Death ceremonies were perhaps the Cupeños' most important. Corpses were burned almost immediately, possessions were burned several weeks or months later, and images of the dead were burned every year or two as part of an eight-day festival. Also, an annual eagle-killing ritual was held in honor of the dead.
Cupeños recognized two divisions, Coyote and Wildcat, and within them a number of patrilineal clans. Each clan owned productive food-gathering sites. Each had a leader, usually hereditary in the male line, as well as an assistant leader. Kúpa and Wilákalpa were the two permanent villages prior to 1902. Each was politically independent. Decisions concerning the entire village were made by consensus of the clan leaders.
Sometimes leaders also served as shamans. Shamans were powerful, feared, and respected. They cured, witched, and divined with supernatural powers acquired in trances and dreams. Parents arranged most marriages, with the boy's parents taking the lead in mate selection, gift giving, and feasting. Girls around age ten underwent a puberty ceremony. The male initiation ceremony occurred between ten and eighteen years of age and probably involved the use of toloache, a hallucinogenic root.
Family houses were conical in shape, built partly underground, and covered with reeds, brush, or bark. Earth sweat houses were also semisubterranean. People used ramadas for ceremonies and domestic chores. Other structures included acorn granaries, mens' sweat houses, and ceremonial lodges.
Acorns, small seeds, berries, cactus fruit, deer, quail, rabbits, and other small mammals constituted the basic Cupeño diet. The Cupeños used a variety of natural materials for their technological needs, including willow or mesquite wood (bows and arrows), grasses (cooking, storage, and carrying baskets), stone (mortars, pestles, manos and metates, arrow straighteners), wood (mortars), clay (pottery for cooking, storage, eating, and pipes), pine pitch (to seal storage bins for food preservation), and mescal (fibers for rope). Other technological innovations included hunting and carrying nets, snares and traps, baking ovens or pits, and musical instruments such as elder flutes, whistles, panpipes, and rattles.
The Cupeños were part of an elaborate southern California network that dealt in economic and ritual items and activities. The Cocopah–Maricopa Trail, a major trade route, as well as the Santa Fe and the Yuman Trails, passed close by. The people 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 donned breechclouts of the same material when they wore anything at all. Both 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.
Cupeño groups generally feuded over women, trespass, and sorcery. Murder also required retribution. Tactics included ambush or simply chasing away an enemy. Weapons included the bow and arrow (possibly with a poisoned tip), poniard, thrusting sticks, and war club. Forced to resist the missions and Mexican imperialism, the people became more aggressive during the early nineteenth century.
Specific Cupeño customs and identity were derived from neighboring Cahuillas, Luiseños, Ipais, and other groups in a process that began at least 800 years ago. Non-Natives entered the area in 1795. In the early nineteenth century, the Spanish took over Cupeño lands, building a chapel, a health spa, and a meeting place and grazing their cattle. During this period, Indians worked as virtual serfs for Spanish masters.
Juan Antonio Garra, a clan leader, attempted but failed around 1850 to organize a general revolt of all southern California Indians meant to drive out or kill all non-Natives. He was captured by Cahuilla Indians and later shot by a paramilitary court. His village, Kúpa, was also burned. Between 1875 and 1877, the U.S. government created thirteen separate reservations for former "Mission Indians." Around the turn of the century, despite widespread local and even national protest, the California Supreme Court ordered all 250 or so Cupeños to move from their homes at Warner's Hot Springs to the Pala Reservation (Luiseño), awarding title to the former land to a man who was once governor of California. An influential group of non-Natives pressured the government in 1903 to purchase a 3,438-acre ranch for the Cupeños at Pala Valley, now known as New Pala. By 1973 fewer than 150 people claimed Cupeño descent.