In the first half of the twentieth century and since, a number of anthropologists have described Native Southern Californian cultures and languages. One of them was Alfred Kroeber. Kroeber and others identified a number of languages in Southern California. The languages correlate with ethnic groups, although it’s important to remember that there was constant travel and trade between groups.
Estimates of the size of most of these groups in 1852 by B.D. Wilson ranged between 2,000 and 5,000. In pre-contact times these groups constituted what Kroeber called “tribelets” where people would identify themselves by the lineage they belonged to or the settlement they lived in. In pre-contact times (which is the term used by anthropologists to refer to California prehistory) population density was low.
In Southern California there were two major language families, the Yuman and the Uto-Aztecan. These are as different as Chinese and English. These two language families are broken down into smaller branches. In Southern California the Uto-Aztecan family is represented by what Kroeber called the Shoshonean language group.
The Shoshonean branch may have originated in Central California or the Great Basin. It may have migrated into Southern California in the last 1,000 to 2,000 years, a matter that is open to debate. It has been broken down further into smaller branches—in Southern California–the Takic and the Numic. The Chemehuevi out on the Mojave Desert are Numic speakers who moved into the area in historic times.
The Takic branch includes the Luiseño, the Juaneño, the Cahuilla, the Gabrielino and the Cupeño. It was originally thought that the Chumash, who live in the Santa Barbara area were related to the Yuman people but recently they have been classified as belonging to their own language family, the Chumashan.
Recently the Yuman language family has been identified as being related to the Cochimí languages that were found in Central Baja California. The new term identifying this relationship is Yuman-Cochimi. The Yuman-Cochimi speakers in San Diego County were the Kumeyaay, originally called Diegueño, after Mission San Diego.
The coastal language groups were associated with the missions in their areas. The languages and customs of the coastal groups were severely impacted by white settlement. Groups further inland avoided the worst of the effects of colonization.
Most of these languages were recorded by the anthropologists and linguists who worked in the early 1900s. These early records allow us to better understand the peoples who lived on the beautiful and varied landscape of Southern California.
One of the linguists was JP Harrington who worked heroically to record as many of the dying California languages as he could. His notes are now being used by some tribes to revive their languages.
The Quechan are thought to have numbered 4,000 to 5,000 when they were first contacted by whites. The name Quechan comes from the word kwachán which means “those who have descended.” It refers to their descent from aviikwamé after the time of creation.
They practiced floodwater agriculture along the banks of the Colorado River, raising tepary beans, maize, watermelons, black eyed peas, pumpkins, muskmelons and winter wheat. Hunting wasn’t an important activity and the fish from the river were bony and not very palatable. Wild grasses, mesquite and screw bean mesquite were wild plant staples.
The Quechan were situated along the river between the Mohave to their north and the Cocopah to their south on the delta. It is estimated that between 30 and 50% of their food came from agriculture, the rest came from gathering wild foods. If the Colorado River failed to rise in the spring people were forced to subsist entirely on wild foods.
Because food was relatively easy to obtain, effort went into the development of spiritual matters and warfare. The Quechan identified themselves by clans that were named after animals or objects. Preston is of the Frog Clan. The Quechan also had a strong tribal identification which is found in the Colorado River tribes but is absent in the rest of California. Speculation has it that this identification as a tribe was a direct adaptation to warfare. The war expeditions were mounted after the harvest.
There was a war leader, the kwanamí, “the brave one,” and the kwoxót, “the good one,” who organized other activities. However, the Quechan were egalitarian and non-authoritative. Leaders came to the fore through the demonstration of their competence. A strong leader was thought to have powerful dreams.
Warfare demonstrated and enhanced the tribe’s spiritual power. The Quechan, Mohave, Kamiá and Yavapai formed an alliance against the Pima, Cocopah and Maricopa. Scalps were taken and before the American era, slaves, nijaras, were traded as far west as Los Angeles, as far east as Santa Fe and south into Sonora.
Dreaming conferred power as a leader and the power to heal. The song cycles that formed the liturgy for ceremonies were dreamed also. A harvest festival is recorded to have occurred but ceremonies around death formed the main focus of spiritual life.
In addition to the funeral ceremony itself, the Ker`úk was held up until the 1950s. The Ker`úk was a four-day ceremony that included the pageantry of ritualized warfare and the burning of images that represented the dead people being memorialized. The soul, which Preston calls the “self-fire,” was thought to go to the land of the dead which is to the South.
Unbacked bows, arrows with foreshafts and rabbit sticks were men’s tools. A shield and a war club resembling an old fashioned wooden potato masher were used in war.
Basketry was not highly elaborated among the Quechan like it was among other nearby tribes. Pottery was made and sometimes painted. It used to be that all the possessions of the dead person went into the cremation fire. Now tribal members bring blankets which are laid over the casket when it is immolated. Accumulation of property was not emphasized. Some authors speculate that this is the reason the Colorado, “the American Nile,” didn’t produce a high civilization like Egypt.
The identification of the Kamiá was disputed during the period of the “classic ethnographies” during the early 20th century. Unlike their hunter-gatherer Kumeyaay relatives to the west, they practiced agriculture. They also had clans named after animals and objects like corn or red mud like the Colorado River tribes but unlike their relatives, the Kumeyaay. Otherwise they were the easternmost branch of what were called the Southern Diegueño or Tipai, now commonly called the Kumeyaay. They formed a conduit that transmitted traits from the Colorado River tribes to the Kumeyaay. The word for human being or Kumeyaay person and for their language was the same: Tipai, much as we can talk about a German or German, the language.
During the first half of the twentieth century anthropologists engaged in what has been called “salvage ethnography.” There was an emphasis on collecting data on what Native cultures were like before the coming of the Europeans.
This was the period during which Edward S Curtis photographed Native Americans over the western US. His works are romanticized images of people in their traditional garb, doing traditional activities. His work has been criticized for not showing the harsh conditions on reservations at that time.
I always look at the eyes of the people he was photographing. They usually do not show anger or distrust like other ethnographic photographs do. Some people think that Curtis did for Native Americans what John James Audubon did for wildlife of North America. Curtis brought the beauty and grace of Native lives to mainstream US society at a time when there was tremendous prejudice against them.
At that time it was believed by some that Native Americans were destined to die out. There was active suppression of Native languages, religions and cultures in the boarding schools. And it wasn’t that long after violent subjugation of Indian peoples had been perpetrated in the name of progress and Manifest Destiny.
It was in this milieu that the classic ethnographies of Native Americans were being written. Nowadays you will hear Native people say, “We are still here.” This statement is a declaration of persistence and survival in the face of centuries of physical and psychical brutality.