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History and Culture

The Cupeño Indians share one of the richest and most interesting cultural heritages in California.

Their traditional home in the mountain valley which held their villages of Cupa (now Warner’s Hot Springs) and Wilakalpa was at the junction of three major California groups: the Cahuilla, the Luiseño, and the Diegueño or Kumeyaay. The Cupeño, Cahuilla, and Luiseño all speak Cupan languages, a sub-group of the Uto-Aztecan family of American Indian languages. Within Cupan, Cupeño and Cahuilla are most closely related.

Cupeño tradition, as related in the history of Kisily Pewik, maintains that the founders of the tribe were a lineage of the Mountain Cahuilla who had moved south from the area around Soboba. Evidence from an examination of the language and social organization of the groups suggests that the tradition is correct, and that these events happened eight hundred to a thousand years ago.

Once a established in their new villages, the Cupeño began founding a new tradition rooted in the Cahuilla tradition but changed by an intricate interaction with the peoples around them. They intermarried widely, and many Cupeño belong to lineages that claim to have Luiseño, Diegueño, and Cahuilla ancestry.

From the Cahuilla they maintained the complex social organization of exogamous moieties, patrilineal clans, and ceremonial exchange “parties.” From the Luiseño they acquired some of the rituals of the Chinigchinich religion, a religion of moral and spiritual rigor based on self-discipline, a concept of an ethical life and ecstatic visions of the nature of the world. This was added to the older complex of funerary rituals and the eagle ceremony.

They intermarried, exchanged ceremonies, and fought with the Hokan-speaking Diegueño to the south. This new world of the Cupeño was constructed in intimate contact with their lands, which were small but rich enough in natural resources and beauty to sustain a complex way of life for the villages.

When the Spanish, Mexican, and American settlers came to California, the Cupeño experience of being at a cultural crossroads was further complicated. The first whites came to their valley around 1795, and the town of Cupa and its hot springs became a natural way station on any route from the south or east through the Arizona desert to the coast of California.

The Mission San Luis Rey and later Mission San Diego maintained outstations at Cupa until the secularization of the missions in 1834, and the Cupeño became Christians early in the nineteenth century, while still maintaining most of their traditional religion. They also learned agriculture, and from that time have been farmers as well as hunters and gatherers.

In 1840 the governor of California granted Cupeño lands “without prejudice to the indigenes” to a Mexican citizen, Jose Antonio Pico, who wrote a statement dated August 9, 1840, that “the indigenes cede to me all the rights with which they are invested, solely because I place my residence by their side, in order to cooperate in the care of the few interests which they have for their subsistence. They ask through me for their emancipation, so that they may be able to take up with freedom their labors for the support and benefit of their families.”

Pico’s efforts to establish himself apparently failed, and in 1844 the ranch was granted to Juan Jose Warner, an American who had Hispanicized his name. Warner’s grant from Governor Alvarado unfortunately did not mention the Indians, and referred to the land as “vacant and abandoned,” evidently in reference to the buildings which had been built by the Indians under the supervision of Franciscan fathers from Mission San Luis Rey.

The terms of Warner’s grant were to prove fatal for the Cupeños’ rights to the land. Many Indians were employed on Warner’s ranch, but they were not placid. In 1851, the chief of the Kavaly lineage, Antonio Garra, led a revolt against Warner’s oppressive regime. This revolt became known as the Garra Uprising. It was one of many efforts by California Indians to repel the Americans, or at least to convince them that the Indians were capable of defending their rights in the land.

Inevitably, the revolt was put down, and Garra and many of his followers were executed. The Cupeño village was burned in retaliation for the burning of Warner’s buildings, and after that time the Indians lived in the buildings abandoned by the missions.

Perhaps discouraged by the revolt, Warner abandoned his properties, but only after he had cleared his title in the courts. Eventually the land became the property of John G. Downey, and in 1893 his family sued for the removal of the Indian “interlopers.” The Cupeños fought the eviction all the way to the United States Supreme Court, but the court ruled in favor of the Downey family on May 13, 1901.

The Cupeño were finally moved to a small reservation at the Luiseño village of Pala in May of 1903. There were no houses there for the new residents, and the Cupeños remember sleeping in the open, tortured by the insects and dampness of the unfamiliar coastal valley. Furthermore, the new reservation lacked the rich religious associations and traditions of clan ownership that the old lands had held. For a people who had invested so much spiritual importance in their relationship to the land, the removal was devastating.

Over a century later, the Cupeño continue to mourn their loss. However, like the orphaned Kisily Pewik who returned and claimed the lands of his father, the Cupeños are continuing to embrace their traditional cultural heritage through events such as the annual Cupa Days celebration, and through classes, activities, and research at the Cupa Cultural Center.