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Native American People of the Kern River Valley

Many distinct groups of indigenous people have used the Kern River Valley. The oldest artifact found on the Kern River Preserve at CA-KER-1 according to the Southern California Archeological Information Center was a piece of Coso obsidian hydrated to an absolute date of 3654 years before present. Ethnoliguistic studies of Tübatulabal language (Pahkanil) are leaning toward it being the root of many of the Paiute Shoshone tribal languages. The further north into Pauite territory the younger the language seems according to recent studies. The root language for native groups in the Southern Sierra and western Mojave and Great Basin is the Uto-Aztecan linguistic family.

Much of what is known about the original culture of the inhabitants of the South Fork is from Erminie Voegelin’s “Ethnography of the Tübatulabal” published in 1938. She interviewed many of the surviving Tübatulabal people and received the bulk of her information from Stephan Miranda, who was born around 1850. Two main tribes of Native People occupied the valley and mountains of the South Fork Kern River Valley before the arrival of people of European descent, the Noo ah and the Pahkanapil. These groups are now known by the name given to them by the Yokuts (the group of people that occupied the San Joaquin Valley), Kawaiisu (Noo ah) and Tübatulabal (Pahkanapil). There were two other groups linguistically and genetically related to the Tübatulabal; the Palagewan and the Bankalachi (Toloim).

The Kawaiisu occupied upper Weldon Valley, the Kelso Valley, and Piute Mountains with their wintertime territory spread out into the western Mojave Desert. The Tübatulabal occupied most of the land surrounding the Kern River with the exception of the portions of river in the San Joaquin Valley. The groups practiced limited agriculture with the bounty of the region providing much of what the groups needed through harvest of local plants and animals in a semi-nomadic fashion. They migrated to certain areas to harvest crops and returned to semi-permanent dwellings in villages situated around the valley. The ages of the villages are surmised from the depth and number of bedrock mortars near rock foundations of dwellings.

The Palagewan lived along the North Fork Kern River into Hot Springs Valley (Lake Isabella) and down the canyon to an unnavigable waterfall. The Bankalachi, which are described as an intermediate group that practiced extensive exogamy with the foothill Yokuts, lived in the Greenhorn Mountains south to Poso Creek around Linns Valley and north to the Tule River.

The South Fork Valley was home to many villages of the Pahkanapil from the Onyx area to the confluence of the North and South Forks of the Kern River. Spanish missionaries first made contact with the Tübatulabal (most likely the Palagewan) through Padre Francisco Garcés in 1776. Further incursions into Tübatulabal territory continued with the Fremont and Walker expeditions in 1834 and 1843. In 1853, gold was discovered along Greenhorn Gulch in the Greenhorn Mountains and the peaceful life of the Tübatulabal was near its end. On April 13, 1863, the California Cavalry under the direction of Captain McLaughlin went on a mission to wreak vengeance on “problem” Indians from the desert. It had been reported that men from the Koso Tribe had been rustling cattle and horses and they were in the Kern River Valley. Being that there had been a major drought in the desert in 1861-62 and the native people were starving, one would assume that this was an act of survival more than anything else. Captain McLaughlin with the help of Jose Chico tracked down the offending men to a location near Whiskey Flat. Local businessmen and landowners convinced the innocent Tübatulabal to lay down their weapons for a peaceful talk with the cavalry, at which point 35 Tübatulabal men were slaughtered by the soldiers. It was reported that some of the Koso men survived as they had slipped away prior to the encounter.

Shortly after this incident, it was reported that many of the surviving tribes people were forced to leave the area to go to the Tule River Indian Reservation. Several of the surviving widows stayed in the area and married some of the “white” ranchers. Many more of the remaining Tübatulabal left the area over the next century to acculturate into western society or to join their kin at the Tule River Reservation. In 1893, many land allotments in Kern Valley and along the Kern River South Fork were given to surviving Pahkanapil and Palagewan people. In the mid twentieth century a rumor circulated that the Indians had to pay taxes on allotment land and several panicked and sold their land to area ranchers and land speculators.

Recently many Native people of Tübatulabal, Western Mono, Yokuts, Kawaiisu, and other descent have begun to return to homelands well cared for by their relations in their absence. A resurrection of culture and language has begun and many Native People reside in communities around Lake Isabella and along the South Fork Kern River. Associations such as the Nuui Cunni Center, Monache Intertribal Council, Kern River Paiute Council, Kern Valley Indian Community, Tübatulabals of the Kern River Valley, and the Kawaiisu Tribe represent local Native American interests.

The Kern River Preserve contains three named Native American villages within its borders along the South Fork Kern River (Palu.hi.yam). Along Sierra Way significant archeological resources are found in sites recorded by UCLA for the Army Corps of Engineers. The village site Ha.ha.lam (Jesus Ranch) is next to the site of Puzdulum Lolcaca (Barking Place) where white dog spirit helpers watched over the tribe. The second village site, Tushpan is the least recorded, but is described as being near the Alexander Ranch portion of the preserve. The final village, Yi’tiamup, was located along Fay Creek above the floor of the South Fork. Much of this village site is still occupied by the descendants of the Pakhanapil at the Miranda Allotment.

Archaeological sites are important to the Native American community as reminders of their traditional culture as well as spiritual places associated with their ancestors. There is a Native American cemetery on the Kern River Preserve that contains ancient and recent remains of people from the Miranda, Stone, and Andreas families.

About Audubon Kern River Preserve

The Kern River Preserve is managed by Audubon California for the preservation of one of California’s largest contiguous cottonwood-willow riparian forests and the wildlife it supports.

Audubon Kern River Preserve supporters provide financial and volunteer support for Preserve outreach, education, wildlife habitat protection & stewardship.

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This site was created on October 21, 1998. Please Email to make comments or offer suggestions.