed formal but unexclusive possession of a specific territory. The people played several games, most of which involved gambling on the outcome. They included a women’s dice game, a men’s shinny game, and a men’s hoop-and-pole game (in which an arrow was shot through a rolling hoop). String figure making and storytelling provided entertainment on winter evenings. Professional male dancers performed at various ceremonies and occasions. Also, both sexes danced for enjoyment.

Burials: Corpses were wrapped in tule mats and buried. A six-day mourning ceremony was held within two years, during which time a tule effigy of the dead was destroyed along with most of his or her possessions.

Dwellings: Winter houses were circular, dome-shaped structures of brush or mud. In summer, people used open-sided pole-and-beam brush shelters. Bedding consisted of tule mats and skins. Most villages also contained a brush-and-mud sweat house. Special structures, in which several families slept, ate, and stored supplies, were constructed at the autumn gathering grounds. These buildings were between 30 and 50 feet in diameter and featured three- to four-foot-high brush walls.

Dubsistence: Food staples were acorns, pinon nuts, and fish. People either caught fish individually or drove them into stone corrals, where other people waded in and tossed them out.

Sun-dried and stored, acorns and pinons were eventually ground into meal and mixed with water to form gruel or mush.

The Tubatulabal also ate seeds, berries (juniper, manzanita, goose), roots (tule, cattail), and bulbs. Plant foods were boiled, parched, roasted, or baked in pit ovens. Berries were eaten fresh, boiled, or pounded or were mixed with water, shaped into cakes, sun-dried, and stored.

Men hunted deer, bear, antelope, mountain lion, mountain sheep, birds, and small game. They also participated in annual communal antelope drives with neighboring tribes. Large game was broiled, roasted, or stewed immediately or salted and sun-dried for storage.

Sugar crystals came from cane; salt from plants and rock salt. Both men and women used wild tobacco as an emetic before bed.

Key Technology: The Tubatulabal made coiled and twined baskets. Coiled baskets often had human, snake, or geometric designs. Local red clay was used to make pottery.

Other technological items included the sinew and self-backed bow (strung with native twine); numerous nets, snares, traps, and throwing sticks for hunting small game; fishing baskets, traps, nets, harpoons, hooks, and stone-and-wood corrals; a barrel cactus spine awl for sewing and basket making; and soaproot fiber brushes.

Many such tools were made of stone.

Musical instruments included rattles, quill whistles, elderberry flutes, and musical bows.

Trade: Small groups of men and women traded pinons, balls of prepared tobacco, and other items for clamshell disks, which served as money. Their trading expeditions took them as far as the coast or as close as the next hamlet. During winter, when supplies were low, people bought goods with their own or borrowed lengths of disks.

Notable Arts: Fine baskets were their major art. They also made pictographs on local rock faces.

Transportation: Fishermen hurled harpoons from tiny floating tule platforms.

Clothing: In summer, men went naked, and women wore tanned deerskin aprons. Other clothing, worn during various times of the year, included deerhide moccasins, vests, aprons, and coats.

Only women, clowns, and shamans decorated their bodies.

War and Weapons: The Tubatulabal engaged in regular hostilities against their neighbors for revenge against previous attacks. These wars lasted between one and two days and produced only light casualties.

The preferred fighting method was to attack the whole village by surprise at dawn. Peace was arranged through negotiation and was generally accompanied by mutual nonaggression promises.

Government/Reservations Today: Tule River Reservation (Tule River Tribe; Tulare County; 1873; 55,356 acres, shared with the Monache and the Yokuts) had a 1990 population of roughly 750. It is governed by a tribal council.

The Kern Valley Indian Community (KVIC) and Council is a member of the Confederated Aboriginal Nations of California. KVIC tribes signed four unratified treaties in 1852 and never received any compensation for their aboriginal lands.

Economy Today: People obtain employment as cowhands, secretaries, and loggers and in local businesses. The Tule River Economic Development Council works to provide economic opportunities there. Economic resources include timber and a campground.

Legal Status: The KVIC had not received federal recognition as of 1997. The Tule River Tribe is a federally recognized tribal entity.

Daily Life Today: Outmigration and intermarriage have diminished the people’s tribal identity. The lives of today’s Tubatulabals are similar to those of their non-Indian neighbors.

The Valley Cultural Center is a symbol of their active rebuilding of their culture and spirituality.

The Monache Gathering is a three-day event that includes sweat lodge ceremonies. The Tule River Reservation has its own health center. Some elders continue to make baskets and dig for traditional roots.