Cahuilla Social Life

The Cahuilla are organized in exogamous moieties, the Wildcat moiety (Tuktum), and the Coyote moiety (Istam). Descent is reckoned upon the paternal side.

These two moieties are divided into numerous clans, most of which appear to be localized. The majority of the clans are supposed to have received their names from the place in which the people of the clan first lived. Other clan names became attached to a family because of some special characteristic of its members.

The women remain in -the same clan before and after marriage.

Mukat belonged to the Tuktum moiety for he was a Tukut. Tamaioit belonged in the Istam moiety for he was an Isil.

Moon was an Isil for she was created by Tamaioit.

Naming Of Children 1

A special ceremony for the naming of children used to be held during fiesta week. The last one held among the Cahuilla was sixteen or seventeen years ago.

One name was given a child while in infancy another at the age of ten or twelve years. The grandparents chose the name that was to be given first and told the Net (ceremonial chief) what it was to be. Then at the fiesta, just before the Effigy dance, the child was named. All the friends and relatives had been invited from far and near. The Net took the child in his arms and pronounced its name and then he and the other old men sang and danced. If the child was a girl, a song about certain plants was sung if it was a boy, the song was about animals. I was not able to get the words of these songs. The name given the child was usually that of some ancestor.

The other name given to each child was known as the enemy name. Whether this was given at the time of the initiation ceremony into manhood and womanhood I was not able to ascertain. I could find out very little about the giving of the enemy name. Some close relative chose this name, which was usually a long one. At this time the men danced and the women sang, all the while shaking the shulpaial (gourd rattle). It was the object of each clan to keep its so-called enemies from learning the secret names assigned to any of their number. As soon as the enemy did find out a secret name, it was incorporated into the songs, much to the chagrin of the clan by which the name had been given.

Pregnancy and Childbirth

An Indian woman who is pregnant must be very careful of what she eats and what she does, for there are many taboos in connection with pregnancy and childbirth.

First, in regard to food. Women should not eat any more than is absolutely necessary during the nine months, but they should drink a great deal of warm water, never cold water. Very little meat may be eaten and no beef. No salt may be eaten during the entire period. A woman in this condition must not eat the legs of game or the child will be born feet first. She should be careful not to eat anything that animals or birds have touched. For example, if the woman eats fruit which a bird has pecked at, her child will have sores.

She should not look at animals or anything ugly. They tell of an old man who used to dance the Bird dance. His wife always watched him, at the time she was pregnant. Twins were born to her and they looked like birds and soon died. Her people told her it was because she had watched her husband so much when he was dressed like a bird. Innumerable instances of this kind were cited. Anyone who is affected with sores, bites, especially snakebites, or disease must stay away from a pregnant or menstruating woman.

She should never play with animals. People who are standing near her at any time should not speak about animals as being intelligent, or in any way draw her attention to them, for babies often become marked in this way.

It is considered very unfortunate to have twins. Little children are not allowed to remark about their being pretty when they see them. If they do, they are apt to have twins when they grow up.

Care must be taken as to the position a pregnant women takes while asleep. If she sleeps with her hands folded under her cheek, the baby will come that way. If she sleeps with her hands extended over her head, the child is likely to be born with the umbilical cord around its neck.

A pregnant woman should never stand or sit in the doorway of a house; misfortune will come to her child if she does.

It is best for an expectant mother to have plenty of work to do during the nine months, so that her child will be industrious and strong.

It is clear that the principle of mimetic magic enters strongly into these beliefs.

An Indian mother does not lie down to give birth to her child but sits up this is to prevent piles. If the placenta is slow in coming, the woman stands up over a pan of red hot coals. As soon as the baby is born, the mother lies down in a pit which has been dug in the sand and heated with stones. Hot sand is then poured over her. She is removed only to reheat the sand. This heat is supposed to prevent after-birth pains and to be very successful. The woman may get up and go outdoors the next day for a few minutes at a time, if it is necessary. The rest of the time she must remain in the sand pit for ten or twelve days. During the first week, she lies on her stomach most of the time, the next, on her back. Every morning she is sponged off with hot water.

For one month after the birth of her child, the mother must not eat meat, potatoes, sour things, anything containing salt, nor may she drink cold water. Rice, corn meal, gravy, and tea are about the only things allowed her at this time. During this first month, the father of the child must also refrain from eating food containing salt.

While the mother is nursing her child, she and her husband should not sleep together. If they do, the mother s milk will be spoiled and as a direct result the baby will be a sickly one. For this reason, a woman who weans her baby early is teased by her friends.

Ashes are placed on the child s navel soon after birth to help cure it.

Sickness 2

The chief disease among the Cahuilla is said to be stomach trouble. Any internal pain means stomach trouble to them.

They dislike taking medicine internally. For this reason, herbs are often applied externally. I saw an old man with his feet in a bowl of green-looking fluid. When I inquired about it, I was told that he was doing that to cure rheumatism in his feet.

Luis Quintano cured rheumatism in his legs by burning each one in eight different places.

In curing a snakebite, sometimes the sucking process is used and sometimes the application of a “snake-weed.” Another name for it is golderino weed. I was told that a snake before fighting a rattlesnake always eats some of this weed so as to be immune to the poison.

The women have one method of curing pain which they try for everything, and it appears to be very successful. They dig a pit in the sand, heat it with hot stones, and remove the stones. The patient then lies in this hot pit and is covered with hot sand. When the sand cools, it is reheated. Hot sand is applied constantly.

While I was at Torres Reservation, a woman had just given birth to twins. She had been attended only by one of her own family and blood poisoning had set in. She was in a terrible condition. They immediately placed her in one of these hot pits. Treatment such as this for that kind of a case would of course have proved fatal. A white woman, the government doctor, arrived on the scene and very much against the will of the family and of the sick woman, took her out of the pit and gave her the proper medical attention.

Dr. McCarroll told me of many cases where she had made a clean bed for some very sick woman only to come the next day and find her again lying on the dirt floor.

An old man was bitten by a poisonous black spider. The shaman was called to cure him he applied herbs to the bite. During a certain length of time after the application, the old man was not to sleep with his wife. He did not heed this order. As a result, he started trembling and has never ceased. The old man was pointed out to me as an example of disobeying a medicine man s orders.

Cahuilla Social Customs

Women seem subservient to the men at all times. If there are any chairs, the men occupy them, while the women sit on the floor behind them.

Unselfishness and respect for the old people is their ideal of right living. Children are taught from infancy to be generous and kind to the old. . When young boys go hunting they bring back everything they have killed to their parents and grandparents, for they never eat game of their own catching. If they were allowed to do this, they might get hungry and eat it all before they got home then the older ones who were not able to go hunting would have no game. The young men might not eat the first fruits or vegetables of the season for the same reason. If one did, he was considered very ill-bred and discourteous by the others.

Only the young men went hunting. They had to be very careful what they ate and drank before they went. They would not eat soup, for it would make them thirsty on their long journey and water was scarce. Nor would they eat meat before going to the mountains as this might cause them to have pains in the side while running. They drank as little water before going as possible.

Liberality and generosity were considered the most important virtues. The man who was the best hunter was held in very high esteem. The woman who could do the most work in the shortest time was the ideal woman. Nowadays these things do not seem to matter so much.

There was always real affection between the members of an Indian family but very little outward demonstration of it. Kissing they considered unclean. A husband was never seen kissing his wife. A mother never kissed her son. I asked what greeting was extended by a mother to her son returning from a long absence. The reply was that there was no greeting, that the mother always wept at such a time.

A father was not supposed to fondle his own children much since if he had to go hunting or to fight he might be gone quite a while and his children would miss him if he had been too good to them.

Some of the first of every crop must always be given to the Net, the fiesta chief. The man who fails to do this will become ill and the only way he can be cured is for the medicine man to take some of his beans away.

The first courtesy extended to a guest in an Indian home is to feed him.

“Women used to use a special kind of clay for a hair shampoo. It was put all over the head and left on for a couple of days, then washed off, and it left the hair very nice and fluffy. Nowadays, they use herbs for this purpose there is one which acts as a lather like soap. 3


Until very recently, the parents arranged the marriages of their children. A boy s father decided that his son should marry and accordingly looked around for a suitable wife. When he decided upon one, he went to see her father and offered a couple of horses or a certain amount of mesquite beans in exchange for the girl. After an agreement was reached, the girl s mother spoke to her about it.

If the girl did not approve, her father then talked to her and told her why she should marry the man of his choice and that she ought always to obey her parents. Usually, the girl agreed, for parental authority is very strong.

There was never any ceremony. The father of the groom simply led the wife to her husband s home. They always lived with the man s parents for several years. When his parents became quite old, the young couple built a new home right near them to live in, for it was about time for the old folks to die. If they died in the house where the young people were, it would mean that their home must be burned. When a man dies, his widow goes back to live with her own parents.

If the son did not like the wife his parents had picked out for him, after he had lived with her for a while, he could send her back to her home. There was no divorce, merely a separation and remarriage when convenient. It was permissible for a man to have two wives.

If a wife misbehaved, she was tied to a tree and beaten by the chief.

Very often, a girl was married at the age of ten or twelve years. This was an arrangement between the parents. However, she did not live with her husband for several years. She was married simply to keep someone else from getting her.

It was the custom for a widow to marry her late husband s older brother, but this was not obligatory. She could not marry his younger brother. When a wife died, the husband usually married her sister, if she had one.

Marriage with even distant relatives was looked upon with extreme disfavor.

When the couple were first married, the woman lived at her husband s home a week or two before really living with him as his wife. This was done to give them time “to get acquainted,” for as a rule they did not know each other very well.

A young woman was not wont to talk to her husband very much in their home. He was expected to converse with his parents who lived with them, and if his wife talked too much, his parents would be neglected. The two couples do not sleep in the same room, in the modern houses.

When a man and woman are first married, the old people who live near them go to see them, one by one. They do this to see whether they are starting their married life in a selfish or generous way. If the new wife gives the old lady some flour or meal to take home with her, she is considered a good woman. If she does not, the old lady can not say enough bad things about her.

Familiarity between husband and wife before people, such as we are accustomed to, is an unheard-of thing. If a wife should be seen sitting on her husband s lap, they would be sure she was crazy.

There must be no joking or teasing between a wife and her brother-in-law or a husband and his sister-in-law. There must be the greatest respect shown always in these relations. First cousins are spoken of as brothers and sisters. A husband may tease his wife s cousin and vice versa. A man must be very good to his wife s father and brother.

One old man told me that very long ago if a man desired a certain woman for his wife, he went to her carrying his bows and arrows. If she refused him, he killed her. This was the only statement of the kind made to me, and I can not vouch for its authenticity.Citations:

  1. This subject is discussed more fully by E. W. Gifford in this series, XIV, J 86-191, 1918.[]
  2. Compare also the previous section on Shamanism.[]
  3. Probably Chenopodium Californicum (Barrows, Ethnobotany, p. 48, 1900).[]


Torres Reservation,

Hooper, Lucile. The Cahuilla Indians. Berkeley, California: University Of California Press. 1920.

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