The word Cupeño is of Spanish derivation, adopting the native place-name Kupa and appending Spanish — "eño" to mean a person who lives in or hails from Kupa. The Cupeños, however, called themselves Kuupangaxwichem, or "people who slept here." The Cupans were one of the smallest native American tribes in Southern California. It is unlikely that they ever numbered more than 1,000 in size. They once occupied a territory 10 square miles in diameter in a mountainous region at the headwaters of the San Luis Rey River in the valley of San Jose de Valle. Many of the Pala Indians trace their heritage back to Cupa. Today, more than 90 years after having been expelled from their native homeland, the Cupeños call Pala home and live as one among the Luiseño tribe.
Before 1810, the Cupans had very little contact with outsiders — Spanish or otherwise. The land they had lived on for countless generations, including the medicinal hot springs and the village called Cupa was controlled and used for the exclusion of the Cupans by Americans who displaced them. As the Spanish, Mexicans and, later, the American trailblazers grew in number in the region, the Cupans began to work in serf-like relations to the newcomers.
Discontent quickly spread among the Cupans. The pioneers who trekked west through the southern route did so on a trail that ran directly through the Cupan territory. To add insult to injury, American officials in San Diego concluded that a reasonable source of revenue would be a taxation upon the Indians of the backcountry. The Cupans were assessed a $600 tax that with great resentment was finally paid by the villagers.
Tensions mounted and shortly after California was made a state in 1848, a Cupeno Net named Antonio Garra attempted to unite Southern California Indians against all foreigners by organizing a revolt. Garra, his son and a renegade American sailor were able to unify many of the Indian tribes of the region. But just moments before a grand attack was to commence, a pro-American chief leading the Cahuilla tribe opted out of the coalition to sue for peace. This dissolution of unity was Garra’s undoing and within days, Garra was executed and the village of Cupa was burned.
By the late 1800’s the hot sulfur springs found on the Cupa territories were becoming very popular and attracting visitors from Los Angeles and San Diego. The popularity of the destination and the growing California population began the events which ultimately led to the expulsion of the Cupans from their homeland.
Four years after California became a state, a land survey commission was formed, and cattleman Juan Jose Warner claimed 47,500 acres of what is now Warner Springs. Warner Springs makes up the majority of the Cupan homeland. The property was later purchased by former California Governor John Downey in 1880. Downey then filed a lawsuit — later pursued by his heirs after his death — claiming title to the land and demanding eviction of the Cupenos from the property. The Cupas argued before the courts that Mexican law, as well as the peace treaty that ended the war between Mexico and the United States, ensured Indian rights and precluded the hostile takeover of their land. They argued to no avail. The California courts agreed with Downey and in 1901 the United States Supreme Court affirmed the judgment ordering removal of the Indians.
President Rutherford Hayes, prompted by the Supreme Court holding, declared the Indians "trespassers" and ordered the tribe relocated to Pala, California, just beyond the Palomar Mountains where a 10,000-acre reservation had been established. Pala was a Luiseno reservation then, not Cupa. This act marked the first time in U.S. history that two distinct Indian tribes were herded together in one reservation. This was a blemish upon a nation that prided itself on leading the world into the 20th Century and the cultural and political renaissance that accompanied such a transition.
On the morning of May 12, 1903, Indian Bureau agent James Jenkins arrived with 44 armed teamsters to carry out the eviction. Rosinda Nolasquez — the last survivor of the expulsion — later testified that "Many carts stood there by the doors. People came from La Mesa, from Santa Ysabel, fromWilakal, from San Ignacio to see their relatives. They cried a lot. And they just threw our belongings, our clothes, into carts."
The 40-mile journey from Cupa to Pala took three days. The Cupeños call it their "Trail of Tears."