The Cupeno were an Uto-Aztecan-speaking tribe of the California Culture Area. Their homeland of some 10 square miles was located in mountain country at the headwaters of the San Luis Rey River in what is now southern California. Their branch of Uto-Aztecan, which they shared with other CALIFORNIA INDIANS— the CAHUILLA, GABRIELENO, Kitanemuk, LUISENO, and
Serrano—is known as Takic. Some Cupeno were converted and resettled by Spanish missionaries and are thus also known as MISSION INDIANS. The name Cupeno, pronounced koo-PAY-nyo, is derived from Kupa, one of their two recorded villages, the other being Wilakal. The Cupeno called themselves Kuupangaxwichem for “the people who slept here.”
The Cupeno were similar in culture to the Cahuilla, who lived to the east, and the Luiseno, to the west. The three tribes were not always at peace, however. In the mid-19th century, Antonio Garra, headman of the Cupeno, was a rival of Cooswootna (Juan Antonio) of the Cahuilla and Manuelito Cota of the Luiseno. With the California gold rush of 1849, growing numbers of non-Indians entered the region and competed for tribal lands. Garra tried to organize a general revolt among tribes from the San Diego region to the Colorado River, including fellow Uto-Aztecans—the Cahuilla, Luiseno, and Chemehuevi—as well as Yuman-speaking peoples— such as the MOJAVE, YUMA (quechan), Kamia, and
Cocopah. A shaman, Garra told his followers that he could turn the enemy’s bullets into water. The Luiseno remained neutral as did many of the other area bands. In what is known as the Garra Uprising, Cupeno militants carried out numerous raids on ranchers and gained control of the river and desert country. Cooswootna captured his rival Garra in 1851. After a court-martial by the state militia, Garra was executed.
The Cupeno, always a small tribe, declined in numbers in the ensuing years. Tribal members settled among the Cahuilla on the Los Coyotes and Morongo Reservations and among the Luiseno on the Pala Reservation, where some descendants currently live.