The Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians, one of the remaining 12 bands of the Kumeyaay Indian Nation, resides on a 1,600-acre reservation in the Viejas Valley, east of the community of Alpine in San Diego County, California. The Viejas Band is recognized as a sovereign government by the United States, with which it
maintains a government-to-government relationship.
The Kumeyaay, referred to as Diegueño by the Spanish, were the original native inhabitants of San Diego County. The Kumeyaay, Yuman-speaking people of Hokan stock, have lived in this region for more than 10,000 years. Historically, the Kumeyaay were horticulturists and hunters and gatherers. They were the only Yuman group in the area, the first people who greeted the Spanish when they first sailed into San Diego Harbor with the Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo expedition of 1542.
The boundaries of the Kumeyaay lands changed with the arrival of the Europeans. It once extended from the Pacific Ocean, south to Ensenada in Baja Norte, Mexico, east to the sand dunes of the Colorado River in Imperial Valley, and north to Warner Springs Valley. North to northeast, their territory was bounded by other Indian nations––the San Luiseño, Cupeño, and Cahuilla.
Today, Kumeyaay tribal members are divided into 12 separate bands: Barona, Campo, Ewiiaapaayp, Inaja-Cosmit, Jamul, LaPosta, Manzanita, Mesa Grande, San Pasqual, Santa Ysabel, Sycuan, and Viejas. One of the largest owners of land in San Diego County, Kumeyaay governments have jurisdiction over approximately 70,000 acres concentrated in East County from El Cajon, Lakeside, Poway and Ramona, to the desert. Of the total acreage, more than 15,000 acres are unusable to the Kumeyaay because the El Capitan Reservoir was removed from Indian Government ownership. The reservoir feeds the San Diego River east of Lakeside and is located within the Capitan Grande Indian Reservation, which is jointly patented to the Viejas and Barona Bands.
Kumeyaay men were hunters of game, ranging from rabbit and quail to antelope and deer. Men crafted fishhooks, arrows, bows, axes, nets and other hunting implements. Kumeyaay women made fine baskets in coil fashion, pottery, most of the clothing, and they created shelter, which varied with the seasons and environments. The Kumeyaay practiced animal husbandry. They had a complex pattern of land ownership and division of labor that included a network of agricultural holdings in different geographic areas that were cultivated on a seasonal basis.
The Kumeyaay engaged in total environmental management of their land and water resources. As chronicled by anthropologist Florence Shipek, “Kumeyaay erosion control systems…included complex techniques of controlled burning. These systems were combined with several methods of water management to maintain ground waters close to valley surfaces, and to keep the many springs and surface streams at usable levels for the complex Kumeyaay plant husbandry-corn agriculture systems… An unidentified native grain, which the Spanish described as ‘excellent pasture,’ once covered the valleys and low slopes in the Kumeyaay area… Kumeyaay plant specialists experimented with all plants, testing them for subsistence, medicinal or technical purposes, using seeds, vegetative cuttings or transplants in every location.”
Jessica Maxwell, in the May-June 1995 edition of “Audubon,” adds to these observations: “When the Spanish first saw the meadows of the mountain valleys east of what we now call San Diego, they pronounced them ‘excellent pasture.’ They assumed them to be natural and, being European herdsmen, considered them prime grazing land… The early invaders were, in fact, gazing upon the ancient grain fields of the indigenous Kumeyaay Indians, some of the earliest––and best––environmental managers in North America.”
Beginning with the Spanish invasion of 1769, continuing through the Mexican Period of 1826 to 1848, and on through the American Period, the Kumeyaay were forced off their ancestral lands. Nearly all of the Kumeyaay lands were taken into private ownership or made U.S. government holdings. Treaties negotiated with 18 California tribes in 1850 to set aside 8.5 million acres in specific tribal lands were never ratified by the United States Senate as a result of opposition by the state of California. Today, the acreage of tribal reservations in California is approximately 500,000 acres.
Capitan Grande, about 35 miles east of San Diego, is the name of the canyon through which the San Diego River once ran. With abundant water, Kumeyaay Indians living there sustained themselves through farming.
In 1875, a presidential executive order withdrew lands from the federal domain, setting aside a number of small reservations, including the Capitan Grande Reservation from which the Viejas Band descended. Capitan Grande, patented in 1891, included portions of ancestral land of the Los Coñejos Band. In 1853, other Indians from Mission San Diego were given permission to locate on Capitan Grande by the federal Indian agent at the time. Over the years, other Indians were placed there, as well.
As the non-Indian population grew, demand for water increased. The city of San Diego built Lake Cuyamaca, laying its flume through the Capitan Grande Reservation and taking most of the San Diego River water originally used by the Kumeyaay. This left them only a small share from the city’s flume, resulting in crop losses on Indian farms. The city later decided to dam the river and take all of the water by creating El Capitan Reservoir. The Kumeyaay protested, but, at the wishes of land speculators and unknown to the Indians, Congress granted the city permission to purchase the heart of the Capitan Grande Reservation, where many Kumeyaay had built homes. From the proceeds of this forced “sale” of lands, some of the valley’s inhabitants, the Coapan Band, or Capitan Grande, bought Barona Valley and are now known as the Barona Band of Mission Indians.
A group of 28 families, including members of the Los Coñejos Band, purchased the Viejas Valley land (once a ranch owned by Baron Long) and incorporated the name Viejas. A few other families bought private individual property with their compensation. After the move, the Viejas and Barona Bands were denied their water rights and each valley became solely dependent on meager supplies of rainfall and groundwater until the issue was resolved by court action.
Today, membership in the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians is determined by direct descent from the families forced from Capitan Grande who pooled their shares of dam-site purchase money to buy Viejas Valley. The Viejas band continues to share a joint-trust patent with the Barona Band for the 15,000 remaining acres of the Capitan Grande Reservation.
For thousands of years the first Californians lived lightly in harmony with the land. Their history is buried under the sea, eroded as sites and villages were abandoned and erased by modern development. Yet evidence of their existence is found in many areas of San Diego County, recorded in archeological artifacts, and in the bedrock, deep holes called morteres (used for pounding and grinding acorns) and the shallower metates (used for milling seeds and grains).
Intriguing signs pointing to the Kumeyaay culture and way of life have been found in the larger seasonal villages and in the legacy of their rock art. Many sites are located on private land, hidden from public view. But there are at least a half dozen archeological and historical sites open to the public, if you know where to look.
NOTE: It is important to remember that rock art and other historic sites may be considered sacred to American Indians and should always be treated with respect. It is against the law to touch or disturb any artifacts, pictographs, or petroglyphs.
Mission Trails Regional Park, only eight miles from downtown San Diego and one of the largest urban parks in the US, offers guided hikes through the rugged hills and San Diego River bed, where the Indians once roamed. The state-of-the-art Mission Trails Visitor and Interpretive Center offers exhibits of the Kumeyaay people and culture. Several historical sites are designated for public view on trails throughout the 5,800-acre park. Grinding holes in the rocks used for the preparation of food can be seen from the Visitors Center loop, and also on the grasslands near the Old Mission Dam.
Cowles Mountain, part of Mission Trails Regional Park, has a Kumeyaay Winter Solstice observatory site, located along the trail of the tallest peak in the city of San Diego. From the eastern horizon, at dawn on the days surrounding the solstice, a peak splits the rising sun. The original stone arrangement pointing to the peak was destroyed many years ago, according to Ken Hedges, curator with the Museum of Man, but it has been since recreated and is a popular hike destination around the Winter Solstice.
The Mission Trails Visitors Center offers special pre-dawn Winter Solstice hikes in late December, guided by official Mission Trails Regional Park Trail Guides and Canyoneers of the San Diego Natural History Museum. Hikers are invited to meet at 6 a.m. at the trailhead to the Cowles Mountain Staging Area on Golfcrest at Navajo Drive.
San Dieguito River Park is an open space regional park, which extends the entire San Dieguito River Valley from Volcan Mountain near Julian to the ocean in Del Mar. The western river valley contains one of the earliest archeological sites in San Diego, documenting habitation for a period spanning 8,000 to 11,000 years. Artifacts found here include carefully crafted stone knives, spear points, and scraping tools.
The Piedras Pintadas Trail winds around Lake Hodges’ Bernardo Bay, with detailed interpretive signs about the Kumeyaay technologies: the preparation of food, tools, weapons, and how they used various plants. A pictograph site is now off limits due to vandalism. The trailhead begins in northwest Rancho Bernardo, south of the parking lot off West Bernardo Drive. For those able to complete the 3.8-mile round trip, there are more interpretive signs about Kumeyaay resource management techniques on the western side of the Ridge Loop Trail.
Detailed maps and more information are available at the Headquarters of the San Dieguito River Park on Sycamore Creek Road in Escondido, call 858-674-2270.
The Kumeyaay-Ipai Interpretive Center at Pauwai, a five-acre historical site formerly known as the Silver Lake Archeological Site, recreates and preserves the landscape of the Pauwai Valley at the time the Kumeyaay roamed the land, before the arrival of Juan Cabrillo. Dedicated in June 2002, by the Poway City Council and the San Pasqual Band of Mission Indians, volunteers and Eagle Scout troops built trails, planted vegetation, and constructed Kumeyaay ramadas and a native house made of willow branches. The site overlooking the Poway River valley features a rock outcropping with milling and grinding stations and preserves the tribe’s history.
The site is located at the end of Silverlake Road at Poway Road, approx. two miles east of I-15. Docent-led tours are offered every Saturday from 9-11:30 a.m. For more information, call 858-646-9616.
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, one hundred miles east-northeast of San Diego, is the largest state park in California, and it offers outstanding examples of Kumeyaay rock art in the form of pictographs, ancient mysterious drawings on the rock walls, and petroglyphs, designs and symbols etched into the surface of large boulders or rock faces. Petroglyphs are more common in the northern part of the park. A specific type of petroglyph is a yoni, a natural crack in a large boulder or rock that has been enhanced by stone tools to look like a vulva, which is believed to be associated with female fertility rites.
Pictographs can be found in Coyote Canyon in the northern part of the park and in Smuggler Canyon in the Little Blair Valley area, located on an easy half-mile trail. In Mine Canyon, in the central part of the park, there are more signs of human habitation, including morteros, metates, as well as pictographs and two yoni rocks. The Blair Valley area offers well-preserved examples of pictographs. The panel of rock paintings, geometric shapes in red and yellow, are clearly marked by interpretative signs. The meaning of the paintings is still unknown.
A large seasonal village, called “Morteros Village,” features an interpretive walk with grinding rocks, pictographs, and a replica of an old Indian trail. More rock art can be found in the “Piedras Grandes” (Large Rocks) area and Indian Hill, listed in many hiking books, a large site with a cave rock shelter. Maps to the sites open to the public are available at the Anza- Borrego Visitors Center in Borrego Springs. For more information, call Park Headquarters or the Visitor Center: 760-767-4205.
Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, forty miles east of San Diego, was the spring and summer home to bands of Kumeyaay Indians, who ranged throughout the Cuyamaca and Laguna Mountains in seasonal journeys from San Diego to the Salton Sea. The Kumeyaay called the beautiful oak and pine-covered mountains due east of San Diego, “Ah-ha Kwe-ah-mac,” which translates roughly as “the place where it rains” or “the mist behind the clouds.”
Cuyamaca Rancho State Park has a rich agglomeration of Indian sites. Cuyamaca Peak, a seven-mile roundtrip hike to the top, is considered to be sacred to the Kumeyaay (although some local tribal members argue that all mountains are sacred).
Within the park, bedrock mortars, or grinding rocks, can be seen from Coldstream Trail, along with interpretive panels and a large village site at Los Caballos Horse Camp on the way to Stonewall Mine. Interpretative signs about the Kumeyaay can be found along the Paso Picacho Nature Trail via Azalea Loop Trail. More bedrock sites are visible from the Harvey Moore Trail and Juaquapin Creek Trail, accessed from Sweetwater turnoff. Pick up park brochures at the Indian Museum or ranger stations at campground entrances. For more information, 760-765-0755.
County parks such as William Heise Park near Julian, Felicita Park in Escondido, and El Monte Park in Lakeside are located on the sites of former Kumeyaay villages. The rangers at each park can provide more information on the specific sites. To learn more about interpreting the signs of early Kumeyaay life, the museum below offers glimpses into the earliest inhabitants of San Diego County:
The Barona Museum, a mile north of the Barona Casino in Lakeside, is home to two thousand Native American artifacts, with listening alcoves, diorama cases, and interactive science displays that showcase the artistry and skill of Native Americans who lived throughout San Diego County, California and the West. The collection represents Native American history dating back 10,000 years. Rare items include ceramic bowls and grinding stones used for cooking, arrows and spears used for hunting, ancient tools, coiled baskets used for food preparation, and beads that were used as both jewelry and currency, as well as baskets on loan from the San Diego Museum of Man.
There are also Peone game pieces made of bone, used in the traditional gambling game. The interactive science exhibits illustrate the Kumeyaay as hunters and gatherers, as well as astronomers, marine biologists, chemists and physicists who read the stars, predicted the change of seasons, and used natural materials to create rock art. For days and hours of operation, call the Museum at 619-443-7003 ext. 219.