The Cahuilla are a tribe of Native Americans that have inhabited the U.S. state of California for more than 2,000 years, originally covering an area of about 2,400 square miles (6,200 km²). The traditional Cahuilla territory was near the geographic center of Southern California. It was bounded to the north by the San Bernardino Mountains, to the south by Borrego Springs and the Chocolate Mountains, to the east by the Colorado Desert, and to the west by the San Jacinto Plain and the eastern slopes of the Palomar Mountains.
Oral legends suggest that when the Cahuilla first moved into the Coachella Valley, a large body of water now called Lake Cahuilla was in existence. Fed by the Colorado River, it dried up sometime before 1700, following one of the repeated shifts in the river's changed course. In 1905 a break in a levee created the much smaller Salton Sea in the same location.
The Cahuilla have been historically divided into "Mountain," "Desert," and "Pass" groups by anthropologists. Today there are nine Southern California reservations that are acknowledged homes to bands of Cahuilla people located in Imperial, Riverside and San Diego counties. Federally recognized Cahuilla tribes are: The Agua Caliente, Augustine (the smallest federally recognized Native American tribe of 6 persons in the 2000s), Cabazon, Cahuilla, Los Coyotes, Morongo, Ramona, Santa Rosa and Torres-Martinez.
Their language is of the Uto-Aztecan family. A 1990 census revealed 35 speakers in an ethnic population of 800. It is nearly extinct, since most speakers are middle-aged or older.
A smallpox epidemic in 1863 severely reduced the native population, which had been reported as 3,238 in 1860 but only 1,181 in 1865. Kroeber estimated that in 1910 there were 800 Cahuilla. The U.S. Bureau of the Census for 1970 gave a figure of 1,629.
The Cahuilla have intermarried with non-Cahuillas for the past century, and a high percentage of today's Cahuilla tribal members have some degree of white Anglo and/or Hispanic (esp. Spanish and Mexican) ancestry, but a certain number are qualified for official tribal membership in accordance to its rules.
The first encounter with Europeans was in 1774 when Juan Bautista de Anza was looking for a trade route between Sonora and Monterey in Alta California. Living far inland, Cahuillas had little contact with Spanish soldiers or European civilians and priests, many of whom saw the desert as having little or no value but rather a place to avoid. They learned of Mission life from Indians living close to Missions in San Gabriel and San Diego.
The Cahuilla first came in contact with Anglo/Americans in the 1840s. Juan Antonio, leader of the Cahuilla Mountain band, gave traveler Daniel Sexton access to areas near the San Gorgonio Pass in 1842. The Mountain Band also lent support to a U.S. Army expedition led by Lieutenant Edward Fitzgerald Beale, defending the party against attacks by Wakara and his band of Ute warriors.
During the 1850s, the Cahuilla came under increasing pressure because of the California Gold Rush. In addition to the influx of Anglo-American miners, ranchers and outlaws, and groups of Mormon colonists, the Cahuilla came into conflict with the neighboring Cupeño tribe to the west. When the California Senate refused to ratify an 1852 treaty granting the Cahuilla control of their lands, tribal leaders, including Juan Antonio, resorted to attacks on approaching settlers and dispatched soldiers.
To encourage the railroad, the U.S. government subdivided the lands into one mile square sections, giving the Indians every other section. In 1877 the government established reservation boundaries which left the Cahuillas with only a small portion of their traditional territories. One former Cahuilla village, Tekwite (Tikwit) is located near the present-day town of Indio, California.
Today Palm Springs and the surrounding areas are experiencing rapid development. The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians is an important player in the local economy, operating an array of business enterprises, including land leasing, hotel and casino operations, and banking. The Agua Caliente Indian Reservation occupies 126.706 km² (48.921 sq mi) in the Palm Springs area, including parts of the cities of Palm Springs, Cathedral City, and Rancho Mirage. The total population living on its territory was 21,358 persons as of the 2000 census, although very few of these are Native Americans.
The Morongo Band of Mission Indians operates the Morongo Casino Resort and Spa as well as the Hadley Fruit Orchards in Cabazon. The Morongo Casino is one of the largest Indian casinos in the United States. The Morongo Indian Reservation is located in northern Riverside County, amidst the cities of Banning and Cabazon, both of which extend partially onto reservation land. The reservation has a land area of 127.083 km² (49.067 sq mi), with a resident population of 954, the majority of them of Native American heritage.
Other relatively smaller bands of Cahuillas are located in Southern California: the Augustine band in Coachella; the Cabazon band in Indio; the Cabazon Reservations in Indio, Coachella and Mecca; the Cahuilla Indian Reservation in Anza; the Los Coyotes band in Warner Springs; the Ramona Indian Reservation in Pine Meadow; Santa Rosa Indian Reservation in Pinyon; the Twentynine Palms band in Twentynine Palms, Indio and Coachella; the Torres-Martinez band in La Quinta, Coachella, Thermal, Mecca and Oasis; and the Mission Creek Reservation in Desert Hot Springs.
Extinct Cahuilla tribes in the early 20th century resided in the Palm Desert area (between Cathedral City and La Quinta), before land developers and US Armed forces purchased what was tribal land from the Montoya family in present-day Indian Wells, the Las Palmas band and the San Cayetano band in Rancho Mirage. The number of these tribes' descendants are unknown, but the Montoya family whom claim it are influential in local economics and city politics.