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Who are the Cahuilla Indians?

By J.L. Drede
Updated May 17, 2024
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The Cahuilla Indians are a tribe of Native Americans who first inhabited the area that is now known as Southern California some 2,000 years ago. Although commonly referred to as the Cahuilla, the people of the tribe generally refer to themselves as the Iviatim, which means master in their language. Their territory included the San Jacinto Mountains, the Coachella Valley, southern Mojave and all of the San Bernardino basin. Territory among the Cauilla was separated by individual clans, which were independently run. Each clan had approximately 600 to 800 people. They were a hunter/gatherer tribe and peaceful, with no history of war with other California tribes.

First interaction between the Cahuilla Indians and Europeans was in 1774 when Spanish explorers were searching for a trade route between Sonora, Mexico and Monterey, Ca. There was little interaction between the Cahuilla American Indians and Europeans early on. Their location deep inland was of little use to Spanish traders, and most civilians saw that area as nothing more than a dry, barren wasteland. Later, as more people settled in the area, the California Indians became part of the labor force for both the Spanish and Mexicans. During this time the Cahuilla Indians still maintained their own culture, complete with its own political, religious and legal systems. The population of the Cahuilla was estimated to be approximately 10,000.

By 1850 relationships between the Cahuilla and the Americans were becoming strained. More settlers moved into the Cahuilla territory during the years of the gold rush. The tribe sought protection via a treaty with the government, but the California Senate refused to ratify it. This lead to a brief period of violence where the Cahuilla attacked settlers who infringed on their land.

The Cahuilla Indians eventually lost their land not to European settlers or gold miners, but to disease. Like many other Indian nations, the Cahuilla had no built in immunity to smallpox, which was brought over by the European settlers. In 1863 a particularly deadly smallpox epidemic hit California, killing thousands of the Cahuilla tribe. In just one year their population fell from 10,000 to just 2,500. By this time the American government saw value in the land of the Cahuilla Indians; it was valuable space for railroad tracks. Without the ability to fight back, the Cahuilla were unable to stop the the United States from taking their land, only leaving a fraction of their original territory for reservations.

Cahuilla Indians today mostly live on reservation land in the California area. They share space in the Morongo Reservation with the Serrano and Cupeno Indian tribes. Commonly known as the Mission Indians, together they set up a successful Indian reservation casino resort, the Morongo Casino in Riverside.

America Explained is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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