The original people

(Continued from the Old Town San Diego Guide Magazine.) Article by Michael Miskwish

After six years of concept meetings and discussions, planning and budgeting the Old Town State Historic Park opened a new era of outdoor exhibits called Iipay-Tipay Kumeyaay Mut Niihepok. Translation is the Land of the First People. For many in the Kumeyaay community it is a rare chance to share the culture and help to educate the public on the incredibly rich history that reaches from time immemorial to the present day. The new park is located at the north end of Old Town at Taylor Street between Juan and Wallace Street.

The Kumeyaay, (also called Diegueño, Iipay, Tipay), are indigenous people of the San Diego/Imperial County – Baja California region. The archeological record for this region goes back more than 10,000 years. The Kumeyaay lived in territories defined by their shamulls or clans. They were horticulturists, engineers, fishers, hunters and gatherers. Their territories covered varieties of ecosystems that ranged from the ocean to mountains and the desert.

Kumeyaay tule boats once fished the bays, kelp beds and open ocean off the coast. Tule boats (made from bundled tule reeds and sealed with pitch) were seaworthy enough to hunt large fish and mammals with harpoons. Smaller game was caught with nets, fishing tackle and trident spears. The coasts were rich in shell fish, lobster, crab and kelp which provided year round resources. Kumeyaay farmed the coastal plain by hand spreading native grasses, gathering the ripe seed heads and burning the field stubble.

Fire was used so extensively in the inland chaparral and forest lands that the ecosystem had become defined by periodic burning and many plants were dependent on the practice to properly germinate and grow. Rock weirs were placed in stream channels to enhance groundwater recharge and promote the development of wetlands. Desert lands provided agave, mesquite and pinon pine nuts. Kumeyaay hunters (usually men) added deer, mountain sheep and antelope to the diet. Smaller game was hunted by everyone. The plant menu was extensive but the acorn had a place of prominence in the diet. After processing, it was stored for extended periods in basket granaries for later use. Women were the primary preparers of the plant foods. They were also the skilled craftswoman who made the baskets and pottery that were used in daily life.

Kumeyaay weapons and tools were primarily wood and stone but the variety and craftsmanship that went into these implements was extensive. Steatite (soapstone) and jasper (wonderstone) were used to make bowls, pipes, tools and game pieces. Arrowheads and spearpoints were made from hard rock, obsidium and quartz. Kumeyaay would temper rock and harden wood with fire. They used a variety of plants and minerals for dyes, paints and medicines. Many locations have examples of ancient rock art in petroglyphs, pictographs and cupules.

The spiritual life of the Kumeyaay was one of recognition of the cycles of the seasons, the stars, the moon and the living world around them. Kumeyaay constellations marked the solstices and equinoxes. Kumeyaay observatories still exist in many areas. Many stories related in song were also represented in the sky. A series of song cycles corresponded with other teachings passed on through storytelling and ceremonies. It was from this world that the heart of Kumeyaay culture continues to this day. The greeting “Howka” refers to the fire within the heart.  

Today, there are twelve Bands of the Kumeyaay recognized by the federal government in the U.S. and four Indigenous Ejidos in Baja California. But within the historic bounds of the Kumeyaay nation, the ties to the land and ocean have never been extinguished. The history of the Kumeyaay is a complex mix of resistance, accommodation and conflict. To understand the Kumeyaay of today you have to recognize the rich history of cultural perseverance that exists to this day.

The first documented interaction of Kumeyaay with Europeans was with the arrival of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo in San Diego Bay in 1542. Kumeyaay were wary and even attacked some of the crew at one point. Word of Europeans had traveled from the desert where Coronado was making his way through the present southwest. After making peace, the crew continued on their journey taking two young boys to train as interpreters for future meetings.

Spanish galleons sailed off the coast of Kumeyaay lands for 130 years, probably making some small contacts for resupply. That changed with the arrival of the Portola expedition and Father Serra in 1769 and the establishment of the San Diego Mission. With over 200 men and a heavily armed contingent the village of Cosaa’ay was no match. Nevertheless, after weeks of watching and waiting an attack was made against the Mission in the fall of 1769. People died on both sides but the colony survived. After moving the Mission to the village of Niipaguay in present day Mission Valley the Kumeyaay launched another attack in 1775. This time, they succeeded in destroying the Mission. The Mission was rebuilt a year later but the battle did succeed in keeping the Spaniards to the coastal zone. Eastward expansion was stopped at present-day El Cajon.


Many of the Kumeyaay on the coast were indoctrinated and incorporated into Spanish society but the majority of the coastal Kumeyaay enjoyed considerable autonomy. In the southern lands some Kumeyaay became allies with the Dominican missions in return for religious autonomy. Missions in all areas became trading centers and even independent Kumeyaay would trade or, at times, work for the missions.


Mexican independence brought promises of equality for all people in California. Unfortunately, factional fighting between Mexican citizens resulted in Indian people being shorted in promises of land, independence and political power. Widespread rebellions of Kumeyaay included independent Kumeyaay and coastal Kumeyaay upset with the political path of the Mexican government. Almost all ranchos were attacked or abandoned by 1840. In one battle of 1837, San Diego was temporarily abandoned in the face of Kumeyaay attacks. Even the alliances with the Dominicans in the southern lands fell apart as the protections for the missions were withdrawn and the missions were all abandoned or destroyed.

With the coming of the Americans in 1846 a new transition occurred. Initially, Kumeyaay assisted the Americans or stayed neutral in their war with Mexico. In return, they were promised protected Reservation land and sovereignty over their lands. This did not happen. Instead, their treaty negotiated in 1852 was voted down in Senate committee and the Kumeyaay were not informed of this fact. The State of California initiated a program of eradication and enslavement for much of the state. Kumeyaay were able to resist some of the destructive efforts directed at them. In the coastal areas Kumeyaay labor was a valuable resource in the whaling and shipping industry. Many Kumeyaay villages existed in the coastal areas until the early 20th century. From 1875 to 1893 most of the existing Kumeyaay Reservations were created through Presidential Executive Order.


The 1890s and early 20th centuries brought a major effort by railroads, boosters, chambers-of-commerce to attrack more people from the east to visit or settle in California. California history was rewritten in conjunction with the Catholic Church to magnify the role of the colonial missions and Spanish expansion into California. The role of Indians was reduced to the backdrop of this new narrative for the State. Missions were rebuilt and monuments erected to further solidify this version of history.


In the 1920s a new organization, the Mission Indian Federation, sought to challenge U.S. authority over native territories. A long, sometimes violent fight faded away in the 1950s and 1960s with government challenges to the very existence of tribal identities. In the 1930s, the Capitan Grande people were forced off of their village sites and most were relocated to what became the Barona and Viejas Reservations. This was to make way for the El Capitan reservoir that was needed to serve the growing San Diego population. In 1975, the Indian Self-determination Act sought to restore some of the sovereign governmental powers to the Indian Nations. This opened the door to tribal self-determination efforts which included the entry into governmental gaming. With the formal introduction of the regulatory structure of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act in 1989, Indian tribes abilities to execute self-governance was greatly enhanced and many of the Kumeyaay entered the gaming economy.

Today, the twelve Band of Kumeyaay include: Barona, Campo, Ewiiaapaayp, Inaja-Cosmit, Jamul, La Posta, Manzanita, Mesa Grande, San Pasqual, Santa Ysabel, Sycuan, and Viejas. The four Indigenous Ejidos in Mexico include: San Jose de la Zorra, San Antonio Necua, Juntas de Neji and El Hongo.