The Kawaiisu Culture
There is evidence that Native Americans lived in the southern Sierra Nevada mountains as long as 3,000
years ago. It is quite possible that they were direct ancestors of the Kawaiisu. Based on
research, it appears that the Kawaiisu have lived in the
and surrounding areas for no
more than 1,500 years. Most artifacts found in the area are less than 500 years old and none are more
than 1,500 years old. Perhaps during the mini-ice-age that occurred 3,000 years ago, ancestors of
the Kawaiisu moved from the mountains to the desert. During the significant warming that began 700 to
800 years ago, movements of people took place throughout the Southwest. It may be that this climate
change brought the Kawaiisu back into the Southern Sierras from the adjacent Mojave Desert.
In the best of times, there may have been approximately 1000 Kawaiisu, while during lean years of poor
harvest there may have been only a few hundred.
The first mention of the Kawaiisu is found in the 1776 diary of
Francisco Garces. At the time, his
party was crossing the Tehachapis and encountered Kawaiisu women and children. Garces' party was deemed
to be very needy and was offered presents of baskets, meat and seeds. By the mid-1800's,
farmers and stockmen
had penetrated the region and some conflicts erupted. In 1853, the U.S. government
attempted to relocated natives from a wide ranging area to the Sebastian Reserve at
Tejon Pass. The
intention was to establish an agricultural community so the natives could become self-sufficient.
Superintendent of Indian Affairs for California, supported the plan because he felt that the
natives were a "barrier to rapid settlement of the state...They should leave their old homes in the
mountains and settle elsewhere." That was the beginning of the end of life as the Kawaiisu had known
it. Relations between white men and natives deteriorated and numerous skirmishes were reported. Unable
to pursue the old way of life in peace, the Kawaiisu were reluctantly assimilated into white society.