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Kumeyaay Indians

A Sketch History of Indians in San Diego and
at Mission Trails Regional Park

by Bill White '96 

     To many, Mission Trails Regional Park is a park within a city, a peaceful change of scenery and a taste of nature.  To the Kumeyaay Indians, this area has been a part of their homeland for over 2000 years, a territory that included most of San Diego County to the Laguna mountains, the Anza Borrego Desert, Imperial Valley and the northern part of Baja California.  The view looking up the gorge from the Visitor Center is essentially the same now as if you were a Kumeyaay native standing here, looking out over the river anytime during the thousands of years native people have lived here.

     The San Diego River runs through this gorge.  The trail following the river was a major travel corridor in San Diego throughout its Indian history.  Inside the park there is evidence of Kumeyaay dwelling sites, work areas, and spiritually significant locations.  Presently, there are at least 26 archaeological sites identified within Mission Trails Regional Park.  The most obvious of these are the depressions left in large boulders from milling and grinding of acorns, seeds, and other materials for food preparation and medicines.  These depressions have gradually worn into the rocks from hundreds of years of continuous use.


   The Kumeyaay came to San Diego from the Colorado River region over 2,000 years ago.  Prior to their arrival, an Indian people designated the La Jollan culture existed here.  Evidence of this culture dates back at least 6,000 years.  Little is known about these Indians or how the two cultures interacted when the Kumeyaay arrived from the east.  Predating the La Jollan culture was a more ancient culture, called San Dieguito, which may have existed here as much as 10,000 years ago.  The accurate dating of these cultures is still being investigated.

     The Kumeyaay Indians practiced a hunter-gatherer type lifestyle and agriculture.  They hunted primarily small game - rabbit and woodrat, quail and other birds.  They also hunted some larger game - deer, antelope, and mountain sheep.  The Kumeyaay had an excellent knowledge of the land, gathering a great variety of plants for food, medicine and other uses, they also did limited farming.  The Kumeyaay employed sophisticated land management activities that included controlled burning for plant re-vegetation and to increase natural grasses for game animals.  Acorns from California oak trees were an important food source.  The agave plant was another major resource for food as well as raw materials for a number of uses.  Seafood supplemented their diet.

     Indian villages dotted the county and desert areas.  A village was a collection of family houses, well spaced from each other and the village families were mostly linked by kinship. Houses were round, supported by sycamore poles and covered with thatched rush.  In the mountains, houses were triangular roofed and covered with sheets of bark to protect from the snow and cold.  Activities included hunting, fishing, gathering and processing plants, basket weaving, pottery making, tool making, trading, music, dance, songs, games, gambling, and social and religious events.

     The Kumeyaay are a very religious people.  Their spiritual world was a major part of their life and well integrated into their daily activities.  The village shamans were the mediators between the people and the spiritual world.  The shaman was priest, healer, spiritual leader and officiated at important religious rites.  He was considered to have great magical powers given him by the spirit world.  Certain capable women were also healers using their extensive knowledge of plant and herbal remedies for injuries and physical ailments.  Important ceremonial occasions were birth, puberty, death, the anniversary of a death, winter solstice, and the beginning of spring. Death in Kumeyaay religion was rather just the transition from one state of being to another. Ancestors were an influential part of the Kumeyaay spiritual world.  All living things had spirits and many places and objects had spirits residing in them. Songs were the important method for preserving and communicating the Kumeyaay spiritual and social beliefs from generation to generation.

     The "discovery" of San Diego by Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo in 1542 did not lead to the immediate European settlement of this area.  Settlement began with the arrival of approximately 50 Spanish soldiers and missionaries in 1769 led by Padre Junipero Serra.  A Spanish fort and mission complex, the Presidio, was founded above what is now Old Town.  In 1774, The San Diego Mission de Alcala was moved near the Indian village Nipaguay in Mission Valley close to its present site.  The mission was built largely using Kumeyaay Indian labor whom the Spanish renamed the Diegueno Indians, after the mission.

     In November of the next year, the only large scale open rebellion of the Kumeyaay in defense against Spanish encroachment occurred.  Eighteen villages joined together in the armed attack and burning of Mission San Diego.  The rebellion was unsuccessful and the Indians were later used to rebuild the mission. Outside of some hostile encounters, the San Diego Indians primarily protected themselves with passive resistance, resettlement and attempts at co-operation with the new settlers.


    Mexico took control of California after their war of independence from Spain in 1822. At the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848, control of California passed to the United States as a territory, statehood followed in 1850.


     The arrival of the Spanish and those after them brought the gradual and continuous displacement, impoverishment, and death by disease of the Indian people. Settlers continued claiming Indian lands off the reservations even after the reservations were established by the US government in 1875. The 1900's saw the continued destruction and loss of traditional Kumeyaay culture.

     Recent institution of gaming casinos on Indian reservations in San Diego has provided the Kumeyaay their first major success in the modern economy and has provided for the resurgence of their culture in present day San Diego.  They have become leading benefactors in many community charities and social programs.

     The future of the Kumeyaay people has a positive outlook now and their contribution to modern America is beginning to be recognized.  Other Indian peoples have migrated to California also. Since 1980, California has held the largest population of American Indians in the country.  The 1990 census indicates 242,000 Native Americans live in California, over 18,000 in San Diego County.


    Much of San Diego's historical attractions are focused on the development of its Spanish heritage.  Sites such as Old Town, the Presidio, Mission San Diego de Alcala, Old Mission Dam and Cabrillo National Monument, plus the naming of many streets, locations and architectural structures are evidence to this. A primary goal of the Mission Trails Regional Park is to highlight and provide information about the life and environment of San Diego's first inhabitants, their history, and contribution to San Diego's culture.

by Bill White '96


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