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The Cupeño People

Southern California’s Indians are a mystery to most people. They’ve heard of the Sioux, and the Seminole, and the Hopi. But how many know of the Cahuilla, the Chumash, the Luiseño, or the Cupeño?Of the 60 or so different Indian groups in what is now California, the Cupeño are perhaps the smallest recognized group. Language is how most of the native people are divided up by modern anthropologists, and while it is closely related to Cahuilla, the Cupeño language is distinct – much in the way Portuguese is distinct from Spanish. Linguists estimate that the split between Cahuilla and Cupeño took place about 500-1,000 years ago.


The Cupeño occupied a small circle of territory centered around Warner Hot Springs. There were two main villages, Cupa at the springs itself, and Wilakal (San Ignacio) on what is now the Los Coyotes Indian Reservation. Puerta la Cruz, a few miles to the west, was later associated with Cupa, but was a Luiseño village, while Mataguay and San José, only a few miles to the southwest, were Kumeyaay (Diegueño) villages. At their peak, the Cupeño are estimated to have numbered only about 750 people. During the last half of the 19th Century, there were usually about 200-300 Cupeño total, with most of them living at Cupa.

Within the Cupeño territory, each of the clans had their own territory for gathering and hunting. They did not exactly “own” the land, as we understand the word, but it was very clearly understood which clans had the rights to which areas, and all the plants that grew there. Another part of the Kisily Pewish legend told how he had divided his land among his sons before his death.
The territory of the Temewhanitcem clan included Lost Valley, over the mountains to the north of Cupa (Temewhanitcem, in fact, means Northerners). In the early days, the Cupeño called the valley Wiatava –
Place of the Oaks. In later years, that name seems to have been forgotten. Roscinda Nolasquez (1892-1987), the last of the old Cupeño to live at Cupa, only knew a geographic name for the area, Woyeahonit, meaning a valley that was wide at each end, and narrow in the center. Seen looking down from Hot Springs Mountain (which the Cupeño called Su’ish Peki) it is a good description of Lost Valley.
The clan was the basic structure of Cupeño society. It was really an extended family; not just parents and children, but grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, and everyone descended from a common ancestor. The clans each held their own ceremonies, and worked together to gather food, and hunt.
Work and ceremonies revolved around the seasons. In the spring, when the fresh plants were budding, there was gathering to do. Summer was a time to hunt. In the fall, the acorns were ripe, and the entire clan would move out into the oak groves to harvest and prepare the crop. This assured them a food supply for the winter; then there would be time for ceremonies.
Religious ceremonies punctuated the lives of the Cupeño. Clans would gather to bestow a name on the newborn children. As those children reached puberty, separate ceremonies for boys and girls marked their passage into adulthood. Marriages came next, followed (hopefully) by more child-naming ceremonies; and finally, elaborate funeral rites marked the end of life.
Lost Valley entered into the Cupeño’s lives in several ways. It was source of food – acorns, grass seeds, manzanita berries, and small game to be hunted. There are few plants that grow at Lost Valley which the Cupeño did not use for food, manufacturing, or medicine.
Acorn harvest was a busy time of year. The different Cupeño clans would head off into the hills to the oak groves that were part of their territory, and spend as much as a month camping there, bringing in the harvest before the winter snows arrived. In October, when the acorns are ripe, they drop easily from the tree. Young boys would be sent out with sticks to knock them out of the trees, or would climb up into the branches to shake them down.
Some of the acorns were cracked open with rocks, the nuts extracted and set out in the sun to dry. Others were stored in the shell for later use. After a day or two, depending on the weather, women ground the dried nuts into a coarse flour in stone mortars. There are several large grinding sites scattered around Lost Valley, including one above the Rifle Range, and one in the Indian Wells campsite in Camp Irvine and another in Bear Hollow in Camp Grace.
The ground acorn flour then had to be leached, or rinsed with water to remove the tannic acid, that gave the flour a bitter taste. The acorn flour could be baked up as thin cakes, but more often was boiled into a mush like oatmeal, which the Cupeño called wee’wish. Often it was cooked in woven baskets, using rocks that had been heated in a fire and were then dropped into the flour and water.
While the women and young boys would be working on the acorn harvest, the men would be out hunting. The Cupeño sometimes brought down large animals such as deer with a bow and arrow, more often they hunted for small game. Rabbits were an important part of their diet, and the furry skins could later be made into clothing.
One easy way to hunt rabbits was to string a net (made from woven plant fibers) across the bottom of a grassy area. Some men would wait there with clubs, while others worked their way around to the top of meadow and beat the bushes, driving the rabbits down into the net, where they could be killed. Most game was roasted over an open fire.
Lost Valley was also located on one of the Cupeño trade routes. The Indian Road was once a trail that came from Cupa, across what is now the Los Coyotes Indian Reservation, and into Lost Valley. The trail left the Valley by what is now known as the Tarabal Trail, across Sage Flat, and down Alder Canyon to the desert, where the Cupeño could trade with other villages. This trail was still in use by Indians from Los Coyotes as late as the 1910s.
In time, strange, white men arrived in California. Some wore gray robes, and spoke to the Indians about the power of their God. Others carried weapons, and wore heavy leather vests that repelled the Indians’ arrows; they displayed a different sort of power. It was the Spanish, led by Father Junípero Serra and Captain Gaspar de Portolá. In 1769 they began the establishment of string of missions and presidios (forts) along the coast of California.
The missionaries believed firmly that without embracing the Catholic faith, the souls of the Indians would be lost. For over 65 years, they struggled to teach Catholicism to the people, as well as agriculture, and other European trades – weaving, leatherwork, tanning, metalwork and woodwork.
At first, the Cupeño had little direct contact with the coastal missions; it was not until 1795 that first recorded missionary entered their valley, and he did not even visit the hot springs. In 1798, the Mission San Luis Rey was established in what is now Oceanside. To support the mission on the coast, a string of inland ranchos were established for stock raising and farming. Around 1830, the missionaries established an outpost near the hot springs, which they called Agua Caliente. Grapes and other crops were planted, and cattle and sheep grazed in the valley. Unlike many other Indians, most of the Cupeño who agreed to be baptized and work for the support of the mission were allowed to remain in their village, and did not go to live at San Luis Rey.
Shortly thereafter, the missions were stripped of their lands by the Mexican Government, and the Indians were left to fend for themselves. Some stayed at the declining missions. Some found work on the cattle ranches, or in towns. Others returned to their villages, but they took with the new skills they had learned at the missions.
Change was happening all around the Cupeño. California became a part of the United States in 1848. Under Spain and Mexico, the California Indians had been counted as citizens, and their lands protected (at least in theory). But to the new American rulers of California, the Indians were a stumbling block, to be pushed aside, even killed, in the name of progress.
In 1851, Antonio Garra, a Cupeño leader, tried to rally all of the Indians in Southern California to drive out the Americans. But few would join him, and the revolt was quickly put down by volunteer forces and the United States Army. Garra was shot by a firing squad.
More and more Americans came, but still the Cupeño managed to hold onto their homes for many years. By the 1880s, American cowboys rode the range on the Warner Ranch, in the valley below Cupa, and the Cupeño were forbidden to let their cattle and livestock graze on the ranch lands. So their herded their cattle and horses up over the mountain into Lost Valley, where they would be safe. In 1883 a government commissioner noted:
“These Indians have in use another valley called Lost Valley, some fifteen miles from their village high up in the mountains, and reached by one very steep trail. Here they keep their stock, being no longer able to pasture it below. They were touchingly anxious to have us write down the numbers of cattle, horses, [and] sheep each man had and report to Washington that the President might see how they were all trying to work. There are probably from one hundred and twenty-five to one hundred and fifty head of cattle owned in the village, about fifty horses, and one hundred sheep.” (This is the first time the name “Lost Valley” appears in print.)
Finally in 1892, John G. Downey, a former governor of California and the owner of the Warner Ranch, went to court to have the Cupeño “removed” from his ranch – the land they had occupied for centuries. The case went clear to the United States Supreme Court, but the Cupeño lost every step of the way. Under American law, they had no rights to their homes.
In 1903, the residents of Cupa, and four other small villages on the Warner Ranch were rounded up by the Government and marched off to the reservation at Pala, north of Mt. Palomar. Roscinda Nolasquez was the last survivor of the Cupeño “trail of tears.” “We lost our lands, our homes, our water,” she would say. “Everyone was crying.”
Never again would the people of Cupa harvest acorns in Lost Valley.

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