The Kumeyaay

San Diego County and Baja

When Father Junipero Serra entered the San Diego area in 1769 to build the first California mission, he encountered a thriving population of peaceful and hospitable Native Americans living in the area. "They are fine in stature and carriage, affable and gay. They brought fish and mollusks to us, going out in their canoes just to fish for our benefit. They have danced their native dances for our entertainment," he wrote in his journal.

After conscripting these local Indians to build Mission San Diego de Alcalá, the Spanish, consistent with their habit of naming Indian groups after the mission whose jurisdiction they were under, called these 25,000 to 30,000 natives the Diegueño.

The term Kumeyaay was coined by native people and F. Shipek in the 1970s and is all inclusive of Diegueño and Kamia, the Yuman-speaking Indians of Imperial County over the mountains east of San Diego County.

The Kumeyaay were seasonal hunters and gatherers whose individual bands ranged along waterways from the San Diego coastal region, east through the Cuyamaca and Laguna Mountains to beyond the Salton Sea in the east, and south beyond current-day Ensenada in Mexico.

Bands spoke individual dialects and lived a loosely connected lifestyle intermarrying among them. They fished in the bay, gathered grunion and mollusks on the beach, hunted small game like rabbits, picked wild fruits, berries and their staple acorns.

They also engaged in primitive horticultural activities away from coastal regions. Each territorial band -- with a population of between 200 and 1,000 persons -- controlled approximately 20 miles of river drainage (depending upon the width and richness of the valley) from their winter home


These bands are classified together as Kumeyaay because they are all of the Yuman language family, Hokan stock. The Kumeyaay are sub-divided into the Ipai (the northern dialectical form) and the Tipai (the southern dialectical form) and the Kamia (the eastern dialectical form mentioned above).

The Ipai lived in territory extending from the San Diego River (approximately Interstate 8) north to Agua Hedionda Lagoon (approximately State Highway 78) and then eastward through Escondido to Lake Henshaw. The Tipai lived south of the San Diego River into Baja south of Ensanada, and eastward to the Laguna Mountains and beyond Mount Tecate.

In spite of the efforts of Spanish missionaries to convert the San Diego-area Kumeyaay to Christianity and the use of presidio soldiers to subdue them, many bands resented the European intrusion and the Kumeyaay remained the most resistant of all California Indians to subjugation, revolting on several occassions.

In fact, during the night and early morning of November 4 and 5, 1775, a force of Kumeyaay surrounded Mission San Diego de Alcalá, set fire to its wooden structures and attacked a small contingent of Spaniards.

The padre and another Spaniard were killed (the only missionary killed by Indians in California) which prompted expeditions by Presidio soldiers into the mountains and deserts to the east, in search of the Indian leaders and new neophytes for the mission.

This tenuous relationship between the Kumeyaay and the Spanish continued until Mexican independence in 1821. Nonetheless, by the time of mission secularization, the Kumeyaay population had dwindled to about 3,000 due to disease, loss of ancestral lands and various other causes. Freed of mission control, most Kumeyaay fled to the mountains where they could not be forced to work for the Mexican settlers or the army, and the population started to rebuild.

When the U.S. wrested control of California from Mexico with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, most of the mountain Kumeyaay, especially those along the emigrant trails, were seriously affected by the entrance of American settlers. By the time gold was discovered in Julian in 1869, shortly after the Civil War, the Spanish, Mexican and American governments and settlers had changed the Kumeyaay's way of life forever.

In 1875, the inland Kumeyaay were expelled from their ancestral homes and their land was expropriated. Their plight was ignored until publicity generated by the Indian Rights Association and the Sequoia League forced the BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) to set aside lands of the Cuyamaca, La Posta, Manzanita and Laguna Mountains earlier in this century.

The Kumeyaay population finally began to revive after 1910. Currently there are about 20,000 Kumeyaay descendants in San Deigo County, about 10% of whom live on its 18 reservations, more than in any other county in the United States.


In the last decade, the Sycuan, Barona and Viejas reservations have developed successful bingo and gaming operations. The Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians is the owner and operator of a popular and lucrative casino along Interstate 8 in rural San Diego County. The band is building a $30 million factory outlet mall, owns a bank, and supports an employee workforce of 1,600 people. It also engages in revenue sharing with 7 non-gaming tribes in San Diego County and promotes environmental protection programs.

At Cuyamaca State Park, on State Highway 79, 10 miles east of Julian, Kumeyaay artifacts and a reconstructed village can be seen by visitors. San Diego's Museum of Man also has an extensive display on the Kumeyaay.

Kumeyaay Lifeways

The Kumeyaay were not aggressive people, but they did make a wooden club with a sharp carved handle to be used in battle if needed. They also made bow and arrows for hunting and protection. Rabbit sticks were used for killing small animals and long digging sticks were used as shovels other purposes.

Kumeyaay homes were circular, domed structures woven from willow branches that still had the leaves attached. Mats or rabbit skins covered the doorways, and grasses were used to soften the floor. Cooking was done outside in fire pits.

Kumeyaay men and women wore their hair long. The men bunched it on the crown of their heads or wore it loose, and the women wore bangs. If a family member died, it was part of the mourning process to cut all family members hair short, a custom that continues to this day.

Women's chins were tattooed, and sometimes their foreheads, cheeks, arms, and breasts as well. Men sometimes tattooed their legs. Painting the face and body were also used for body decoration and ceremonial purpose.

Kumeyaay women wore willow bark skirts while the men usually wore no clothing, only a woven agave belts to hold tools for hunting and gathering. They sometimes wore agave fiber sandals over rocky or thorny areas but usually went barefoot. In cold weather men and women wore a rabbit fur blanket.

Like most California Indians, the Kumeyaay were sophisticated basket makers weaving fine, tightly stitched baskets, which were worn as hats by both men and women. In addition to protecting the head, they could be used as bowls for water or for carrying items. Larger baskets were traditionally used for processing foods, especially seeds and nuts, and for cooking.

Each band had a central village where the kwaaypaay (social leader) and the kuseyaay (shaman)) lived and managed the ceremonial center. The religious year was observed by solstice and equinox ceremonies, all managed by the shaman, who had great knowledge of herbal medicine and curing songs and ceremonies. They were also astronomers, knowing the movements of the stars through the seasons and phases of the moon, which determined the timing of harvest and ceremonies such as naming, puberty rites and marriage.

-- A.R. Royo

Desert People & Cultures Index

Native American Cultures Index
San Diego, California
Julian, California




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