The traditional (eighteenth-century) location of the Luiseños was a region of great environmental diversity, along the coast and inland along streams, south of present-day Los Angeles but north of the Tipai-Ipais. Today most Luiseños live on reservations in San Diego and Riverside Counties. The Luiseño population was roughly 10,000 in the late eighteenth century; in 1990, the Luiseño population on their reservations stood at 1,795.
Ritual drama and sacred oral literature controlled their environment and confirmed the Luiseños' place in the world. Ritual offices included chief, assistant chief, shamans, councilors, and members of the Chinigchinich society (most of the men in the village). A large number of ceremonies revolved around hunting, life cycle, weather control, and war and peace. Some ceremonies involved questing for visions with the help of a drink prepared from jimsonweed (datura). Religious knowledge/power was carefully guarded.
Sandpaintings were part of the secret Chinigchinich cult initiation (the cult may have been in part a response to the Spanish presence): The cosmos, sacred beings, and human spiritual phases were all represented. Sandpaintings never lasted beyond the ceremony. Ritual equipment included stone grinding bowls, clay figurines, sacred wands, head scratchers, and eagle-feather headdresses. Most participants in rituals were paid.
The Luiseños were organized into roughly fifty small, patrilineal clan-based tribes, each with an autonomous, semipermanent village led by a hereditary chief. Each village group also had its own food resource area; other resources (raw materials, sacred sites as well as food) could be owned individually or collectively. Trespass was by express permission only.
The chief supervised hunting, gathering, and war activities. He was aided by an assistant, shamans, and a council of advisers (all positions were hereditary). Band specialists managed natural resources using techniques such as controlled burning and water and erosion management. They also led various activities such as rabbit hunts and deer and antelope drives. In the eighteenth century, Spanish-style political offices (such as generales and capitanes) existed parallel to the traditional religious ones.
In addition to food and other resource areas, private property might include capital and ritual equipment, eagle nests, and songs. Social status was important and defined by many criteria. Aside from hunting (male) and gathering (female), sexual divisions of labor were ill defined. Aged women taught children crafts, whereas older men were generally more active in ceremonial affairs, including the making of hunting and ceremonial paraphernalia, and in instructing initiates. Traditional games included dice, the split stick gambling game, the ball and stick game, and cat's cradle.
The Luiseños observed various life cycle taboos, restrictions, and ritual requirements. Puberty rituals stressed correct conduct, such as dances, ordeals, learning songs and rituals (boys), and rock painting and behavior in married life (girls). Girls married an arranged partner shortly after puberty. Divorce was possible but not easy to obtain. Death ceremonies proliferated. At different times, burning an image of the deceased, purification of the relatives, feasting, and gift giving were all practiced. A person's possessions were generally destroyed when she or he died.
The Luiseños practiced controlled burning of certain areas to increase the yield of seed-bearing plants. They hunted with bow and arrow, throwing sticks, snares, and traps. Men used deer antler flakes to help flake stone points. They built canoes for ocean fishing. Other fishing equipment included seines, basketry traps, dip nets, bone or shell hooks, possibly harpoons, and poison. Utilitarian items included pottery, coiled and twined baskets, carrying pouches of net or skin, stone grinding tools, cooking and eating utensils of wood and stone, and musical instruments, including bone and cane whistles, cane flutes, split-stick clappers, and turtle shell, gourd, or hoof rattles.
Fine arts included pottery; coiled baskets, decorated with tan, red, or black geometric designs; sand-paintings; petroglyphs, perhaps associated with hunting, from about 500 BCE to 1000; and pictographs, which featured straight and wavy lines, angles, and people. The pictographs were used in girls' puberty ceremonies after about 1400.
Trespass was a major cause for war. The Luiseños were also fairly imperialist, fighting (and marrying) to acquire territory. During war, the chief assumed commander duties along with an initiated warrior class. Weapons included the bow and arrow, small and large war clubs, lances, slings, and thrusting sticks.
The Luiseños constituted a distinct culture from at least 1400 or so. They first encountered non-Natives in 1796, with the Gaspar de Portolá expedition and the founding of Mission San Diego. Shortly thereafter, the Spanish built the missions San Luis Rey and San Juan Capistrano. Many Luiseños were missionized, and many died during this and during the succeeding Mexican and U.S. periods, which were characterized by hardship, disease, and murder.
After Mexican secularization of the missions in 1834, many Indians revolted against their continued exploitation by Mexican rancheros. In general, Luiseño villages maintained their traditional subsistence activities, with the addition of wheat and corn agriculture, irrigation, orchards, and animal husbandry. The United States created several Luiseño reservations in 1875; people either lived there or scattered. The 1891 Act for the Relief of Mission Indians led to the placement of federal administrative personnel on the reservations, including police, schools, and courts. The idea was to undermine the traditional power structure and move the people toward assimilation into mainstream U.S. culture.
Throughout the nineteenth and into the twentieth centuries, Luiseños fought to retain their land and their traditions. For instance, their resistance to government schools culminated in 1895 when a Luiseño burned the school and assassinated the teacher at Pechanga. The Luiseños rejected the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) of 1934 because it provided for too little home rule. They were finally forced to abandon once prosperous farms and orchards after precious water supplies were taken by non-Indians living upstream.
Still, federal control of the reservations increased, as did pressure to assimilate. The 1950s brought a partial termination of federal services, which stimulated a resurgence of local self-government and self-determination. This trend accelerated in the 1960s with the arrival of various federal economic programs. Today, the Luiseños are prominent in state and regional Indian groups.