The Cahuilla population may have numbered as many as 10,000 in the seventeenth century, with roughly 5,000 remaining by the late eighteenth century. In 1990, the total Indian population of all reservations on which Cahuillas lived, including those they shared with other peoples, was 1,276.
Religiously, the Cahuillas recognized a supreme power, neither good nor bad, but unpredictable. According to their worldview, the entire universe and everything in it were interconnected. Cahuillas performed a large number of rituals. The most significant ones were an annual mourning ceremony, the eagle ceremony (honoring a dead chief or shaman), rite of passage rituals, and food-related rituals. Song cycles were a key part of Cahuilla ritual. They sought to reaffirm the people's place in the universe and their connections with the past and with all things. Ceremonial implements included rattles, headdresses, wands, eagle-feathered skirts, and especially the máyswut, a ceremonial bundle.
The Cahuillas lived in about fifty villages aboriginally. The political unit was the clan, or a group of between three and ten lineages. Each clan had a leader, usually hereditary, called the nét. This person had religious, economic, and diplomatic as well as political responsibilities. The nét also had an assistant.
Háwayniks knew and sang the ceremonial songs, including the long song cycles. Shamans (always male) had much power, including curing, through the control of supernatural power. They also controlled the weather; guarded against evil spirits; and, with the néts, exercised political authority. Strong as it was, however, the shaman's authority was maintained only by regular public displays of power.
The Cahuillas recognized two societal divisions, Wildcat and Coyote, each composed of a number of patrilineal clans. Female doctors complemented male shamans as curers; their methods included the use of medicinal plants and other knowledge. When a person died, the spirit was believed to travel to the land of the dead; from there, it could still be involved in the lives of the living. Old age was venerated, largely because old people taught the traditional ways and values, which were themselves venerated.
Reciprocity and sharing were two defining values. The Cahuillas frowned upon hasty behavior; conversely, it was appropriate to do things slowly, deliberately, and cautiously. They enjoyed regular interaction, including intermarriage, with other Indian groups such as the Gabrieleños and Serranos.
Although each extended family had a village site and resource area, land away from the village could be owned by anyone. Mens' games were based on endurance and the ability to withstand physical punishment. Women's games included footraces, juggling, cat's cradle, top spinning, and balancing objects. People often bet on games.
Cahuilla songs contained tribal history and cosmology, and they accompanied all activities. Singing was common. Bathing and cleanliness in general were important. Spouses were selected by parents from the opposite division. Divorce was difficult to obtain. Everyone observed specific rules of deference and behavior toward other people.
Six varieties of acorns constituted a key food source. Other gathered food included pine nuts, mesquite and screwbeans, and a huge variety of cactus, seeds, berries, roots, and greens. Other plants were used in construction and for medicinal purposes. Rabbit, deer, antelope, rodents, mountain sheep, reptiles, and fowl were all hunted, and fish were taken. Meat was roasted, boiled, or sun-dried in strips, with the bones then cracked for marrow or ground and mixed with other foods. Blood was drunk fresh or cooked and stored. Some Cahuilla bands practiced agriculture, although this was a less important activity.
The Cocopah–Maricopa Trail, a major trade route, bisected Cahuilla territory. Two other trade routes, the Santa Fe and the Yuman, passed close by. Cahuillas traded mostly with the Mojaves, Halchidomas, Ipais, Tipais, Luiseños, Serranos, and Gabrieleños. The Cahuillas traded food products, furs, hides, obsidian, and salt for shell beads, minerals such as turquoise and tourmaline, Joshua tree blossoms, axes, and other crafts. Rituals and songs were also exchanged.
Women wore basket hats as well as skirts of mescal bark, tule, or skins. Men wore breechclouts of the same material when they wore anything at all. Both men and women wore sandals of mescal fibers soaked in mud and tied with mescal fibers or buckskin. Babies wore mesquite-bark diapers. Blankets or woven rabbit skin robes were used for warmth.
New diseases and elements of Spanish culture probably preceded the physical arrival of the Spanish, which occurred when the Juan Bautista de Anza expedition arrived in 1774. The Cahuillas were at first hostile to the Spanish. Since most routes to the Pacific at that time were by sea, the two groups had little ongoing contact, except that a few Cahuillas were baptized at nearby missions.
By the early nineteenth century, some Cahuillas worked seasonally on Spanish cattle ranches, and aspects of Spanish culture such as cattle, wage labor, clothing, and language had significantly changed the traditional Cahuilla lifestyle. The latter maintained their autonomy until the severe smallpox epidemic of 1863. After 1877, they moved slowly onto reservations. Although initially self-supporting, they grew increasingly dependent on the Americans.
After 1891 the federal government took a much more active role in their lives. Government schools trained Cahuillas to perform menial tasks; influential Protestant missionaries suppressed Native religion and culture; allotment under the Dawes Act (1886) destroyed their agricultural capabilities; and Indian Service personnel controlled their political activities, under protest. From roughly 1891 through the 1930s, Cahuillas farmed, raised cattle, worked for wages, sold peat and asbestos, and leased their lands for income. The lack of water was a chronic obstacle to economic activities. Their tourist industry, especially that of the Agua Caliente Band, also dates from the 1920s.
Following World War II, partial termination and the severe curtailment of government services forced the Cahuillas to take a much more active role in their welfare. Renewed federal programs in the 1960s, in combination with a vitalized tribal political structure, led to a general increase in the quality of life for most Cahuillas.