The Kawaiisu (pronounced: ″ka-wai-ah-soo″) are a Native American group which lives in the southern California Tehachapi Valley and across the Tehachapi Pass in the southern Sierra Nevada Mountains to the north, toward Lake Isabella and Walker Pass. Historically, the Kawaiisu also traveled eastward on food-gathering trips to areas in the northern Mojave Desert, to the north and northeast of the Antelope Valley, as far east as the Panamint Valley, the Panamint Mountains, and the western edge of Death Valley. Today, some Kawaiisu people are enrolled in the Tule River Indian Tribe.[2]

Tribal name and groups

The tribal name ″Kawaiisu″ comes from the Yokuts tribes (Kroeber 1925:602) with variants such as Kah-wis-sah / Kow-a-sah (Hodge 1907-1910-1:666) or Kohaizi'wa (Driver (1937) and (Zaglauer 1995:28), the meaning is uncertain, but Kawaiisu tradition translates it like "Eaters of raw or dried meat", due to their practice of drying strips of uncooked meat in the sun. The Kawaiisu have been known by several other names, including the Caliente, Paiute, Tahichapahanna, and Tehachapi Indians.

They called themselves Niwi / Nuwa (″person, human being, Indian″) or Niwiwi / Nüwa / Nuooah / New-oo-ah ("people"), today they refer to the tribal entity as ″Kawaiisu″ and as people "Nüwa", sometimes also as "Paiutes".[3]

The Kawaiisu were divided into two regional groupings of family groups with slight dialect differences: the "Mountain Kawaiisu" and the "Desert Kawaiisu".

Mountain Kawaiisu

Their territory centered in the far southern Sierra Nevada, principally in the Piute and Tehachapi Mountains, and included Bear Valley, Brite Valley, Cummings Valley, Tehachapi Valley, Kelso Valley, and Walker Basin. It also encompassed Woolstalf Meadow, the Scodie Mountains, Sage Canyon, Horse Canyon, Jawbone Canyon, and Sand Canyon. The prominent mountain peaks within the ″Mountain Kawaiisu″ core area include Nichols Peak, Butterbread Peak, and Bear Mountain. The ″Mountain Kawaiisu″ ranged from Double Mountain in the south to Owens Peak in the north, to the west about Bena not far from the confluence of Tehachapi and Caliente Creeks, and on the east they claimed lands extending to Red Rock Canyon in the El Paso Mountains.

Desert Kawaiisu

Their territory centered in the desert areas east of Tehachapi and extending into Death Valley (Earle 2005; Underwood 2006). Underwood emphasizes that the ″Desert Kawaiisu″ had territory north of Rosamond, north of Rogers Lake, ranging to an area north of Barstow. The "Desert Kawaiisu" area encompassed the modern day communities of Ridgecrest, Trona, the northeastern portion of Edwards Air Force Base, much of the Naval Weapons Center at China Lake (especially the South Base), most of Fort Irwin, and the southern portions of Death and Panamint Valleys. The Death Valley south of Furnace Creek, California, and the Panamint Valley south of Ballarat, California were predominantly "Desert Kawaiisu", the adjoining areas to the north were composed of almost equal numbers of Timbisha (Panamint) Shoshone and "Desert Kawaiisu" (Julian Steward, 1938). Significantly, when borderlands were occupied, it was in fact common that settlements would include people speaking related but different languages. "Desert Kawaiisu" speakers were part of Steward's ″Koso″[4] (or Little Lake district that included the region of the Coso Range, Rose Valley, Little Lake, Olancha, Darwin, Walker Pass to Owens Lake, and part of the far southern Sierra Nevada (Steward 1937, 1938; see also Voegelin 1938)(Earle 2004; Harrington 1986).[5]


The Kawaiisu language, or Tehachapi, is a member of the Southern Numic division of the Uto-Aztecan language family.[2] The Kawaiisu homeland was bordered by speakers of non-Numic Uto-Aztecan languages. The Kitanemuk to the south spoke Takic, the Tübatulabal to the north spoke the Tübatulabal language a linguistic isolate. The Yokuts to the west were non-Uto-Aztecan. Because they also spoke a Southern Numic language, the Chemehuevi to the east are the closest linguistic relatives to Kawaiisu.


Before European contact, the Kawaiisu lived in permanent winter villages of 60 to 100 people. They often divided into smaller groups during the warmer months of the year and harvested California native plants in the mountains and deserts, and animals, for food and raw materials.

The Kawaiisu are related by language and culture to the Southern Paiute of southwestern Nevada and the Chemehuevi of the eastern Mojave Desert of California. They may have originally lived in the desert before coming to the Tehachapi Mountains region, perhaps as early as 2000 years ago or before.

The Kawaiisu maintained friendly relations with the neighboring Kitanemuk and also participated in cooperative antelope drives (driving herds of antelope into traps so they could be more easily slaughtered) with the Yokuts, another group living in the San Joaquin Valley.

The Numic-speaking peoples of this area (Kawaiisu, Timbisha (Panamint), Southern Paiute, and Coso people) are famous for their petroglyphs and Rock art.[6]

In 2011, The Kawaiisu Project received the Governor’s Historic Preservation Award for its efforts to document the Kaiwaiisu language and culture, including "the Handbook of the Kawaiisu, language teaching ... the Kawaiisu Language and Cultural Center, [and] the Kawaiisu exhibit at the Tehachapi Museum."[7] [8] A local newspaper noted in 2010, "There are also several hundred living Kawaiisu descendents, even though a pervasive misconception believes them to be all gone."[8] [9]


Estimates for the pre-contact populations of most native groups in California have varied substantially.[10] Alfred L. Kroeber proposed the combined 1770 population of the Kawaiisu as 1,500. He estimated the surviving population of the Kawaiisu in 1910 as 500.[11]

See also


  1. ^ "2010 Census" (PDF). census.gov. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2014-12-09. 
  2. ^ a b c California Indians and Their Reservations: Kawaiisu San Diego State University Library and Information Access. Retrieved 30 June 2013.
  3. ^ Leslie Zaglauer: The Kawaiisu of South-Central California: Creating a New Identity
  4. ^ "Koso" was a variant term for the Timbisha Shoshone or Death Valley Shoshone, not to be confused with the Coso people, a historic Northern Paiute people once living in the same area
  5. ^ Alan P. Garfinkel, Harold Williams: Handbook of the Kawaiisu
  6. ^ Petroglyphs.US - Rock Art Gallery - pictographs & petroglyphs
  7. ^ Jon Hammond (2011-11-29). "Kawaiisu Project receives Governor's Historic Preservation Award". TehachapiNews.com. Retrieved 2012-08-26. 
  8. ^ a b Jon Hammond (2010-04-06). "The original Tehachapi language: new grant funds new grant funds two-year Nüwa (Kawaiisu) project". TehachapiNews.com. Retrieved 2012-08-26. 
  9. ^ "Jon Hammond: Handbook of the Kawaiisu: ground-breaking book ..." TehachapiNews.com. Retrieved 2012-08-26. 
  10. ^ (See Population of Native California.)
  11. ^ Kroeber, Alfred L (1925). Handbook of the Indians of California. Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin. No. 78. Washington, D.C. p. 883. 


  • Garfinkel, Alan P. (2007). "Archaeology and Rock Art of the Eastern Sierra and Great Basin Frontier". Maturango Museum Publication Number 22. Maturango Museum, Ridgecrest, California.
  • Garfinkel, Alan P., Donald R. Austin, David Earle, and Harold Williams (2009). Myth, Ritual and Rock Art: Coso Decorated Animal-Humans and the Animal Master. Rock Art Research 26(2):179-197. [The Journal of the Australian Rock Art Research Association (AURA) and of the International Federation of Rock Art Organizations (IFRAO)].
  • Garfinkel, Alan P. and John F. Romani (2008). Dating Aboriginal Occupation at Tihesti-va’a-di: Changing Land Use Patterns at a Kawaiisu Village, Tehachapi, California. "Kern County Archaeological Society Journal" 10:45-63.
  • Garfinkel, Alan P. and Harold Williams (2011). The Handbook of the Kawaiisu: A Sourcebook and Guide to Primary Resources on the Native Peoples of the far southern Sierra Nevada, Tehachapi Mountains, and southwestern Great Basin. Wa-hi San’avi Publications.
  • Gifford, Edward Winslow, (1917). Tübatulabal and Kawaiisu kinship terms. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. Retrieved 2012-08-26. 

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