The Kumeyaay people, comprised of 13 bands of the northern Iipay and southern Tipay reaching from North County San Diego into Baja California, endure and flourish across their binational territory. Since the Spanish incursion into their territory in the late 18th century, they have been unrelenting in their advocacy for their sovereignty and cultural independence, and their lifeways are rich with stories, traditional knowledge, and community initiatives that ensure their self determination. From their language, to their crafts, to their foodways, Kumeyaay culture has endured and is continuing to thrive.
Kumeyaay controlled lands, 1769 - 2000. Graphic by cultural expert Mike Connolly.
Museums and documentaries
A number of local groups such as the San Diego Archaeological Center, Friends of the Kumeyaay, and Mission Trails Regional Park have created venues, including libraries and interpretive museum exhibits dedicated to communicating Kumeyaay culture to residents and visitors to the San Diego area. At the same time, the Kumeyaay bands themselves have also created their own high quality cultural sites, such as those at the Barona Museum, as well as at the newly opened Sycuan Cultural Center. The Sycuan Cultural Center grounds also host Kumeyaay Community College, which both hosts its own educational programs and has worked together with Cuyamaca College to create the first accredited Kumeyaay Studies Associate’s Degree.
Also available are several well-produced documentaries on Kumeyaay culture, including the KPBS film First People, Kumeyaay and Our People. Our Culture. Our History., focusing on the story of the Sycuan band.
Kumeyaay tribespeople, as well of those of other heritages, come together to support cultural revitalization.
Beyond San Diego County, Tecate, Mexico hosts the Museo Comunitario Tecate (Tecate Community Museum), hosting exhibits, an ethnobotanical garden, and a gift store that focus on Kumeyaay - spelled Kumiai in Spanish - culture. The museum is “dedicated to fostering greater understanding of the cultural, historical and natural heritage of Tecate, Baja California, Mexico and the larger binational region to which it belongs.”
San Diego County hosts the largest number of tribal reservations of any county in the United States. The Kumeyaay Nation bands have created and operate their own public services, income generating activities, and vast cultural resources that benefit not only themselves, but all San Diegans.
Stan Rodriguez (left, Santa Ysabel) and Alex Hunter (middle, Jamul) interview elders from Baja California’s San Jose de la Zorra reservation on a language immersion trip.
In addition to museums, documentaries and other media resources that relay Kumeyaay culture, there are also demonstration sites that focus on Kumeyaay ethnobotany (the study of the use of plants by traditional people). The Worldbeat Cultural Center, host of the upcoming Good Food Community Fair, hosts a Kumeyaay ethnobotany garden, as does Indigenous Regeneration in North County San Diego, which also emphasizes food cultivation, medicinal farming, culture and eco-village education programs.
Baja California’s nonprofit organization INAH (Insituto Nacional de Antropología y Historia) offers interpretive and protection of the extensive cave paintings at La Rumorosa’s El Vallecito, Seen here is the astronomical glyph of Shally (“The Hand”), known as “Leo” in western astronomy.
From San Diego’s inland deserts, to the Shores of the South Bay, and now to the valleys of East County, the Kumeyaay Nation proactively protects their cultural heritage from further incursion by development projects through activism, protest and advocacy for their human rights. They gather regularly at various sites of cultural and ecological significance throughout San Diego County that face negative impacts from private and public developers.
The Kumeyaay people continue to have much to teach the over 3 million non-native San Diegans who call this county home, as well as those across the border in Mexico. As residents on their land, we would do well to make good on the many opportunities available to not only learn about their culture, but do so in relationship with them, and join them in advocacy for their cultural renewal.
Story and photos by @colinhrichard