American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
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"Tubatulabal" (T 'bät l 'ä bl) means "pine nut eaters." These people originally lived in three autonomous bands: the Pahkanapils, Palagewans, and Bankalachis, or Toloims. During the early nineteenth century, the Tubatulabals lived in the southern Sierra Nevada Mountains and their foothills and in the Kern, South Fork Kern, and Hot Springs Valleys. Today many live on reservations in Tulare County. A population of up to 1,000 Tubatulabals lived in their region in the early nineteenth century. Tubatulabal was a subgroup of the Uto-Aztecan language family.

According to traditional belief, numerous supernatural spirits often took human or animal form. They were treated with respect, in part because they could be malevolent. Shamans used jimsonweed (datura), believed to have special powers, as an aid in curing. They also used singing, dancing, herbs, blowing tobacco smoke, and sucking techniques, calling on their supernatural guardian helpers for assistance. Shamans could be either men or women, but only men could cure: Female shamans were witches, the most feared members of the community (men could also be witches). Chronically unsuccessful shamans might be accused of witchcraft and killed. Shamanism was considered an inborn quality that could not be acquired.

The three bands were composed of several family groups, mobile throughout much of the year except during winter, when they settled in hamlets of between two and six extended families. Each band was headed by a chief, generally hereditary, occasionally female. He or she arbitrated disputes, represented the band, and organized war parties. A "dance manager" or "clown" instigated public criticism of the chief preparatory to the appointment of a new chief. He also acted as the clown at ceremonies. Although the three bands were politically autonomous, people often visited and intermarried.

Each band claimed formal but unexclusive possession of a specific territory. The people played several games, most of which involved gambling on the outcome. They included a women's dice game, a men's shinny game (a variation of hockey), and a men's hoop-and-pole game (in which an arrow was shot through a rolling hoop). String figure making and storytelling provided entertainment on winter evenings. Professional male dancers performed at various ceremonies and occasions. Also, both sexes danced for enjoyment.

This group entered the region at least around 1450 and perhaps as early as 2,000 years ago. They first encountered Spanish explorers in the late eighteenth century. By the midnineteenth century, miners, ranchers, and settlers began taking their land. The Kern River gold rush began in 1857. In 1862, a few Tubatulabals joined the Owens Valley Paiutes in anti-white fighting in the Owens Valley. In the following year whites massacred Tubatulabals in the Kern River Valley.

By 1875, most male survivors were working for local ranchers. In 1893, survivors of the Pahkanapil band, the only one left of the original three, were allotted land in the Kern and South Fork Kern Valleys. The people experienced severe epidemics of measles and influenza in 1902 and 1918. During the twentieth century, many Tubatulabals moved to the Tule River Reservation and throughout California. After the last hereditary leader died in 1955, a council of elders carried on leadership through the 1960s. In the 1970s, the Tubatulabals, Kawaiisus, and Cane-brake area Indians formed the Kern Valley Indian Community and Council, a goal of which is to obtain federal recognition.


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