When Father Junipero Serra walked through Goat Canyon in 1769, he encountered many Native American villages. Richard Carrico confirms that at least three Kumeyaay village–the Chiaps, the Melijo and a village around San Ysidro–existed in the South Bay before the Spanish Expedition.
Today, you can’t find any Kumeyaay villages in the South Bay. Their artifacts have either been destroyed, carted off to museums or remain unexcavated. However, the Kumeyaay established villages all along this path and today I’d like to share with you the extent of the Kumeyaay obliteration… Or perhaps re-create a little of Kumeyaay glory by sparking your imagination of what the South Bay may have looked like prior to the white man.
A Self-Guided Tour Of the Kumeyaay Villages in the South Bay
Somewhere within Border Field State Park the Melijo village lies unexcavated. Excavations were also conducted on Monument Mesa within this park.
Now take a look at the border fence that stretches down into the Tijuana River Valley: all this area once contained Kumeyaay artifacts. That changed in 2008 when Homeland Security was given the right to waive any laws that would impede the construction of the border walls and fencing. A few archeologists went into the area and quickly took as many of the artifacts as they could preserve, but the rest was likely bulldozed over by construction crews.
The Otay Mesa Recreation Center was probably once home to a Kumeyaay Village as well. Today, you can play basketball there or see the John J. Montgomery wing.
In the western half of Chula Vista, a KOA also sits directly above what was once a Kumeyaay Village.
In the eastern part of Chula Vista, near the 125 Freeway, a Kumeyaay village was discovered near the Sweetwater Dam.
Finally, if you drive out in Otay Mesa East near Donovan prison, a Kumeyaay village once existed there.
You’ll notice that these Kumeyaay villages mostly existed on top of mesas. The reason was simple and brilliant. The Kumeyaay saw that the valleys could be prone to flooding. The mesas also provided a full view of invaders and animals.
Kumeyaay Artefacts Found In The South Bay
Many Kumeyaay artefacts from this region are kept at the San Diego Archaeological Center in Escondido, where Cindy Stankowski does a wonderful job of preserving as much as she can. It’s not on display, but she can provide a behind-the-scenes tour if requested.
She is also responsible for creating a small exhibit at the Ranger Station of the Tijuana River Valley Regional Park.
Stankowski’s placards tell us: “The earliest archeological sites in the Tijuana River Valley date from about 7,200 to 1,300 years ago–Early to Late Holocene. From the types of stone tools found from this time, archeologists surmise that the people had a hunting and gathering lifestyle. Just as today, San Diego was a very nice place to live 7,000 years ago. Fresh water was plentiful in the valley, sustaining people, game and plants. Deer, fowl and rabbit were probably hunted, and a variety of seed-producing plants were available most of the year. The artifacts from the Middle Holocene includes hunting tools–large projectile points, domed scrapers and hammerstones. Many stone tools from this period are fashioned out of metavolcanic stone, which is abundant on Otay Mesa.”
Sweathouses, Tule Bundles and Ramadas
In this exhibit, Stankowski also paints this vivid picture of Native American life in the South Bay:
“About 3,000 years ago, artifact assemblage similar to that of historic American Indians (Kumeyaay) appears in the archeological record. Typical features of the Late Period include pottery and the establishment of permanent and semi-permanent village sites. The houses in primary villages were conical structures covered with tule bundles, with excavated floors and central hearths. Other village structures included sweat houses, ceremonial enclosures, ramadas (covered work spaces) and acorn granaries. Dependence on the acorn as a food staple reached its peak during this time, as evidenced by bedrock milling sites and portable stone bowl mortars.
Technologically, the people during the Late Period were very sophisticated. They managed the land using fire to encourage the growth of food plants. Acorns were the single most important food source used by the Kumeyaay, and oak groves were carefully tended.
The Indians living in San Diego used plants for a wide variety of medicinal purposes, including colds, respiratory problems, fevers, gastric disorders, diarrhea, infections and minor cuts.
Shell and bone fishhooks and nets were used for fishing. The Kumeyaay made boats of tule reeds and wood, which were used for offshore fishing. Mountain trout were caught by poisoning pools with the juice of a plant.
There is evidence of widespread trade during the Late Prehistoric Period. The exchange of prized foods and other items between local groups and between tribes was a way to procure material not available in this area. Obsidian and other valuable stones for tools was obtained from as far away as Inyo County and the Salton Sea, and shells from the coast made their way inland along the same trade routes.”
The San Diego Museum of Man Kumeyaay Exhibit
The San Diego Museum of Man also has an exhibit about the Kumeyaay throughout this region. In addition, if you ask nicely and have a good reason (such as being a scholar or a writer on the topic), someone just might let you into their basement where the SD Museum of Man preserves literally hundreds of items.
Kumeyaay Of Chula Vista
Although residents of the South Bay generally are a blend of many different ancestors, I recently met a man descended directly from the Kumeyaay who lived in Chula Vista. He happened to be at the Imperial Beach Powwow and was showing off the wonderful fry bread:
The next Powwow in the South Bay will be held at the Chula Vista Bayfront on August 1st and 2nd.
Could We All Be Native Americans?
Most of us today either have some Native American blood ourselves or were born on this land, having no choice to be here or not.
In addition, for several decades now, the definition of American citizenship has not been defined (as so many countries still do) by blood and family ties, but rather by the soil upon which we were born.
Many of us, as a consequence, may feel much closer to our Native American descendents since they were the first to inhabit this land and their presence goes even further back then the Ancient Egyptians. Evidence of humans populating the region we know today as California dates back at least to 17,000 BCE.
For far too long our collective history has been ignored, disrespected, vandalized or outright destroyed. The European mind-set of praise for colonialism, military victories, agricultural production and the written traditions (rather than oral) combine to make scholars and schools begin history, art and culture only in the 17 or 1800’s for this region.
We need to be curious, respect more, know more. We need to delve into our history of the Native Americans. That history, still today, is unknown to many of us. Learning about, and understanding this often ignored and misunderstood part of our region’s past provides the roots of our collective history.