The Kumeyaay Indians
The following information was taken from "The
Kumeyaay Indians" by Roberta Ladastida & Diana Caldeira
in cooperation with the Campo Band Mission Indians - Title V Grant
(1995) San Diego County Office of Education.
- see also:
Approximately 1,000 years
ago a people called the Kumeyaay lived throughout what is now
Diego County & Baja California. Imagine San Diego with no buildings,
cars, or freeways. Just trees, plants, rivers, streams, mountains,
rolling hills, and abundant animal life that included deer, antelope,
and bear. A small picture of this can be gleaned if you hike along
trails and streams in the preserved mountains, canyons and parks in
the San Diego County area. Into this picture add 25,000 to 28,000
people, the Kumeyaay, living near the abundant streams and lakes.
Visualize many bare children picking berries and skirted woman picking
grasses along the stream. Men coming home with big horn sheep strapped
to their backs. These people lived in harmony with their environment
and the natural resources around them.
Hunters and Agriculturists
They were hunters and
agriculturists. Anthropologists have evidence that they cultivated
various grasses for seeds and other plants, transplanted cactus,
elderberries, oak and burned large areas to keep crops in control.
Kumeyaay environmental specialists had observed which plants grew in
response to oddly timed rains of drought years and increased those
plants for drought emergency purposes. They also planted beans, corn,
squash and other food sources in the desert and mountains, where
running springs, summer rainfall, or the Colorado River overflow made
such planting feasible.
Usually the woman did the
gathering of wild plants with the men assisting them in the more
difficult harvesting. The men hunted large game animals such as deer
or bighorn sheep as well as rabbits, or tapped small rodents, birds
and reptiles as a supplement to their diet. In order to take advantage
or ripening or a concentration of animals, the people moved with the
seasons between one or two permanent villages and numerous camp sites.
They traveled large areas, some from the coastal regions to the
Lagunas or Mexico to gather acorns and pinon nuts. Indians from the
desert area would travel the same network of trails. Other trails ran
north and south from Santa Barbara to Baja California. Tom Lucas has
traced many early trails on maps, Just Before Sunset, that were
jointly used. Interstate 8 was one of those trails.
The Kumeyaay's harvesting
was done according to the season. Acorns and pinon nuts were collected
in the fall from the Laguna mountains and the mountains of Baja
California. Flowers, fruits, grain, seeds, stems, bulbs and roots were
gathered in the spring and summer from the valleys, canyons and foot
hills. Fish and mullusks were caught and dried, as were, rabbit, small
rodents, birds, and of course, large meat animals as mountain sheep,
antelope, and deer that were hunted year round.
conservatively and religiously used the natural resources that were
native to their area. Prayers and sage smoke were offered before
harvesting and hunting. The natural resources not only provided food
but, clothing, tools, shelter, medicine and religious purpose.
Water was the basis for
life. Therefore, the Kumeyaay built their dwellings near streams and
rivers. Water was plentiful most of the time with much underground
water available. Willows, water cress, reeds, cattails, deer grass,
and juncus are just a few of the natural resources that grew along the
banks of these waterways.
The Kumeyaay kept springs
clean, and used various means to guide water to their crops and
protect the land from erosion. They constructed rock and brush dams,
levees, and ditches on level land, and on slopes, constructed rock
terraces across the slopes to spread and slow water flow.
These people used the
natural resources of plant, wood, rock, shell and bone to provide
tools for domestic duties, the hunt, and provide safety for their
families. The Kumeyaay were not aggressive people but 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 (throwing stick like a boomerang) were used for killing small
animals. Long digging sticks were used as carved utensils for various
They made knapped arrow
heads and scraping tools from obsidian and other hard rock. Indians to
the south used wooden arrows heads and it is possible that the
Kumeyaay also used these in prehistory. Rocks served many purposes.
Rock arrow shaft straighteners were used. The metate, ground mortar
and pestle were used to grind the seeds and acorns to provide the
flour for acorn mush (she'wii ) and breads. Awls for piercing holes in
baskets, leather and shells were made from animal bone. Shells
provided trade items, jewelry, bowls and fish hooks. Nets were woven
from jucca, agave and milkweed to catch small animals and birds. Nets
and woven sacks were also made for storage or to carry belongings. One
such burden net ( hapuum ) was placed across the forehead to carry
articles supported on the back.
Imagine if you will, many
domed willow branch dwellings scattered along the streams and valleys.
inhabitants going about their daily chores. Women with long black
hair, wearing bark skirts picking grasses along the stream. Babies in
cradleboards propped against a boulder or an oak tree. Children
picking elderberries while a group of older women sit near huts
If the village was by one
of the bays or lakes you would see canoes or tule balsas with men
fishing. Double bladed paddles were used to guide the canoes of balsas
and some were pushed with long poles depending on the water site.
Padre Junipero Serra
described the Indians of the area in 1769:
"Located at this same
site is a gentile rancheria whose people it is a pleasure to meet.
They are fine in stature and carriage, affable and gay. They have
indeed endured to us. 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."
Their homes were made
from the willow trees that grew so abundantly in the area. The
dwellings were circular domed structures woven from willow branches
that still had the leaves attached. There was a small door opening and
a large basket or woven mat would be pulled over it at night to keep
the cold air out. Sometimes a small fire was built within the
structure for warmth. A rabbit blanket was also used as a soft warm
covering and grasses were used to soften the floor. Cooking was done
outside in fire pits.
A sweat house was used by
the men of the village. It was similar to the dwelling but smaller. It
served as a place to meet and cleanse oneself physically and
spiritually. A fire provided the heat. Today men and women use the
sweat houses for purification purposes.
There was a space of
religious gatherings, usually round and surrounded by a fence or
brush. There was another smaller circular area for the dancers.
Observers could see over the fenced area.
Plants and animals also
provided clothing. The Kumeyaay women wore the afore mentioned willow
bark skirt (pounded strips of willow bark) which was sewn into two
apron pieces and tied on, one to the front and the thicker longer one
tied to the back. Baskets hats were worn by men and women to protect
their foreheads from the trumplines of the agave carrying nets and
could be used as cups for water when they needed it or for carrying
items. There were plain or decorated and used for adornment.
Men and women wore their
hair long. The men bunched it on the crown of their heads or wore it
loose. Kroeber says the women wore bangs. If a family member died, it
was part of the mourning process to cut all family members hair short.
This custom is still carried out today by some Kumeyaay. The hair was
kept for special ceremony held a year after the cremation of the
Men wore no clothing or a
woven agave belt to hold the hunting tools he needed. In cold weather
a twined/strip rabbit fur blanket was worn by men and women. They wore
agave fiber sandals for rocky or thorny areas but usually went
Women's chins were
tattooed, ukwich, with two or three lines during the adolescence
ceremony. Some experts suggest this was to visually display family
lines for marriage purpose and Tom Lucas mentions this regarding the
Yuma Indians. They used a cactus thorn or other sharp tool to poke
small holes in the skin and charcoal was rubbed into it to color it.
Foreheads, cheeks, arms, and breast were sometimes tattooed. Men
sometimes were tattooed on the legs. Painting the face and body were
also used for body decoration and ceremonial purpose.
The Kumeyaay nation was
organised into territorial hands and each controlled approximately 10
to 30 miles of river drainage, depending upon the width and richness
of the valley. Each band also had rights to certain coastal and
mountain areas for access to resources in those environments. Each
band's population was between 200 and 1,000 persons, again varying
with the richness of the valley. Most band members lived spread along
the valley at small side drainages or springs in extended family
groups on their own land so there was large amounts of area between
each family group.
The captain or leader (
kwaaypaay ) was born to his position or selected because of ability to
lead. His job was to lead the people and pass on duties that were
needed. He handled disagreements and acted as an overseer for the
benefit of the people with help of a council. Assistant leaders in the
band structure were called koreau . There was a council of religious
and environmental specialists who managed the economy for the benefit
of the band. Each band had a central village where the kwaaypaay and
religious leaders lived and managed the ceremonial center.
When a man and woman were
married the woman kept her lineage name. Her children took the name of
the father's lineage, according to The Indians of Southern California,
S.D.M.M. Handbook. The woman went to live with the man's family band.
Family titles were different as stated by Virginia Landon. Children of
mother's sisters and of father's bothers were called brothers and
sisters. Children of mother's brothers and father's sisters were
The kinship system
crosscut the band structure. When relationships were known, individual
used specific kin terms (aunt, uncle, grandfather, etc.) and those
traceable relatives were called shimull. Each band had lineage groups
(traceable kin) from 5 to 10 shimull. Members of a shimull could trace
their ancestry back for 5 generations, beyond that they considered
themselves related but through some unknown ancestor. The Kumeyaay had
relatives in most bands and would visit relatives throughout the
The religious year was
observed by solstice and equinox ceremonies, all managed by the
kuseyaay or shaman. The kuseyaay were born to their calling. Boys were
watched to see if they had the innate qualities and interest for this
duty. When a candidate was found, he was taught his duties, the
knowledge of herbs, prayers, songs, ceremony organization, etc., by a
kuseyaay. The kuseyaay were the healers of the village. They had great
knowledge of herbal medicine and curing songs and ceremonies. The
kuseyaay were also astronomers, knowing the movements of the stars
through the seasons and phases of the moon. The personal ceremonies
such as naming, puberty rites, marriage, and death were timed by the
movements of the stars. Thus the kuseyaay's memory was remarkably
Long ago the Kumeyaay
cremated their dead, but because of the mission influences the
deceased are buried today. The family cut their hair as a sign of
mourning and this is practiced by some Kumeyaay today.
It is noted in Kroeber
that the Kumeyaay are the only California Indians that seem to
"possess a system of color-direction symbolism. That is: East, white;
south, green-blue; west, black; north, red." The ceremonial direction
is east. The ceremonial numbers are in fours, for ceremonial
repetition. Examples of this might be singing songs in patterns of
four sets or initiation ceremonies lasting four days. Accounts of
other ceremonies can be found in Just Before Sunset by Lora L. Cline
and Handbook of the Indians of California by A.L. Krober.
Various art forms were
used during religious ceremonies. Sand painting has been noted in
Kroeber. The Kumeyaay used realistic symbols drawn with varied colors
of sand to explain their universe and creation origins.
Prehistory rock art,
petroglyphs (pecked or carved) and pictographs (painted) have been
found throughout the Kumeyaay area as well as many Indian
observatories or solstice sites. Cowels Mountain in one of these
Theories about the
purpose of rock art abound, two are, puberty rites and religious
purposes. The symbols are geometric in design as well as
anthropomorphic which means animals or human shapes. The Forgotten
Artists, Indians of Anza-Borrego and Their Rock Art, by Mandred Knaak,
provides more information and photographs of this study.
Music and dance were a
part of the many ceremonies the Kumeyaay practiced. Songs were a
respected part of the ceremonies. These songs retold stories of their
history and creation. Some songs were very short with only a few
repeated verses while others could last two days or more were
extremely complex. Prayer songs were to provide for good hunts,
seasons, and health of the people. Many of the songs were fun and
entertainment. The songs and dances are still practiced today.
The musical instrument
used to provide the rhythm was usually the rattle. Some were made from
gourds, called halmaa, with wooden handles and small rocks inside to
produce the sound. Holes were added for decoration or resonance.
Sometimes they were decorated with color and designs. Another type,
called 'ehnally, was made from one to three turtle shells skewered
underside through the back on a wooden handle. Rocks were inserted to
make the sounds and the holes were plugged. The 'ehnally was used in
ceremonies by the kuseyaay. Another type of rattle was made from deer
hide that was formed into a hollow ball shaped attached to a wooden
handle. The Kumeyaay's deer toe rattles were used during mourning
ceremonies. These were decorated with feathers and bound with sinew.
Flutes were also used to provide music. These were made from reeds
with holes drilled in them to produce the sounds. Bull-roarers, flat,
long carved sticks tied to a cord and swung over the head, were used
for noise not rhythm. They were used to announce ceremonies and warn
people away. It made a loud whirring sound.
Dancing was an expression
of the music and had patterns and style to accompany the various
ceremonies observed. The modern pow-pow is a study in dance protocol,
expression and style.
The Kumeyaay, like all
California Indians, made the finest coiled baskets in the world. The
fine, tightly stitched baskets held water and were made in a variety
of shapes and sizes for many purposes. The baskets
used most for utilitarian jobs and many were plain. Others were
extremely beautiful and used for gifts and trade. The hat baskets were
used for head protection as well as adornment. The materials used to
make the baskets grew throughout the area. Bunch grass, deer grass,
juncus and three leaf sumac were used to construct baskets. Many
patterns were detailed and colored in shades from black to light
beige. Some of the must beautiful baskets were made with the beige and
black patterning. Often juncus was dyed black by burying or soaking
coiled juncus with crushed acorn caps. The tannin from the acorn
reacted with the iron in the water and would dye it black. Some of the
popular patterns were geometric designs and nature motifs as stars,
flowers, butterflies, deer and rattlesnake. Other Indian groups (ie.
Cahuilla of Palm Springs) that bordered the Kumeyaay area,north and
east, also had like basket designs and style. Indian of the Oaks makes
excellent references as to how to make baskets.
Granary baskets were
utilitarian and were woven from leaved branches of willow. They were
much bulkier and could be made quickly. The baskets ranged in size
from about one foot to four feet or more. The huge granary baskets
were used to store the yearly harvest of acorns. These were raised on
a platform made of logs and some were wedged in tree trunks. They were
raised to protect them from insect, animals and possibly water damage.
Some other baskets that were used for utilitarian purposes were
winnowing (sifting) basket for sifting acorn meal of clay and loosely
woven leaching (draining) basket for separating the tannin from the
acorn meal. Leaves were put over the loosely woven basket, acorn meal
put on top of the leaves and water slowly poured over the meal to
leach out the tannin. The leaching basket could be made very quickly
as uniformity and even surface was not attended to according to
Kroeber. The Cahuilla, by Lowell John Bean, has excellent photos of
the basket and pottery styles.
Cradle-boards, called 'uukill,
can be put under the category of basketry as parts were woven or
twinned and the foundation was of lattice work. They were used to
carry the babies and keep them secure. The cradleboard could be hung
from a tree branch or braced against a boulder while the mother worked
and was carried on her back when she needed to travel. They were
constructed from willow branches and padded with pounded willow bark,
tules or soft grasses and covered with animal skins. The babies face
was protected by a woven shade cover and he was secured by soft straps
of animal hide or woven straps from from plant fibers.
Pottery was also an
important product of the Kumeyaay people. They used it to store food,
to cook in and for storage of cremation remains. The Indians of the
area would collect clay from their area be it from cliffs or river
banks. Some clays ranged in color from beige to white, but most clay
in this area is red or brown. They would grind and sift the clay using
winnowing baskets as they did with the acorn meal. When the clay was
clean and fine they would add water and mix it to the precise
consistency. The they would use an old pot bottom to start the shape
of new pot they were going to make. Once the pot reached the desired
size it was carefully removed from the old form. More coils were added
and a rock or clay anvil was used to hold the inside steady while the
outside was pressed and paddled (wooden) gently into shape. The pots
called ollas had wide mouths and other for water storage had narrow
mouths with longer necks to prevent evaporation. The Kumeyaay produced
mostly undecorated pottery. Fire clouds (black smoke patterns) were a
natural firing decoration that made many pots attractive. If any
decoration was to be used, it was painted on with a red oxide using a
simple braided twine or plant fiber brush. The designs were geometric,
dots, lines and on occasion stars. Once the pot was finished it was
dried for three days. The women believed that the pot would crack if
anyone saw them make it, so pottery was an isolated job. The pots
would be fired in a shallow pit in the ground. Stones or logs were
placed in the pit first as a floor. Then the pots would be laid upside
down on the floor. Branches of oak or stalks of yucca (depending on
the natural resource near by) would be placed over the pots and set
afire. This was done at dusk and the pots would be taken from the
ashes at dawn.
Clay and stone pipes were
made for ceremonial and personal use. A native tobacco was smoked.
Some pipes had a ring inserted to support a card so they could be worn
around the neck.
There are small groups of
Kumeyaay who have continued to practice the crafts of basketry and
pottery. There is a resurgence of these crafts today and classes are
being taught at the reservations with men, women and children
The Kumeyaay enjoyed
games. Many of the games the people played were practice of the skills
needed in the village community, others were for fun. People took
great pride in their endurance and skills. These games were played
during the times the people came together for ceremonies, and the
people looked forward to a time of competition. Races were run to show
strength and endurance. Ceremonial races were run during the last
phase of the moon to ensure its return. A game similar to soccer was
played by kicking a stone for long distances. Sticks were thrown
through hoops and targets. Rabbit stick throwing was for practice and
sport. Catching acorn cap rings on a stick was a child's game.
Games of chance were
enjoyed by the Kumeyaay people. They played dice games. One was played
by using sticks with decorations burnt, carved or drawn on them. One
version of the game was to toss the sticks above a rock so the sticks
bounced. Points were made by how many sticks landed with design side
up. A similar game was played by teams wagering on flat side of sticks
or rounded side.
Peon was and still is a
game played by the Kumeyaay people. This was and still is a very
enjoyable time. It is played at night and can last for days until all
counter sticks are won. It is played by two teams. The object is to
hide the black and white bones or small sticks in each hand of one
team. They cross arms hiding the sticks from view. The other team
selects a killer who tries to guess where the white bones are by
motioning with his head. Counter sticks are used to keep score. The
game is played until one team has all counter sticks.
In 1769, the Spanish
arrived and founded the Mission and Presidio of San Diego starting the
destruction of the Kumeyaay way of life. In spite of several revolts,
the Spanish guns and horses combined with introduced diseases to
overcome the Kumeyaay. However, the mountain bands, under the national
leader, the Kuchut Kwataay, kept lookouts on the mountain peaks and
were generally able to flee their villages before the soldiers and
padres arrived. The planting and use of wheat, new vegetable crops,
fruit trees, and domestic animals spread beyond the area of Spanish
control. Therefore, only those nearby, or in the large open valleys
became subjects of the missions. By the time of mission
secularization, the Kumeyaay population and dropped to about 3,000
secularization, freed of mission control, most Kumeyaay fled to the
mountains where they could not be forced to work for the Mexican
settlers or army. Populations started to rebuild. Then the American
army entered followed by settlers. Those bands along the emigrant
trails and near San Diego were affected immediately. Some lost control
of parts of their land; while others, for the first time, had a market
for their crops and sold to emigrants and to San Diego settlers.
Populations again dropped as resources were taken. Not until 1868,
after the Civil War, were most of the Kumeyaay bands, especially the
southern mountain bands, seriously affected by the entrance of
of Indian Land
The year 1870 began a
period of land expropriation from the Kumeyaay, especially their farm
land and their water resource areas. While Capitan Grande, Sycuan and
Inyaha were reserved for them by Executive Order in 1875, trespassers
still tried to take the Indian's good watered farm lands. The plight
of the inland bands was ignored until after the Indian Rights
Association and the Sequoya League brought publicity to the situation
forcing the Indian Agency to reserve and survey the lands of Cuyapipe,
La Posta, Manzanita, and Laguna.
The coastal Indian bands
had no lands reserved but were told to go Capitan Grande. A few did.
But most remained scattered working for non-Indians until Spreckels
deeded the Jamul Indian Cemetery to the church and told the people
living beside the cemetery that they could always remain there safely.
This became a refuge for a number of coastal people. Jamul petitioned
for federal recognition and eventually received it. The Kumeyaay
population began to increase after 1910.