The Kumeyaay are indigenous people who live on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, in southwestern California and northwestern Baja California. They traditionally spoke languages related to each other, and many were connected to Mission San Diego de Alcalá.
- 1 The Kumeyaay Name
- 2 Kumeyaay Language
- 3 Geographic Region
- 4 Climate
- 5 Kumeyaay Housing
- 6 Villages and Organization
- 7 Kumeyaay Clothing
- 8 Food
- 9 Kumeyaay Tools
- 10 Kumeyaay Religion
- 11 Kumeyaay Music and Dance
- 12 Kumeyaay Games
- 13 First Contact with the Spanish
- 14 Kumeyaay and Missions
- 15 Kumeyaay in Modern Times
- 16 Getting to Know Kumeyaay Culture Today
- 17 Books About the Kumeyaay
- 18 Teaching Resources
The Kumeyaay Name
In times past, because the Kumeyaay were spread over such a large territory that they simply identified themselves with their individual clan or family. The name Kumeyaay (or Kamia) originally to referred to people in the south of the territory.
After the Spanish arrived in the 18th century, many Kumeyaay from different clans came to be associated with Mission San Diego de Alcalá. The Spanish therefore referred to them as Sandiegueños or Diegueños. They also used this name for people who lived in the territory of the mission, but who never joined it or became Christians.
In the 1950’s, anthropologists started using other names to for the Diegueños. They chose the names Ipai and Tipai because they referred to the two main Kumeyaay languages. Over time, people began to call themselves Kumeyaay more and more frequently. It is now the most common name, though some native people and groups still do not choose to use it.
The Kumeyaay language belongs to the family of what linguists call Yuman languages. This family of languages extends from Baja California into southern U.S. California and all the way into Arizona.
During the Spanish and Mexican periods, the Kumeyaay learned to speak Spanish. After the incorporation of Alta California into the U.S., Kumeyaay north of the border adopted English as the dominant language.
Today there are few speakers of the original Kumeyaay language left. In recent years, though, Kumeyaay speakers have been working with linguists to create a writing system to record the language. This will make it easier to pass on to descendants.
The Kumeyaay’s traditional territory is the extreme south of the state of California, including San Diego and Imperial Counties, and northern Baja California. The territory originally extended from the Pacific Ocean to the Sonoran Desert and the Colorado River. After the U.S.-Mexico War, this territory was split in two. Alta California became part of the United States and Baja California remained with Mexico. Today Kumeyaay people live on both sides of the Mexico-U.S. border.
On either side of the border, Kumeyaay territory has flat and sloping coastal areas to the west, hills and mountains in the center, and mostly flat deserts in the east. The coastal and central areas are the most fertile and traditionally provided most of the food for the Kumeyaay. The desert areas are instead more difficult and inhospitable.
Although much of the Kumeyaay territory is desert-like, there are also woodlands and forests of Oak, Sycamore and Willow trees. Over the centuries, they people have had to adapt to a climate that varies from the moderate temperatures of the Pacific coast to the heat of the inland valleys. Nevertheless, for the most part, Kumeyaay territory has hot, dry summers and mild, cool winters. The moisture in this region comes mainly from storms off of the Pacific Ocean.
When a clan or a group of families settled in one place for a while, they would set up an encampment. This was a place where they could find shelter from the wind and weather. Often Kumeyaay groups would have two main camps, one for summer and one for winter.
The would build domed houses with a frame made from branches. They covered them with leaves from willow, tule or other plants. They called these houses ‘ewaa, and they usually had a hole in the top to let smoke out. They would have rocks around the base to keep out wind and small animals. When the family moved, or if someone died in the house, they usually burned it.
Villages and Organization
Most Kumeyaay would stay together in bands or clans based on family relationships or lineages. Each band or clan had its own particular territory. Different clans could have their own property, and had the right to punish thieves and trespassers. Water, however, was to be shared with everyone, and needy people could ask for food that had been stored.
Clans would also have a chief or Kwaaypaay, who had an assistant. The Kwaaypaay’s job was to to solve disputes, to make sure people remembered their traditions, and to lead ceremonies. Usually the Kwaaypaay’s position passed down from father to son, but sometimes the Kwaaypaay’s widow would suceed him.
Each clan was held together through marriage bonds. When young people got married, they preferred to marry someone from outside their father’s clan. The bride and groom’s parents would arrange the marriage. The future husband would then bring game he had killed to the young woman, to show that he was a good hunter. Once they were married, the couple would go to live with the groom’s clan.
The Kumeyaay also had relationships with other neighboring Native American groups. Oftentimes they would have peaceful relationships trade items with other tribes, though sometimes war would break out between groups. According to Pablo Tac (Luiseño), for many years the Luiseño and the Kumeyaay were at war with each other, prior to the arrival of the Spanish.
Because of the mild climate, Kumeyaay people wore very little clothing traditionally. During warm periods, children and men wore practically nothing, though men would at times wear a breechcloth and a cord around their waists to hold things. Women would wear a type of apron or skirt made from willow or elderberry bark. In colder weather, people would wear blankets made of rabbit skins or willow bark. For their feet, they also made sandals from yucca or agave fibers to wear on long trips or over sharp rocks. In some places Kumeyaay people still know how to make these sandals.
For personal decoration and jewelry, people would wear bead necklaces. They would make the beads out of clam, abalone or olivella shells. Women would often have their chins tattooed. Men would have their noses pierced with sticks or pendants inserted into them. For special or important ceremonies, people would wear much more elaborate decorations and even paint their bodies.
Fr. Juan Crespí, a Spanish missionary exploring Alta California with Gaspar de Portolá in 1769, described how Kumeyaay people dressed:
“Men, women and children went heavily painted in red, black, yellow, and white, all of the men being naked, wearing only feather headdresses, the women decently covered by bunched strings in front and either a deer or a sea lion hide in the back. Some of the men carry the usual bow and arrow, others war clubs, still others long fish gigs, these last being sharp in the point, which is made of bone or shell. They all carry many well– made fishing nets of every color that they wear tied at their wastes” (from Gateway to Alta California by Harry Crosby).
After contact with the Spanish, Kumeyaay people began to adopt more European-style clothing. Those who joined the missions received a shirt with long sleeves called a cotón, and a blanket. Both were made of wool. Women also recieved a woolen petticoat and men received a breechclout to cover their groin area. Each year everyone would receive a new set of garments.
People with special skills, such as vaqueros or cowboys, would wear clothes appropriate to their jobs. Vaqueros, for example, would wear trousers and boots suitable for horsemanship.
As the years passed, the Kumeyaay became more accustomed to dealings with soldiers and settlers. They would often wear clothing similar to what was common throughout Latin America.
Like other groups of California Indians, the Kumeyaay made extensive use of the recourses of their land. The Kumeyaay would move around seasonally, harvesting different foods according to their availability. They were hunters, fishers, and gatherers of the different foods available to them.
On the seacoast, Kumeyaay would gather mussels, abalone, and scallops. They would also hunt for different sea animals, and catch fish with nets made from the agave plant.
Inland, the Kumeyaay hunted large animals such as antelope, deer and mountain sheep. Hunting big game was a very special skill, so men who knew how to do so were very respected. Most meat, however, came from small animals such as birds, rabbits, squirrels and wood rats. In addition, Kumeyaay people ate many insects such as crickets, grubs and grasshoppers, as an important source of protein.
In addition to meat and other proteins, the Kumeyaay took advantage of the many types of plants in their territory. Pine nuts — the seeds of the Pinyon tree —are still an extremely important food for the Kumeyaay. The seeds of the chia plant would be eaten raw or cooked and would provide energy for long journeys. The prickly pear or nopal cactus offers both edible leaves and fruit. Spanish missionaries noted that the heart of the agave plant was the “daily bread” of the Kumeyaay.
One of the key foods of the Kumeyaay was the acorn. Kumeyaay would gather acorns from native Coast Live Oak and Peninsular Oak trees. Acorns have tannic acid that can cause upset stomach. So the Kumeyaay would leach the acorns to get rid of the acid. When gathering acorns, Kumeyaay people would store them in small granaries, a type of basket made of willow leaves. The granary helped keep bugs and small animals out.
For hunting, the Kumeyaay often used bows and arrows. They often made arrows out of wood, cane or reeds. Arrows made from reeds were usually reserved for small animals like rats, rabbits or squirrels. They would often make the point from the chamise or greasewood plant, or just whittle the arrow tip to a sharp point. They made bows of ash or mesquite, and quivers from coyote, fox and even mountain lion hides. The Kumeyaay also knew how to make traps and lures for birds and other small game. They maintain these skills today.
One of the most important hunting tools was the throwing stick or rabbit stick. The stick was about 2 feet long and about 2 inches wide, with a straight handle that curved at the end. The Kumeyaay could throw the stick along the ground, so as to wound the animal, so that they could approach it and kill it. Rabbit or throwing sticks would also be used very effectively in war.
For fishing, they used boats made of reeds called balsas, and would use spears, nets and hooks, with line made of fiber from the agave plant.
For gathering and storing items, the Kumeyaay made containers out of gourds and baskets out of grass and and juncus or spiny reed. They also made pottery from clay that would be fired to harden. To this day some Kumeyaay people are very skilled in these arts that have passed down for generations. The mortar and pestle and other grinding stones were very important for preparing traditional foods, such as acorns.
Before contact with the Spanish and Christianity, the Kumeyaay believed that people and animals had been created by the sons of Earth Mother and Primal Water. They made songs and drawings about he beginning of the world and the role of animals such as Coyote, Frog and Eagle. They believed in a spiritual world, governed by many different forces.
The person who interpreted and communicated with this world was the shaman. Shamans also led religious ceremonies and dances and interpreted dreams. They were among the most powerful members of the tribe, and a council of shamans usually helped the Kwaaypaay lead a clan or tribal group. Shamans were also very important to the health of the community, since the Kumeyaay believed they had special powers over diseases and illnesses.
Those Kumeyaay who entered the mission system were baptized and adopted Catholicism, which they passed down to their descendants. A number of Kumeyaay never entered the missions and continued to observe their traditional beliefs and ceremonies. Some who were baptized also continued to practice the old ways in secret or alongside Christianity.
Kumeyaay Music and Dance
Singing and dancing are important traditions among the Kumeyaay. Dances like the Eagle Dance were performed during ceremonies on important occasions, such as the death of a chief or shaman. Dances such as the War Dance or the Whirling Dance were usually performed by dancers chosen specifically for that occasion.
Many songs have been preserved and are performed to this day. One of the most important categories of Kumeyaay songs are the bird songs. Usually men sing these songs, accompanied by gourd rattles filled with palm seeds. Women often accompany the men’s singing with dance.
After entering the missions, many Kumeyaay learned to play European and Latin American instruments such as the guitar and the violin. Mission choirs and orchestras made up of Native Americans performed religious and classical music in mission churches and other places.
Like most people, the Kumeyaay were fond of games. One of the more common games was hoop-and-pole, in which a small hoop made of mezcal fibers was rolled along the ground. Players would run alongside the hoop, trying to toss a pole through it. Sometimes the players would shoot arrows without points at one another as a way of improving their aim for hunting.
Kumeyaay people played other games, such peon, a guessing game, and stick dice, a game where players earned points based on the way marked sticks landed on the ground. Some of these games are still played today.
First Contact with the Spanish
The Kumeyaay’s first contact with Europeans most likely took place in 1542, around the time that Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo and his ships sailed into what is known today as San Diego Bay. Rodríguez Cabrillo and his men described the Kumeyaay this way:
“They [Native Americans] are covered in animal skins and are fisherman. They eat raw fish and they also eat maguey…Inland there is a beautiful valley. They indicated that inland there was a large quantity of maize and lots of food; it appears that further inland from this valley there are some very high mountains and rough terrain. They call white men Taquimine.”
The Kumeyaay told Rodríguez Cabrillo and his men that there were reports of Europeans further inland. Most likely they had encountered a Spanish land expedition further east, or had heard reports of one from other tribes.
It wasn’t until almost two hundred years later when contacts between Spanish and Kumeyaay resumed. The 1769 expeditions of Gaspar de Portolá and Junípero Serra, resulted in the founding of the presidio and mission of San Diego.
Kumeyaay and Missions
The Kumeyaay were among the first Native Americans in Alta California to become connected to the Franciscan missions. In 1769, Junípero Serra established first mission in Alta California, San Diego de Alcalá, among the Kumeyaay people. Because of the particular conditions at San Diego, many Kumeyaay worked at the mission, but continued to live in their native villages among non-Christian neighbors and relatives. Working at the mission, they learned farming and ranching techniques from Latin America. They integrated them into their own traditional lifestyle. In 1815 the Santa Ysabel asistencia was established for those Kumeyaay who lived too far to travel to Mission San Diego de Alcalá.
Relations between the Spanish and Kumeyaay were at times difficult. In 1775, several hundred warriors from 40 different villages attacked and burned Mission San Diego de Alcalá, killing Fr. Luis Jayme, blacksmith José Manuel Arroyo and carpenter José Urselino. At the insistence of Junípero Serra, those leaders of the attack who had been caught were pardoned and returned to Mission San Diego.
After the end of the mission system (secularization), individual Kumeyaay and their families were to receive parcels of land to farm their own food. Very few eventually received those parcels, although some did apply for land grants to the Mexican government and received them. Due to the hostility between some Kumeyaay groups and Californios, a number of Kumeyaay sided with the American forces during the U.S.-Mexican war of 1846.
Kumeyaay in Modern Times
Times were very difficult for the Kumeyaay throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Many Kumeyaay were very poor and either lived on reservations or areas in Southern California with very few resources. The author Helen Hunt Jackson wrote her famous novel Ramona as a way to draw attention to the plight of the Kumeyaay and other ex-mission Indians.
Today there are 13 federally-recognized Kumeyaay reservations in California and several Kumeyaay communities in Baja California.
Many Kumeyaay groups in the U.S. have developed business activities, including gaming, resorts and tourism. These activities help them fund educational, medical and social services for their tribes. They have also become very important to the economy of Southern California.
Getting to Know Kumeyaay Culture Today
Below are some resources getting to know Kumeyaay culture:
Barona Cultural Center and Museum. San Diego County’s first museum on an Indian reservation dedicated to the perpetuation and presentation of the local Kumeyaay-Diegueño Native culture.
Museum of Man, San Diego. Located in San Diego’s Balboa Park the Museum of Man is a cultural anthropology museum. Their Kumeyaay exhibit explores traditional and contemporary lifeways. It features the art of pottery and basket making, food procurement, dress and adornment, traditional medicine, games, and ceremonies.
Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians has a rich website with many resources about their history and places to experience Kumeyaay culture.
Books About the Kumeyaay
Gateway to Alta California by Harry W. Crosby. This is the story of the 1769 overland expedition from Baja California to establish the Spanish presence in Alta California. It draws on primary sources to provide a picture of the people and events of this landmark moment.
Kumeyaay Ethnobotany by Michael Wilken-Robertson. A beautiful and extremely informative book about how the Kumeyaay make use the vast array of plant live in their region. It particularly focuses on Kumeyaay communities in Baja California.
Survival Skills of Native California by Paul D. Campbell. Although this guide covers all native Californian groups, many of the tools and traditions it covers come from the Indians of the Southern California.
The Painted Rocks by Ruth Alter. An engaging and richly-illustrated introduction to Kumeyaay life and culture for children.
Kumeyaay Tribe Facts with Comprehension Questions (Teachers Pay Teachers). An introduction to the Kumeyaay Tribe of Southern California. Covers home region, mission affiliations, a brief historical background, interesting facts and descendant groups today. An excellent way to prepare students for their 3rd grade California Native American project and/or their 4th grade Mission project.