The Kawaiisu Culture

Imagine living in a world without shopping malls, grocery stores, television, or cars. In this world, you would have to rely on your knowledge of your surroundings and your ability to make the most of available resources for your survival. To preserve these resources, your beliefs and values would need to reflect respect for the land and all (plant, vegetable, animal) who inhabit it. You would need to hunt or gather your own food as well as materials for tools, clothing and shelter. Since you don't have a mall, everything would need to be made from scratch. Add to this the beauty of an unspoiled landscape, and you have a very simple picture of life as it used to be at Tomo-Kahni.

Tomo-Kahni, or Winter Home, is a historic Kawaiisu Native American village site. Nestled atop a ridge in the Tehachapi Mountains, and overlooking the Tehachapi Valley, the site offered plentiful resources for the former residents.

History

There is evidence that Native Americans lived in the southern Sierra Nevada mountains as long as 3,000 years ago. It is quite possible that they were direct ancestors of the Kawaiisu. Based on artifacts and research, it appears that the Kawaiisu have lived in the Tehachapi Valley and surrounding areas for no more than 1,500 years. Most artifacts found in the area are less than 500 years old and none are more than 1,500 years old. Perhaps during the mini-ice-age that occurred 3,000 years ago, ancestors of the Kawaiisu moved from the mountains to the desert. During the significant warming that began 700 to 800 years ago, movements of people took place throughout the Southwest. It may be that this climate change brought the Kawaiisu back into the Southern Sierras from the adjacent Mojave Desert.

In the best of times, there may have been approximately 1000 Kawaiisu, while during lean years of poor harvest there may have been only a few hundred.

The first mention of the Kawaiisu is found in the 1776 diary of Francisco Garces. At the time, his party was crossing the Tehachapis and encountered Kawaiisu women and children. Garces' party was deemed to be very needy and was offered presents of baskets, meat and seeds. By the mid-1800's, trappers, farmers and stockmen had penetrated the region and some conflicts erupted. In 1853, the U.S. government attempted to relocated natives from a wide ranging area to the Sebastian Reserve at Tejon Pass. The intention was to establish an agricultural community so the natives could become self-sufficient. Edward Beale, Superintendent of Indian Affairs for California, supported the plan because he felt that the natives were a "barrier to rapid settlement of the state...They should leave their old homes in the mountains and settle elsewhere." That was the beginning of the end of life as the Kawaiisu had known it. Relations between white men and natives deteriorated and numerous skirmishes were reported. Unable to pursue the old way of life in peace, the Kawaiisu were reluctantly assimilated into white society.

Language

The Kawaiisu language base is of the Southern Numic division of the Uto-Aztecan language family. Although the Kawaiisu homeland was surrounded by speakers of Uto-Aztecan languages, they were non-Numic speakers. The Kitanemuk people to the south spoke Takic; the Tubatulabal people to the north spoke Tubatualabal. The Yokuts to the west were non-Uto-Aztecan.

Because they shared the Southern Numic language, the Chemehuevi to the east are considered the closest relatives to Kawaiisu. See the historical language map of the Kawaiisu and their neighbors.

Homeland

“Coyote was carrying a basket with many children in it. He grew tired and set the basket on the ground. The children came out of the basket and ran away. They scattered in every direction. Coyote tried to catch them, but he couldn't. That is why people are all over the earth.”

The homeland, or core area, of the Kawaiisu encompassed a large portion of the Piute, Scodie and Tehachapi Mountains. Tomo-Kahni is only one of numerous village sites that have been identified throughout the area. On the fringes of their homeland, the Kawaiisu shared hunting and gathering grounds with the Kitanemuk and the Tubatulabal.  See the Kawaiisu homeland map.

Great Basin or California?
Both the Kawaiisu and the Tubatulabal homelands (core areas) straddle the ridge of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Historically, the crest of these mountains has been used as the boundary to distinguish between the Native Americans of California and those of the Great Basin. The Great Basin includes the Mojave Desert, Owens Valley, Nevada and part of eastern Oregon, southern Idaho and western Utah. While Kawaiisu traditions are more closely related to those of the central California groups than those of their Numic relatives, they have elements of both the Great Basin and California Indian cultures.

Social Organization

The name Kawaiisu is taken from the language of the Yokuts, a Native American tribe of the San Joaquin Valley. The Kawaiisu referred to themselves as the Nuwa (new-wa) or The People.

Occupying a definable territory and spending their winters in a particular village, the Kawaiisu were an autonomous political and ritual group. As an entity, they were bound together by family, language, trade and ceremonial practices. Beyond the family group(s), social structure was minimal. Related families usually lived in close proximity to each other and worked together in food quests and other expeditions. 

Spring was a time for the young men and women of other tribes or families to meet and marry. Marriage was monogamous and might have been formalized only by a suitor's delivery of gifts to the parents of his intended. Convenience rather than convention governed where the couple lived. Little more than separation was required for divorce, although some details depended on whether the husband or wife initiated the separation.

Childbirth was a happy occasion and was a time for tribes and families to gather. Feasting and dancing might last several days.

There was a concept of “chieftainship”, however several leaders might have been recognized and accepted locally. A “chief” might simply be the one with the most knowledge of the people around him. Because the chief was expected to sponsor celebrations and his reputation was enhanced by lavish food and festivities, wealth and generosity were important qualifications. Like most of the Great Basin and California American Indians, the Kawaiisu were a peaceful people, so the chief had little occasion to serve as a war leader. Inter-tribal altercations usually turned out to be between individuals.

Contact With Others
All native groups of the region had knowledge of resources to be found in the area. This suggests a well-developed system of family relationships through intermarriage. Frequent visits ensured a continual flow of food stuffs and other goods. Out of these visits grew a system of trails which led in all directions from the core area. The trail system was used to make contact with the Piute of the Owens Valley, the Koso of the Panamint range, the Chemehuevi of the eastern Mojave desert and the Yokuts of the San Joaquin Valley. One trail led west and resulted in contact with the Chumash of the central coast. Another headed north to the homelands of the Tubatulabal along the Kern River. An important trail took them north to what is now Walker Pass, facilitating contact with the Koso; a branch of this trail led to Red Rock Canyon.

Shelter

Dwellings were fifteen to twenty-five feet in diameter. Smaller structures were used for storage. Built of juniper limbs bound together with willow boughs and thatched with brush, the structures were secured to the ground with rings of rocks.  

Tomo kahniTomo kahni means Winter House, a conical-shaped structure that provided shelter during the winter. Bark and tule mats made the structure waterproof; tule mats served as a door. Though cooking was done outside the home, a smoke-hole in the roof allowed for a small fire pit inside. Rocks were heated in the fire pit for warmth at night.

Other forms of shelter were used in addition to the tomo kahni. The women worked in a shade house (Hava kahni) in the summer. Sweathouses (tivi kahni) were built and shaped in the same manner as the tomo khani, but covered with earth instead of brush. A simple walled circle made of brush was often used for communal meetings, while brush enclosures were used as windbreaks. Granaries used to store acorns, nuts and seeds were built two feet or more above the ground to protect them from rodents.

Evidence of temporary encampments is found throughout the mountains and valleys. Caves, hardly more than rock shelters, were also exploited. In addition to providing shelter from the elements, caves seem to have been occupied for a variety of purposes such as birthing, ceremonies, lookouts and storage.

Food

“Coyote was thinking one day and realized there would be many people. Bug was worried that there would be too many people and they would have to eat dirt. Coyote said no, for if they did, they would eat up all the dirt. So Coyote decided The People should eat acorns, pinyon, chia and deer.”

The Kawaiisu were primarily a hunter/gatherer subsistence culture. Although they did not cultivate plants in the traditional sense, they used their initimate knowledge of the environment and available resources to cultivate and preserve those resources. Although they were excellent deer hunters, they were essentially gatherers. They knew when, where and how to hunt and harvest without depleting resources. Bulbs and roots, for example, might be replanted to ensure a continuing supply. Invasive plants might be cleared by fire to maintain grazing lands for deer.

Because of the effort required to bring supplies from distant areas andthe preparation required to preserve food, the annual round of huntingand gathering would last from spring through fall. Young girls learnedto gather and prepare food early in life. Boys started hunting for thefamily at about nine years of age.

Berries and greens were eaten, often while they were being gathered. Chokecherries, currants, gooseberries, elderberries and some manzanita were used. Berries could be pounded in mortars with a pestle and formed into small molded cakes. The cakes were sun-dried and stored in special coiled baskets for later use.

Seeds (wild rice, chia, sunflower and buckwheat, to name a few) were collected by sweeping them into a cloth-lined burden basket with a twined seed beater. Roots and bulbs were also collected and stored.

The most popular nut was the acorn. There are at least seven varieties of oak trees in the Kawaiisu core area and while the Kawaiisu preferred the Black Oak, they knew the characteristics of each of the different varieties. While acorn meal was a versatile food staple, buckeye nuts were eaten only when other supplies were low. Pinyon nuts and juniper berries added flavor to the meal. Buckeye nuts were not favored as much as acorns, but were used when acorns were not plentiful. Both acorns and buckeye nuts had to be pounded with a stone mortar and pestle and leached in water to remove the tannic acid. Buckeye nuts took considerably longer to prepare because they also contain toxins which had to be leached out with water before the meal could be used.

Salt was important to the diet and collecting salt was the responsibility of the men. Some of the purest salt was collected from Proctor Lake in the Tehachapi Valley when water levels were low. Koehn Lake, about 30 miles from Tomo-Kahni, was the usual collection site.

Though deer meat was the game of choice, antelope, brown bear, and a variety of smaller mammals, birds and insects provided protein. The Kawaiisu never ate grizzly bear, skunk, buzzard, bat, rattlesnake, roadrunners, crows, grasshoppers or eagles. The men were responsible for hunting and used bows, decoys and blinds to hunt animals and birds. Nets, traps, snares, brush-fire surrounds and deadfalls were also used. Fish were not readily available, but were caught with bone hooks. Fish could also be caught by spreading meal from toxic plants, such as buckeye nuts, on the surface of ponds. The toxins from the plants would leach into the water and numb the fish, making them easy to catch. This process is called stupefaction.

Food Preparation
Although some greens, seeds and berries were eaten fresh, many of the gathered foodstuffs required preparation by pounding and grinding. Bedrock mortars, grinding sticks, pestles, and hand grinders were the essential appliances for food processing. Obsidian knives were used for cutting meat. From twined or coiled baskets to the stone tools used for mashing and pounding, the working tools of the Kawaiisu were all made by hand.

While some foods were eaten raw, others were boiled, parched with hot coals on a flat tray or roasted in a pit oven over hot ashes. Deer meat was made into jerky and used as a trade item. Some foods were dried and molded into cakes for storage.

Basketry

On warm winter days the women sat beneath the willows at Nettle Springs, making their baskets and talking. Still visible today are scratches where the women may have sharpened their awls on the sandstone ledges. Excellent basket makers, the Kawaiisu twined and coiled a variety of implements and containers for harvesting, food preparation and storage. It is interesting to note that the Kawaiisu seem to have developed a unique variation of coiled baskets which is not found in the Great Basin or elsewhere in California. Occasionally the coils are wrapped around the foundation of the basket and not anchored to the previous row. The purpose of the deviation is unknown.

Click for more basket photos. Baskets
    Kawaiisu Baskets

Numerous types of woven containers and implements were used, including seed beaters, winnowing trays, burden baskets, storage containers, cradles and water bottles. Workware was twined of unsplit willow for warps and split willow for wefts. Coiled baskets offered greater diversity in the materials used. The foundation was multiple shoots of deergrass coiled with split willow. Water bottles and other vessels used for liquids were stitched very tightly and sealed with pine pitch to make them watertight.

Cradle boards, which allowed women to carry babies with them when gathering, were woven of willow. One type was oval and the other Y-shaped so it could be stuck into the ground and rocked. Sand bar willow (Salix hindsiana) was never used for cradle boards because it was said that quail lost all of her children until she stopped using it to make their cradles; she has a black face because she wept so much.

Color was provided by the rootstock of the Joshua Tree (red-brown), yucca (orange), and bracken fern or devil's claw/unicorn plant (black). Bird quills and quail crests integrated into the patterns of coiled baskets provided additional ornamentation.

Tools and Implements

“In the old times, women used to do the hunting because men didn't know how to hunt. Bluejay wasn't married and Coyote wanted her for his wife. He thought he could hunt as well as she could so he took her arrow away from her. All the men went out hunting. Coyote said that the best hunter would marry Bluejay. There was a long line of deer going over a mountain. Little Red Bug shot one arrow and it went through all the deer, killing them. He was the best hunter and was going to marry Bluejay. Coyote was so angry and jealous he decided women wouldn't be hunters. Coyote always spoils everything.”

Tools for hunting, harvesting, building, food preparation, tanning and sewing were made from obsidian, chalcedony, agate, chert and other types of stone, bone, sinew and plant material. Chert, a flint-like material, and obsidian had multiple uses. Chert was collected from numerous quarries in Red Rock Canyon. Obsidian, probably in the form of a quarry block, was obtained through trading with neighbors to the northeast.

Juniper was used to make bows. Bowstrings were made of twisted sinew. Several different types of arrows were used, depending on their purpose. Arrow points were made of obsidian or other stone. Pointed digging sticks, flat-ended poles and long poles, sometimes hooked, were used by the women to collect plants and nuts. Fish hooks and awls were made from bone. Nets, made of 3-ply twine, were stretched out to catch rabbits. Cordage, usually 3-ply, was made of nettle or milkweed stems, pondweed, or slippery elm.

Some pottery shards have been found, but pottery was primarily acquired through trading. Contemporary Kawaiisu cite memories of a dark gray ware that was made by the older women, but it is thought to be relatively recent.

Clothing and Adornments

Made from skins, pelts, bark and tule, clothing was simple and minimal. Breechcloths and two-piece skirts sufficed for the summer. Blankets and a poncho-like garment made of rabbit fur were worn in the winter. The men were responsible for making these blankets for their family group. Infants were wrapped in deer or rabbit skins. Shredded juniper bark or tule was used for diapers. Footwear was made of tanned deer hide. Pinyon pitch and ashes reinforced the soles of the shoes for long trips. Snowshoes were made of heavy twined cord and lined with pounded sagebrush bark.

Children's hair was burned short, while adults let their hair grow. Pierced ears and noses were usual among women. Tattoos were common for both men and women. Although women painted themselves often, men reserved painting for festive occasions and ceremonial use.

Recreation

Kawaiisu children's activities were similar to games played by contemporary children. Tag was called Bear and the one who was "it" was the bear. Hide and seek was also very popular. Boys practiced shooting with small bows and arrows. Girls played with dolls made of clay or small rodent skins stuffed with grass. Wing charms suspended within a kahni not only entertained infants, but also frightened away spirits.

Play was not limited to children. The games played by men included hoop and dart and ring and pin, a hit-the-target throwing game. Women played with shell dice. Singing and dancing were also adult diversions and might bring together large groups of people over several days.

Stories

“Coyote heard Rattlesnake and Hummingbird fighting. Hummingbird was so fast that he could pull out one of Rattlesnake's teeth in a flash. Hummingbird had only four more teeth to pull and Rattlesnake would have been toothless. Coyote was also fast and thought that he would help Hummingbird. But he wasn't fast enough and Rattlesnake got away. That is why Rattlesnake still has four teeth.”

Stories were, and still are, told usually by an elder in the family. Many explained natural phenomena, while others teach children important lessons to be used throughout their lives. The stories teach respect for each other, the land, and plants and animals. The stories also emphasize the relationships between all living things.

As with all Great Basin and California Native Americans, the Kawaiisu beliefs are Animistic. Every facet of the earth and its inhabitants are alive - animated. The rocks, trees and all the earth's creatures play an important part.

Winter was, and is, the time for telling stories because Rattlesnake sleeps in winter. If stories are told at other times of the year, Raven, being the gossip that he is, will repeat the stories to Rattlesnake. This will cause Rattlesnake to visit the Kawaiisu, possibly bringing the hazards of rain and snow, as well as the danger of his bite.

Mountain Lion and Coyote were important figures in the world of the Kawaiisu, as were Bear and Rattlesnake, who protected caves.

Anthropologists refer to the stories of the Kawaiisu as the “Coyote Cycle.” Coyote is an enigmatic character in these stories and the reader can judge whether he is the bungler, trickster, hero or possibly the quintessential human metaphor. In many Native American stories and myths, Coyote is portrayed as the trickster-hero, however throughout the Coyote Cycle he is the most human of all the animals. He seems to be saying “without me, who will do your thinking for you?” Yet his ideas are often ineffective. Mountain Lion, on the other hand, thinks things through and makes the right choices. The Kawaiisu say that Mountain Lion taught them the right way, but they chose to follow Coyote.

Many of the stories of the Kawaiisu were documented by Maurice Zigmond and published as Kawaiisu Mythology - An Oral Tradition of South Central California (Ballena Press Anthropological Papers No. 18). 

Rock Art

Kawaiisu rock art consists of pictographs (painted drawings). Pecked petroglyphs are found in several spots within the Kawaiisu core area, however evidence indicates that they pre-date Kawaiisu presence in the Tehachapis.

The Kawaiisu see constant changes in pictographs, which are attributed to “Rock Baby.” (It is Rock Baby, after all, who makes the pictographs, not the Kawaiisu.) While we can identify resemblances between the pictographs and known objects or beings, we can only speculate about what they mean. When viewing these pictographs, it may be prudent to keep your distance. It is said that to touch them causes blindness.