The Kawaiisu Culture
“Coyote was thinking one day and realized there would be many people. Bug was worried that there would be too
many people and they would have to eat dirt. Coyote said no, for if they did, they would eat up all the
dirt. So Coyote decided The People should eat acorns, pinyon, chia and deer.”
The Kawaiisu were primarily a hunter/gatherer subsistence culture. Although they did not cultivate plants in
the traditional sense, they used their initimate knowledge of the environment and available resources to
cultivate and preserve those resources. Although they were excellent deer hunters, they were essentially
gatherers. They knew when, where and how to hunt and harvest without depleting resources. Bulbs and
roots, for example, might be replanted to ensure a continuing supply. Invasive plants might be cleared by
fire to maintain grazing lands for deer.
Because of the effort required to bring supplies from distant areas andthe preparation required to
preserve food, the annual round of huntingand gathering would last from spring through fall. Young girls learned
to gather and prepare food early in life. Boys started hunting for the family at about nine years of age.
Berries and greens were eaten, often while they were being gathered. Chokecherries, currants, gooseberries,
elderberries and some manzanita were used. Berries could be pounded in mortars with a pestle and formed into
small molded cakes. The cakes were sun-dried and stored in special coiled baskets for later use.
Seeds (wild rice, chia, sunflower and buckwheat, to name a few) were collected by sweeping them into a
cloth-lined burden basket with a twined seed beater. Roots and bulbs were also collected and stored.
The most popular nut was the acorn. There are at least seven varieties of oak trees in the Kawaiisu core
area and while the Kawaiisu preferred the Black Oak, they knew the characteristics of each of the different
varieties. While acorn meal was a versatile food staple, buckeye nuts were eaten only when other supplies
were low. Pinyon nuts and juniper berries added flavor to the meal. Buckeye nuts were not favored as much
as acorns, but were used when acorns were not plentiful. Both acorns and buckeye nuts had to be pounded
with a stone mortar and pestle and leached in water to remove the tannic acid. Buckeye nuts took
considerably longer to prepare because they also contain toxins which had to be leached out with water
before the meal could be used.
Salt was important to the diet and collecting salt was the responsibility of the men. Some of the purest salt
was collected from Proctor Lake in the Tehachapi Valley when water levels were low. Koehn Lake, about 30 miles
from Tomo-Kahni, was the usual collection site.
Though deer meat was the game of choice, antelope, brown bear, and a variety of smaller mammals, birds and
insects provided protein. The Kawaiisu never ate grizzly bear, skunk, buzzard, bat, rattlesnake,
roadrunners, crows, grasshoppers or eagles. The men were responsible for hunting and used bows, decoys
and blinds to hunt animals and birds. Nets, traps, snares, brush-fire surrounds and deadfalls were also
used. Fish were not readily available, but were caught with bone hooks. Fish could also be caught by
spreading meal from toxic plants, such as buckeye nuts, on the surface of ponds. The toxins from the
plants would leach into the water and numb the fish, making them easy to catch. This process is called