Kwaaymii Culture


The information presented here was chosen because of its pertinence to Desert Wind. The Kwaaymii have a rich culture that spans well beyond the scope of this web page. If you are interested in learning more about the Kwaaymii people, please see the references for further reading.

The Kwaaymii are now known as the Laguna Band of Mission Indians.


The Kwaaymii lived in the Laguna Mountains, a range several miles east of modern San Diego. As nomads, they spent their summers in the Lagunas and their winters in the Borrego Desert.

The Kwaaymii are a part of a larger group of Indians which inhabited Southern California. The coastal people became known as the Diegueño, the eastern people were the Kwichaan, and those located between the two were the Kumeyaay. The Kwaaymii are members of the Kumeyaay.

Unlike many Native Americans today, the Kwaaymii do not have a reservation. The 1860 smallpox outbreak and the 1918 influenza epidemic killed all but a handful of the Kwaaymii. Tom Lucas, born February 20th, 1903 was the last full-blooded Kwaaymii. A man who was brave enough to face the burden of being the last of his people, he coped with the changes going on around him. One thing he accomplished was having the Laguna Indian Reservation deeded over to him. It is no longer a reservation, but is known simply as The Lucas Ranch.

The Karuk Ceremony

The Karuk ceremony was celebrated approximately one year after a person's death. The Kwaaymii believed that when a person died, their spirit remained to walk the earth for about a year. In that time their spirit would recall their life's experiences.

If the person was good, they were met by a spirit guide on the bridge to the afterlife. If they were bad, they received no guidance, and had to forge across the bridge on their own. They had little hope of making it across without a guide.

When the person died, their hair was saved in an olla. The year passed, and when the time of the Karuk ceremony came around, the hair was removed from the olla. Relatives constructed images in the likeness of the deceased person. With reeds gathered from the desert area, they made the images, covering the head with deer skin and painting on the face. They took the hair and sewed it on with a fine fiber.

As night fell, the people would sing chants and dance around a great fire. Though the images were made by relatives, they were given to more distant people who took them and danced with them. The singing and dancing continued throughout the night, and just before dawn, the people cast the images into the blazing fire. The smoke drifted to the south. The spirit had been freed.

The Olla

The Kwaaymii used ollas as all-purpose containers, and they made the ollas out of clay. They would break chunks of clay into a mortar, and ground that to a fine powder on a flat slab. The powder was brushed into a clay pan, and they mixed it with liquid from boiled cactus. They put the wet clay in a sack and buried it for up to two weeks, making the clay easier to work with.

Once the clay was ready, the Kwaaymii rolled it into strips. These strips were laid out in a spiral to create the base of the olla. They made the sides by fitting strip upon strip and working it on the inside and outside with special tools. If the olla was large, they built half of it, and set it out to dry over night. The next day, it would be strong enough to hold weight the of the second half on top, while still being wet enough for the new section to adhere.

Finally, the olla would be set in the sun to dry. They knew it was finished when they tapped the olla and it made a clear ring.

The Kwaaymii used ollas for such diverse purposes as cooking, storing water, serving meals and even nursing infants. The olla was especially effective at keeping water cool. Once the olla was filled, the water would permeate the clay, causing the olla to sweat. The evaporation of the sweat cooled the olla.

The Wickiup

The Kwaaymii used wickiups for mountain homes. They constructed their wickiups from large branches, pine boughs, fiber ropes, hide, woven reeds, mesquite, arrowweed, and a variety of different flora.

The Kwaaymii cut the poles to the desired length, and placed them in a circle, leaving a hole for the entrance. They would tie the poles at the top with a fibrous rope. They piled on boughs from the bottom up in overlapping layers, and even used mud to seal the wickiup. The door was often covered by hide or woven reeds which were attached with a thong or rope.

Wickiups were circular and fairly short by today's standards, standing only about four to five feet tall. The Kwaaymii left a hole in the top so they could build a fire in the center for warmth. If the weather was really bad, they could even cook on the fire. Near the back of the wickiup (away from the entrance), the Kwaaymii would often dig a storage hole. The hole remained cool, and they used it for keeping food that they wanted to preserve from the heat.


Cline, Lora L., Just Before Sunset, J and L Enterprises, Jacumba, California, 1984.

Send Mail to the Author

Back to Table of Contents.


Text Copyright © 1995 Mark Stanley Bubien, All Rights Reserved.

Please see the rights notice after the sample chapter.

Images Copyright © 1995 Daniel Spencer and Mark Stanley Bubien.