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Indian Lore Merit Badge

Requirement #1

Phil Brigandi

1. Give the history of one American Indian tribe, group, or nation that lives or has lived near you. Visit it, if possible. Tell about traditional dwellings, way of life, tribal government, religious beliefs, family and clan relationships, language, clothing styles, arts and crafts, food preparation, means of getting around, games, customs in warfare, where members of the group now live, and how they live.

The Indians of the Lost Valley area are known as the Cupeño (koo-pen-yo) Indians. They were one of the smallest tribes in California. Their main village was a Cupa (modern-day Warner Hot Springs), just over the mountains to the south of us. There were no permanent villages here in Lost Valley, but the Cupeño did come here in the spring and fall to hunt and gather acorns. Some of their trade routes also passed through Lost Valley on their way to the desert. In ancient times, there were perhaps 500 people in the tribe.

Traditional dwellings

Round, dome-shaped brush huts, called a kish. Made by first digging down a foot or two, then building up a frame of poles that was covered with brush. Most were 10-15 feet in diameter. One per family. Smoke hole in top, door hole on side. Except in winter, mostly used just for sleeping.

In the 1830s the missionaries began to teach the Cupeño to build adobe houses. By the 1850s they had all but replaced old brush huts. Some of the old adobes still stand today at Warners.

Way of life

Hunters and gatherers; no farming. Did everything by the seasons. Went out when it was the best time (or the only time) to gather some seed, or hunt some animals. Kept track of phases of the moon, changes of the seasons.

Tribal government

Basic social unit was the clan -- an extended family; not just parents and children, but aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents, all related. There were about nine Cupeño clans. Each clan had a leader (net). Each of the clan leaders in the village would meet to decide larger issues, with the net of the largest clan having the most authority.

Religious beliefs

We don’t know all we could about this. There were two religions --

The old religion -- legends told origins and history. Elaborate ceremonies for important events. Naming new baby, boys and girls become adults, marriage, and especially funerals.

The new religion -- spreading through Southern California about 200 years ago. Belief in Chinigchnigch (Chi-nich-nich). Said to have been a great chief who returned from the dead to give his laws, then returned above to watch over the people. Taught that people should be kind and generous, do their share of the work, keep themselves and their possessions clean, be respectful of their parents, etc. If they did, he would look after them now and after they die. If they did not, he would punish them, spending animals -- spiders, snakes, ravens, etc.

Missionaries went to work to dispel all this and made Catholics of the Indians. Many still are today.

Family and clan relationships

Did most work by the clans. Territory was divided among the clans, and what grew there belonged to them. Lost Valley belonged to the Temewhanitcem (northerners) clan. Could not marry members of own clan (relatives). Had to marry outside the clan. Children were counted with their father's clan.


A big subject, but three points:

The reason we speak of the Cupeño as a separate tribe is that they had their own distinct language. It is similar to the much larger Cahuilla language, which was spoken over a large part of inland Southern California.

It was only a spoken language. Only in the last 30-40 years has a way to write it been created.

It is a dead language. It is still known, but no one speaks it in everyday use. The last native speaker died in 1987.

A few quick examples:

Lost Valley = Wiatava

Hot Springs Mountain = Su’ish Peki (Soo’eesh Pe-kee . . . Rabbit’s House)

Bear = Hunwut (hoon-wut)

Butterfly = malval

Clothing styles

Not much. Men -- maybe small breechcloth in front. Women -- apron of willow fibers or rabbit pelt. In winter, rabbit pelts sewn together or deer hide as cape. When in long trips, yucca fiber sandals.

For ceremonial dances, wore eagle feathers, but not headdress. Were tied around the body so they would flutter and flap during the whirling dances.

Missionaries quickly began efforts to get Indians to wear clothes. Started herding sheep in the valley below Cupa to provide wool to make clothing.

Arts and crafts

Principal Southern California craft was basketry. Baskets of all sizes, and for all sorts of uses. In later years, also began making pottery.

Food preparation

Staple food was acorn mush. Each fall the Cupeño would head off to oak groves (such as Lost Valley) where acorns were harvested, cracked, dried, then pounded into flour in stone grinding holes. Many are still seen around camp -- above the Rifle Range, Indian Wells campsite in Irvine, Bear Hollow in Grace. After pounding the flour was “leached” to rinse out the tannic acid which makes acorns bitter (but not poisonous).

While women worked on acorns, men would hunt. Small game mostly -- woodrats, squirrels, rabbits. Hunted with clubs, bow and arrow, also chased into nets.

There were few plants in this area that the Cupeño did not use for something -- food, medicine, making things. Almost every kind of plant seed was gathered and eaten -- grasses, chia, etc.

Means of getting around



Races at the new moon. Childrens' games including a game like jacks played with stones.

Customs in warfare

Little of what we would call war. Did not have much reason. Did not have the weapons (except hunting tools). More feuding than anything else. Mostly between clans. Sometimes between villages, and occasionally between tribes. Usually fought over thefts (of food, say) or insults. Battle determined who was right. Lots of yelling, name calling, and some injuries. But when the battle was over, it was put behind them.

Where members of the group now live, and how they live.

In the 1800s the area around Cupa came to be owned by white men. Eventually John Downey, a former governor of California, went to court to have the Indians thrown off “his” land. Took almost ten years, and went all the way to the Supreme Court. Became national news. In 1901 the Supreme Court ruled the Cupeño had no legal right to the land they had lived on for perhaps 500 years or more. Government picked out a reservation at Pala (about 10 miles from Temecula), and in 1903 marched the Cupeño off to the reservation.

Today, Pala is a small town. About 250 people are enrolled as members of the tribe. Pala looks much like any other small backcountry town. The people live in houses, have cars, jobs, send their kids to school. In fact, almost all of this material is as much history to them as it is to you.