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The Luiseño (pronounced lew-wee-SAY-nyoh) were named by the Spanish for the Catholic mission at San Luis Rey. Originally the Luiseño may have been called Payomkawichum (“the westerners”) by neighboring tribes. Their own name for themselves may have been Ataxum (“the People”). The Luiseño at San Juan Capistrano were called “Acjachemen.” Coastal tribal members went by “Payó mkawum.”


The Luiseño lived along the Pacific Coast, in inland southern California and in the Channel Islands off southern California. They inhabited a diverse 1,500-square-mile (3,885-square-kilometer) region that extended along the coast from Aliso Creek, south to Agua Hedionda Creek, and inland to include Santiago Peak, Palomar Mountain, and part of the valley of San Jose. Their territory encompassed the northwestern section of present-day San Diego County and southwestern Riverside County. At the start of the twenty-first century Luiseño bands were located on six reservations throughout the mid-southern California area: La Jolla, Pala, Pechanga, Pauma-Yuima, Rincon, and Soboba.


About ten thousand Luiseño were known to exist prior to Spanish contact. In the 1990 U.S. Census, 2,798 people identified themselves as Luiseño. The 2000 census indicated 4,334 Luiseño lived in the United States, and 5,661 people said they had some Luiseño blood.

Language family


Origins and group affiliations

According to archaeologists and linguists, the Luiseño may have migrated into southern California from the Great Basin—a 189,000-mile (304,166-kilometer) wide, elevated region in the western United States—as far back as seven thousand to eight thousand years ago. Though formerly considered a separate group, the Juaneño (so named by the Spanish) are now known to have been a part of the Luiseño tribe. The Luiseño had much in common with their neighbors, the Cahuilla, Yuman, Cupeño, and Gabrieliño tribes.

The Luiseño, like the Cahuilla and Chumash (see entries), are sometimes called Mission Indians because they became part of the Roman Catholic Missions built by the Spanish in California in the late 1700s. For centuries before, the bounty of the land had allowed them to live a comfortable life. They tended to keep to themselves and did not travel far to trade, although they usually married outside their own villages. The Luiseño were somewhat more warlike than other California tribes, engaging in battles when their neighbors trespassed on their lands or when they could not gain access to neighboring territory through marriage.


Spanish encounters

The land of the Luiseño was varied. Some groups lived along the Pacific Coast, some in the southern Channel Islands, and others lived in the green valleys of the California interior or on mountain tops. The climate was mild in some parts, but other areas were subject to extreme heat and periods of drought. On the whole, though, the living was fairly easy. The tribe had fished, hunted, and gathered there for centuries before white settlers came upon their territory.

The Luiseño may have had contact with Spanish expeditions as early as 1542 when Portuguese explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo (died 1543) sailed along the coast, leading a small fleet of Spanish ships in search of riches and a sea lane to China. The tribe’s first confirmed encounter with the Spanish occurred in 1769 when a group led by Gaspar de Portollá (1716–1784) ventured into California.

Important dates

1776: The mission of San Juan Capistrano is founded in Luiseño territory.

1798: The mission of San Luis Rey is established on Luiseño land.

1839: The first written account of the tribe’s culture is written by Luiseño author Pablo Tac.

1847: The Luiseño are massacred at Temecua by the Mexican Militia and rival Cahuilla.

1875: The Luiseño sign the Treaty of Temecua with the United States; it is later rejected by the U.S. Senate.

1882: First Luiseño reservations are established.

1891: The Act for the Relief of the Mission Indians creates and allots five Luiseño reservations.

1988: San Luis Rey Indian Water Rights Settlement Act awards Luiseño $30 million for lost water rights.

1998: Access to and control of water sources continues to be a major issue for the tribe.

Missions established

The Spanish came to establish a firm hold on California territory, but as the eighteenth century progressed Great Britain and Russia began showing interest in the North American Pacific Coast as well. In an effort to discourage further European advancement into the area, the Spanish built a series of forts on the land. Spain claimed the land as its own and expected the California Indians to help protect this “Spanish” land as soon as they were “civilized” (schooled in European ways). The Spanish government asked Roman Catholic priests (padres) to assist in controlling the Native Americans. The priests had their own goal of converting the Natives to the Catholic religion, so they agreed to help and built missions with forced Native American labor. Each mission had a church and a European-style farm.

The first California mission was established in 1769. Although the mission was not situated within their territory, the Luiseño were struck hard by European diseases almost immediately. Historians estimate that the Luiseño population declined 40 percent during the mission period. San Juan Capistrano Mission was built in Luiseño territory in 1776 and, ravaged by the spread of disease, a weakened population found it hard to resist the priests’ invitation to settle there. In 1798 Mission San Luis Rey was established on the tribe’s territory, and an outpost called an “asistencia” was erected at Pala 18 years later. The missionaries soon drew most of the Luiseño population into the mission system.

Mission Indians

Spanish settlers and missionaries used the Native American people to satisfy their own goals of growth and expansion. Although the padres claimed their only interest was in converting the Natives to the Catholic religion, history shows that the missions survived on the sweat of the Native Americans. Disciplined Native American labor was needed to satisfy the demands of increasing numbers of Spanish settlers in California. The missionaries taught the Luiseño the basics of the Spanish language (enough so that the Natives could understand orders). They also instructed them in farming techniques and European-style trades such as carpentry and masonry (brickwork)—skills Spanish settlers valued. Even young children were forced to stay and work at the missions.

Spanish treatment of the Luiseño differed somewhat from their treatment of other Mission Indians. Some Luiseño lived at the missions, but others were allowed to stay in their own communities and receive instruction from visiting padres. Still, many Luiseño became paid workers in trades such as carpentry, tanning (converting hide into leather), blacksmithing, and weaving—occupations far removed from their traditional lifestyle.

The Mission System

Children as young as age five or six were taken into the missions. They attended religious services and performed physical labor without pay. The children were trained in carpentry, agriculture, and other occupations that would benefit the Spanish. One former neophyte (pronounced NEE-oh-fite; “beginner”) described life at the mission:

When I was a boy the treatment of the Native Americans was not any good—they did not pay us for anything—they only gave us food, a loin cloth and a blanket every year, and many beatings for any mistake even if it [the mistake] was slight, it was more or less at the mercy of the administrator who ordered the beatings whenever and how many he felt like

Robert F. Heizer, ed. Handbook of North American Indians. Vol. 8: California.Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, 1978, p. 102.

End of mission system

Mexico won independence from Spain in 1821 and took over the California missions in 1834. Mexican officials vowed that they would give the Mission Indians tracts of land, but Mexican settlers, who poured into California, ended up with most of the mission property. Some Luiseño became unpaid laborers on Mexican-owned ranches, but others moved inland, seeking shelter among other Native American groups there. Those who worked for the Mexicans were treated poorly and staged violent rebellions from time to time. However, the Luiseño who remained in their traditional villages continued to live as they had before, but now blended Spanish and Native American lifestyles with the introduction of cattleraising and farming.

California became part of the United States after the Mexican-American War (1846–48; a war fought between the United States and Mexico which led to loss of about one-half of Mexico’s national territory to the United States). Droves of American settlers rushed to California. To avoid the conflicts and to get wage labor jobs, some Luiseño migrated to Los Angeles, located in the southwestern portion of the state.

Reservations established

Tensions between the Luiseño and white settlers in California became so high that in 1875 Luiseño chief Olegario Sal went to Washington, D.C., to request that reservations be set aside for his people. That same year some Native people in California moved onto reservation lands. Meanwhile, the U.S. government formed a committee, headed by writer Helen Hunt Jackson (1830–1885), whose novels A Century of Dishonor and Ramona brought the mistreatment of Native Americans to the public’s attention, to investigate the condition of life among former Mission Indians and make recommendations. Jackson’s report led the government to grant more land to the Luiseño in 1882 and 1883. (For more information on Jackson and her findings, see Cahuilla entry.)

The federal government provided only minimal assistance in setting up the reservations. Then, in 1891—sixteen years after the establishment of the first Luiseño reservation—the Act for the Relief of the Mission Indians was passed. This act created five Luiseño reservations and included provisions designed to help the Native population develop an American lifestyle (a policy called “assimilation”) and become self-supporting. A sixth reservation, Soboba, was officially established in 1913.

Struggle for rights

Agents from the Bureau of Indian Affairs were sent to oversee the reservations. They established schools, Native American courts of law, medical clinics, and other services. But not all agents of the Bureau represented the best interests of the Native population. Corrupt agents caused so much friction among the Luiseño that the Mission Indian Federation (MIF) was founded in 1919 to resolve the problems. The MIF worked for more independence for tribal governments, full civil rights for Native Americans, more generous water rights (see “Current tribal issues”), and the elimination of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which still exists in the early twenty-first century.

The federal government stayed involved in reservation affairs, and the Luiseño grew more and more unhappy with its methods. By the 1950s the tribe began to assume more control, taking active leadership roles to make sure their voices were heard when decisions affecting the reservations were made by local, state, and national governments.

One of the issues of greatest concern was water rights. Dams and construction diverted much of the reservation water supply. The tribes on the various reservations banded together to restore water to their land. In 1988 the San Luis Rey Indian Water Rights Settlement Act awarded the Luiseño $30 million for lost water rights. It also ordered the delivery of water to tribal territory. Dams were expected to release a certain amount of water annually to supply the tribe. The Soboba Band also received a $12 million settlement. Water issues, however, still presented difficulties for most Luiseño reservations in the mid-2000s.


According to ancient Luiseño traditions, a creator called Wiyót took an empty world that already existed, filled it with all things, and gave it order. Later the Luiseño came to believe in a savior called Chinigchinix, who made the Earth, then died and went to heaven. From there he watched but seldom interfered with worldly affairs, only occasionally sending vengeful animals and other terrible punishments to those who disobeyed his teachings. Historians think the Chinigchinix religion probably developed in response to Spanish presence on tribal land.

Most Luiseño men sought membership in the Chinigchinix religion’s secret society. In order to belong to the society the males had to prove their physical endurance. The Chinigchinix religion had rigid rules that governed many aspects of peoples’ lives, including hunting, warfare, harvesting, puberty, and mourning rituals. It also included many songs, dances, and toloache ceremonies. Toloache, a drug obtained from the jimsonweed plant, causes those who consume it to enter a trancelike state and see visions. Sacred knowledge was said to be revealed during these visions.

Missionaries converted many Luiseño to Catholicism, a religion that is still practiced by most of the people. Despite the strong, centuries-long Christian presence among the Luiseño, though, traditional beliefs and practices have survived.

The Death of Wiyót, the Creator

According to the Luiseño, Wiyót was one of the first beings. He took an empty world that already existed, filled it with all things, and gave it order. Everyone was supposed to live forever, but Wiyót’s own death, as described in the story below, introduced death into the world.

Once Wiyót died, his people lost the knowledge of living forever (immortality). Rituals for the dead had to be invented so that the spirits of the dead could be freed from Earth. The Luiseño clothes-burning ceremony, for instance, releases the deceased’s clothes from this world. These rituals kept the spirits happy.

Wiyót was the son of Túkumit [night, or night sky] and Tamáyawùt [Earth Mother]. He was called “father” by the people who lived on the Earth. Frog was the prettiest of all the women. One day Wiyót saw her swimming, and he observed that her body was thin and not beautiful. She was repulsive to him. Knowing his thoughts, she said to herself: “My father does not like me. I will kill him by magic.” She secured the aid of Badger, Gopher, and other [burrowing animals], and they [cast a spell on] him. He fell sick. Four shamans were called: Wasímal [a hawk], Sakapípi [titmouse], Púipi [roadrunner], and Chaláka [horned toad]. [But they could not cure him.] And then the people knew [a spell had been cast upon] Wiyót. The other shamans tried their power in vain. Then Wiyót called Chehémal [kingbird], and told him that after death he would appear in the sky. Soon he was dead. They placed the body on a pile of wood to burn it. Then came Coyote. He seized the heart and carried it away. Three days later the Moon appeared in the sky, and Chehémal exclaimed, “Oh, there is my father, Mâila [moon] Wiyót!”

Curtis, Edward. “Southern California Shoshoneans.” The North American Indian. Volume 15. Edited by Frederick Webb Hodge. New York: Johnson Reprint Corporation, 1970.


The Luiseño were the most southwesterly speakers of the Uto-Aztecan family of languages in the United States. By the 1970s, Luiseño was spoken by only a few elder members of the tribe, but interest in the language was on the rise, language classes were being organized, and a language textbook had been written.

Pechanga Words

During the early 2000s linguist (person who studies languages) Eric Elliott, who developed a 1,700-page bilingual English-Luiseño/Luiseño-English dictionary, began teaching language classes on the Pechanga Reservation. Adults were eager to learn and pass the lessons on to their children and grandchildren. Elliot had been taught by Villiana Hyde, a fluent speaker who has since died.

One of the difficulties of writing a language is finding symbols for sounds that are not used in English. Some of the words listed here use a “$” for the Pechanga whistling “s” sound.

  • ‘ataax … “person”
  • kiicha … “house”
  • nawitmal … “girl”
  • tawwilash … “chair”
  • to’wish … “forest”
  • hunwut … “bear”
  • kupu”ilash … “bed”
  • $sunnganwish … “medium-sized”
  • temet … “day”
  • yot … “big”
  • ‘a$o’$ush … “yellow”
  • heelaqu$ … “was singing”
  • hamu’tap … “the end”


The Luiseño lived in independent groups, each with its own clearly defined territory. The groups did not have political leaders, but the tribe was divided into “parties” that had religious functions (see “Society”). The head of each party was a chief called a nó·t. This position was usually filled by a man, but a few female nó·t are known to have existed. The nó·t oversaw warfare, economic ventures (organizing gathering projects, for example), and the activities of his or her assistant, called paxá, and healers (called shaman; pronounced SHAH-mun or SHAY-mun).

During the mission period Native American villages maintained the basic elements of the old style of self-government, but a new position of leadership developed—that of representative of the Luiseño to Europeans. Once the federal government began to oversee the reservations, they insisted that tribal leaders be approved by U.S. government agents.

The Luiseño objected to government interference in tribal affairs and managed to assume more control over them by the 1950s. In the late 1990s each reservation elected its own tribal chairperson and tribal council. To a greater extent than most California tribes, the Luiseño are involved in state and local groups that work to promote the well-being of Native Americans.

Luiseño Population: 2000 Census

When a census was taken in 2000, a total of 4,334 people claimed they were Luiseño. Some identified themselves according to their reservation. This is how the Luiseño reported themselves to the U.S. Bureau of the Census:

Luiseño Population: 2000 Census
La Jolla335

“2000 Census of Population and Housing. Matrix 7: American Indian and Alaskan Native summary file.” Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, Data User Services Division, American FactFinder, 2004.


Before the Spanish settled on Luiseño territory, the Native economy was rooted in hunting and gathering, usually on sites not far from home. Some property was owned by the group, and activities such as hunting, gambling, and ceremonies took place there. Other pieces of property—stands of oaks or tobacco gardens, for example—were owned by individuals or families. Groups who lived inland had special places on the coast where they went to fish and gather at a given time each year.

The Spanish missionaries taught the Native peoples how to farm and tend cattle. Although all the Luiseño engaged in these activities by the 1850s, they did not abandon their hunting and gathering practices completely.

During World War I (1914–18; a war in which Great Britain, France, the United States and their allies defeated Germany, Austria-Hungary, and their allies), Luiseño volunteers served in the U.S. armed forces or left the reservations to work in defense industries. After the war some continued to work in these industries, while others returned to the reservations and took up cattle raising and farming. Aside from those who pursue work in agriculture, the Luiseño are employed in a variety of fields, including carpentry, education, and engineering.

By the early 2000s many reservations had opened casinos to provide tribal income. Other important sources of employment and monetary resources were tourism and recreation, services and retail, construction, mining, and manufacturing. Most bands have economic development groups to attract new businesses and increase reservation profits. The Soboba Band, along with other tribes, formed the California Indian Credit Consortium with the intention of opening the first Native-owned credit union in the United States.

Daily life


The Luiseño lived in cone-shaped houses. The foundation of the house was partially underground, situated on a pit that was two to three feet deep. Construction materials included reeds, brush, and cedar bark. Dirt from the pit was piled over the brush. The only openings to the dwelling were the entrance and a smokehole. Some entrances were only gaps in the wall; others were low and covered, sloping down to the level of the pit. Near the house was a light, rectangular, porchlike structure—called a ramada by the Spanish—where some household chores were performed.

Settlements also contained oval-shaped earthen sweathouses, used for purification and during some curing rituals. Each permanent settlement contained a religious enclosure, called a wamkish, set up in the center of the village and enclosed by a brush fence. During the acorn season, the Luiseño moved to temporary camps near stands of oak trees.

Clothing and adornment

Luiseño men usually wore no clothes in warm weather. During cold weather they wore fur capes of rabbit and deerskin; those who lived along the Pacific Coast also wore capes of sea otter skins. Women wore aprons, called pishkwut, made from plants such as dogbane (a tropical, often poisonous, plant with milky juice and big flowers) and milkweed, willow bark, or cottonwood bark. Both sexes let their hair grow long. Women covered their heads with coiled caps similar to baskets; men also wore caps to protect themselves when they carried loads on their heads.

The Luiseño usually wore sandals, but put on deerskin moccasins for traveling on rough ground. They wore necklaces of bear claws, stones, and abalone (a type of shellfish) shells, as well as bracelets and anklets made from human hair. Men pierced their ears and noses and wore decorations made from cane or bones. Men and women both wore tattoos and body paints.


The Luiseño lived on acorns, wild plants, and small game. Usually men hunted and women gathered, but everyone gathered the acorns produced by the six species of oak found in their territory. Acorns were stored in granaries (large above-ground baskets) until they were prepared and eaten. Various other kinds of seeds—such as sage, sunflower, manzanita (a type of evergreen shrub) and pine nuts—were also gathered. The seeds were heated and shaken in a basketry tray with embers from the fire, and then ground into flour.

Women also gathered greens, such as miner’s lettuce and white sage. Although not abundant in Luiseño territory, some fruits were harvested as well, including plums, manzanita berries, choke cherries, Christmas berries, currants, wild grapes, gooseberries, and elderberries. They also gathered and roasted the fleshy parts of the prickly pear, cholla, and agave plants in earth-covered, preheated pits to make mescal. Yucca prepared this way was eaten as a sugary treat. The Luiseño ate grass and bulbs raw or cooked, and used clover, watercress, peppergrass, and pigweed to spice their food. The tribe practiced a custom called controlled burning (setting fire to some land), which helped desirable crops grow better and encouraged larger rabbit populations for hunting.

Before a hunt Luiseño men purified themselves in the sweathouse, burning white sage and other herbs on the fire. They usually hunted game like rabbits, jackrabbits, and deer. They trapped woodrats, squirrel, mice, quails, larks, and ducks, and took black-tailed deer and antelope with bows and arrows, snares, and nets, or by clubbing. Sometimes the hunters wore deer-head disguises so they could approach their prey without being noticed.

The tribe sometimes killed bear, mountain lion, wildcat, and mountain sheep for food. Turtles and lizard were also eaten; in times of famine they sometimes ate dog. For most inland Luiseño fish was a rare addition to their diet. Meat was broiled over hot coals or cooked in an earth oven.

Luiseño who lived along the coast depended on fish and mussels as their primary source of food. They also fished for trout in the upper San Luis Rey River; a common fishing technique involved drugging the fish (by throwing crushed leaves called távaliat in the water) and then scooping them into nets.


While their parents and older siblings were off hunting and gathering, very young Luiseño children were taught traditional arts and crafts by elders who stayed behind. They also learned about goals and values—things essential for their growth into responsible adults. Older men taught boys practical skills such as how to make fishnets and arrows. In addition, these elders decided which boys would be taught to conduct ceremonies and make important decisions affecting the village. There was also formal instruction in male and female puberty rituals.

Under the mission system, children learned religion, Spanish, and skills like farming, caring for livestock, and carpentry. In the late 1800s government schools were established; their main goal was to immerse the Natives in white American culture. The schools were poorly run and finally closed in the 1930s. Luiseño children now attend nearby public schools. Because education is so highly prized by the Luiseño people, the reservations supplement public education with programs that teach children about their Native culture. Additionally, since the 1960s, many Luiseño have taken advantage of opportunities to attend college.

Healing practices

Traditional Luiseño healing methods used plants to treat illnesses. Wounds were treated with wild onion and cooked and crushed tule (marsh plant) leaves, for example. Still, the tribe believed that some illnesses could only be treated by a shaman. Evil shaman could make people sick by casting a spell over a lock of hair or a broken fingernail, so people were very careful when disposing of such items. Only a shaman had the power to cure a sickness caused by another shaman.

Some forms of sickness were thought to be caused by foreign objects. A common method of treatment was symbolic in nature: the shaman would dramatize the healing process by “sucking out” the object that caused the illness, usually stones or beetles. Other treatments included rubbing, blowing, or spurting water on the patient or waving a bundle of hawk feathers over the person’s body. Even at the dawn of the twenty-first century, some of the old medicines and healing techniques were still used. In addition to traditional methods, assistance can be obtained from health clinics on the reservations and hospitals located in nearby cities.



The California tribes ranked among the world’s best basketmakers. Two types of baskets were made: coiled and twined. The Luiseño are best known for their beautiful coiled baskets with dark tan, red, and black geometric designs. To make the black fibers, they boiled sumac in water with marsh mud. Men made the larger baskets used as granaries for storing acorns. They placed them on platforms of poles or on large boulders.

Women also made pottery by the coil method, then shaped it with a wooden paddle over a smooth stone. They fired these unpainted pieces in a kiln (an oven for hardening clay) over bark chips. Later they used cattle dung to bake their wide-mouthed water jars, small-mouthed jars for traveling, bowls, dishes, and pots.


The Luiseño used a bullroarer to call people to feasts. This instrument was formed by stringing a wooden slat on a cord. When it was swung rapidly overhead, the cord made loud humming noise. The tribe also used wooden flutes, cane whistles, and rattles made from tortoise shells and gourds.



Social divisions in the tribe related to religious ceremonies and were called “parties.” A chief or nó·t headed each party, or clan group responsible for certain rituals. A party sometimes included members from other clans. Children joined a party at puberty, usually one of their family’s, but they could choose another. The position of chief was hereditary through the male line. The chief had an assistant who helped him and notified people of ceremonies.

Ceremonies and games

Most traditional ceremonies revolved around the life cycle: birth, puberty, marriage, and death. Many present-day Luiseño celebrate Catholic feast days such as saints’ days (days set aside to celebrate the lives of various saints). Catholic priests conduct rites for baptisms, confirmations, marriages, and funerals. In the 1990s traditional singers began to perform in public and at community events.

The Luiseño still enjoy some of the same games their ancestors played. A favorite of both men and women is the peon game, a guessing game played by two teams, in which singing and magic aid the competitors.


Complex coming-of-age ceremonies were held for boys and girls of the Luiseño tribe. Both ceremonies were conducted by a religious chief from a different village, whose role was to teach the rules of the Chinigchinix religion (see “Religion”). Boys and girls were required to watch the religious chief create a special sand painting, depicting elements of the universe such as the Milky Way and the various animals that the Creator might send to punish people. Through these sand paintings, the religious chief taught the traditions, customs, and moral codes of Luiseño society.

Boys’ ritual

During their puberty ritual Luiseño boys took the drug toloache (see “Religion”), saw visions, and learned sacred songs and dances. They endured a number of discomforts—being lashed with nettles (prickly plants) and bitten by ants—and refrained from eating certain foods. The boys were then instructed to respect their elders and to let generosity, not greed, rule their hearts. The Luiseño believed that obeying these rules would help them live long and well; on the other hand, disobedience would lead to sickness and death. At the end of the lecture the boys took a mouthful of salt mixed with white flour made from the sage plant, then spit it onto the ground. If the lump was dry, it was a sign that the boy had been paying attention to the advice. A moist lump indicated that the boy had not been listening.

Girls’ ritual

Girls undergoing the puberty ritual assembled in the village’s sacred enclosure and ate a lump of tobacco mixed with water. Any girl able to keep the tobacco down was considered virtuous; a girl who vomited up the mixture was not. Girls remained in a heated pit for three days and nights covered with mats or blankets. Baskets were placed over their faces, They left the pit only for short periods to eat or to reheat the pit with hot rocks. They could only drink warm water and had to use a bone scratcher whenever they felt itchy. Dancing and singing took place around them. At the end of the three days each girl’s face was painted red with a special design; a similar design was painted on a rock. This rite was conducted once a month for a year.

Like the boys, girls abstained from certain foods (meat and salt) for one year. At the end of the puberty rite, they listened to a lecture advising them on conduct and tradition.


Marriages were arranged by parents, who usually helped choose mates from other villages so a family’s access to their in-law’s resources could be expanded. (In the late twentieth century Luiseño women often married into neighboring reservations, not to expand territory but to expand Luiseño influence.) Sometimes marriage arrangements dated back to infancy, but a couple waited until they had reached puberty to marry. After the bride price had been paid, a religious chief performed the ceremony. Afterwards the couple moved in with the groom’s family. Wealthy men might also marry their wives’ sisters. A widower was entitled to marry one of his wife’s sisters, if he desired.


A special ceremony was performed when a child was born, confirming that the child belonged to its father’s family.


The Luiseño cremated their dead. As part of the ceremony, tribal members would blow upward three times to release the spirit of the deceased into the sky. The mourning ceremony, which is still held in modern times, evolved after the death of the ancient Luiseño god Wiyót.

A few weeks after the cremation, the family held a Tuvísh, a ceremony for washing the clothes of the dead person. People assembled in a brush shelter after dark and sang. Between songs an elder recited stories about the origin of death. Women danced in place; men pounded the ground with one foot while groaning and blowing out air to keep the dead person’s ghost away. The ceremony lasted until long after midnight, and one of the final rituals was to symbolically wash the deceased’s clothing with water.

About one year later a chief from another clan burned these clothes during another singing ceremony. Sometimes mourning ceremonies were held in memory of all tribe members who had died recently. Relatives made figures out of tule to represent the deceased. They burned these along with baskets, shell beads, and other property. Sometimes other villages attended these rituals.

If a dancer had died, the whirling dance was performed in his honor. The new whirling dancer painted black lines from his nose to his cheekbones and dotted them with white. He dressed in a skirt of eagle feathers and wore an owl-feather headdress. Afterwards, guests from the other villages were sent home with the leftover food from the feast. Eagle-killings were done in memory of dead chiefs; these were accompanied by dancing and a feast.

Current tribal issues

According to Luiseño expert Florence Connolly Shipek: “Water continues to be a constant concern” for the tribe. Since the late 1800s conflicts have arisen between people on the reservations and people in cities near them concerning water rights. The diversion of water away from reservations has ruined Luiseño farms and orchards, forcing people to move off the reservation to seek work elsewhere. Several lawsuits have been filed. Some Luiseño groups have received money to settle their claims; other cases had not been settled by the start of the twenty-first century.

Notable people

Edward D. Castillo (1947–) is a university professor specializing in Native American Studies. He has a doctoral degree in anthropology and has taught and lectured about Native Americans at various California universities. Castillo has published many articles and books on anthropology and Native American Studies, but he is probably best known for the chapters he wrote in volume eight of the Smithsonian Institution’s massive set of reference books called Handbook of North American Indians.

Fritz Scholder (1937–2005) was a leading modern artist in the United States. His works often dealt with themes relating to the Native American experience. Although his grandmother was a member of the Luiseño tribe, Scholder described himself as “a non-Indian Indian.” His critics complain that his “pop art” is shallow and casts Native American problems in a superficial light, but his work remains popular nationwide.

James Luna(1950–), of Luiseño/Diegueño heritage, is an installation and performance artist whose work explores (usually with humor) what it’s like to be a Native American. His artwork, featured in museums throughout the nation, also encourages his audience to examine the ways they perceive Native Americans. One of Luna’s exhibitions was dedicated to Pablo Tac (1822–1841), who at age ten was sent to Rome, Italy, to be schooled for the priesthood. He died there nine years later after completing the first outline of a Luiseño grammar book and a partial dictionary.

Bean, Lowell John, and Florence C. Shipek. “Luiseño.” Handbook of North American Indians. Vol. 8: California. Edited by Robert F. Heizer. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, 1978.

Harvey, Herbert R. “The Luiseño.” California Indians 11. New York: Garland Publishing, 1974.

Lightfoot, Kent G. Indians, Missionaries, and Merchants: The Legacy of Colonial Encounters on the California Frontiers. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005.

Shipek, Florence Connolly. “Luiseño.” Native America in the Twentieth Century: An Encyclopedia. Edited by Mary B. Davis. New York: Garland Publishing, 1994.

Williams, Jack S. The Luiseno of California. New York: PowerKids Press, 2003.

Zimmerman, Larry J. American Indians, The First Nations: Native North American Life, Myth and Art. London: Duncan Baird Publishers, 2003.

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Edward D. Castillo (Cahuilla-Luiseño), Native American Studies Program, Sonoma State University, Rohnert Park, California

Laurie Edwards