Exploring Proud Past of Indians

Imagine a time when the San Luis Rey River ran freely, even in dry years. Imagine irrigated fields of corn and grain thriving in its valleys. Imagine small, self-sufficient villages along the valley slopes, scattered all the way from the ocean to Palomar Mountain and beyond.

In other words, imagine North County before European adventurers and missionaries claimed it for their own.

As development moves relentlessly up the valley, the evidence of this earlier era becomes ever harder to find. Nevertheless, glimpses remain. They remain in the landscape and in the efforts of Indians and academics to hold on to what is left.

It is possible to get a feel for the American Indian heritage of North County by taking a ride along California 76 from Oceanside. The first landmark encountered is Mission San Luis Rey. Established in 1798, it marks a turning point in the history of the American Indians of San Diego County--in many ways an end rather than a beginning.

The coming of the Spanish missionaries forever changed the Indian bands of the county, replacing centuries-old customs and beliefs with new Christian ways, and devastating many bands through conflict and exposure to new diseases.

Yet today, the mission's museum is one of the few places to see pottery, baskets and other artifacts of the earlier era. And the mission cemetery, where a large wooden cross marks the graves of what became known as the Luiseno mission Indians, testifies to the influence the church came to have over its new converts.

Still, notes Patricia Dixon, a Luiseno who is chairwoman of the American Indian Studies Department at Palomar College, "They are beautiful buildings and artifacts, but you don't go to the missions to see Indian culture. They treated the Indians as stupid and lazy." For other glimpses, travelers need to continue up the road.

As development begins to thin out past Bonsall and on toward Pala, it is possible to get some feel for the landscape of ancient days.

According to anthropologist Florence Shipek, one of the foremost experts on the Indians of San Diego County, numerous American Indian villages were located in the valleys along the San Luis Rey River. The Indians grew corn and a now-extinct grain similar to wheat in irrigated fields near the river.

Up on the slopes, at a level where a warm thermal belt rested atop the layer of cold air that settled into the valleys at night, they built their villages. Each extended family lived in a small cluster. Houses were made of reeds near the coast and bark that could be found farther up in the mountains, and the structures were generally surrounded by a "fence" of cactus for protection.

Each valley might contain 200 to 300 people--or as many as 2,000 to 3,000 in the largest valleys--with the chief and other tribal leaders living in a central cluster, and the others fanning out along the valley.

They knew how to use the land to sustain them without overtaxing the natural resources, Shipek said. They also had the surrounding mountains for hunting and spiritual communing and meditation. Although Indians today do not like to talk specifically about their sacred places, they still use the mountains above the valley for spiritual renewal.

Continuing up the road, the past converges with the present at the Pala Indian Reservation, where some of the Indians can trace their heritage to the original settlers.

It is one of eight North County reservations--the others are the Rincon, La Jolla, San Pasqual, Pauma, Mesa Grande, Los Coyotes and Santa Ysabel--that are home to about 4,000 American Indians.

Over time, the ties to the past have slowly been eroded, but at least some are retained at places such as the Cupa Cultural Center on the Pala Reservation.

Here a small museum of local and Southwestern Indian artifacts plus a library, work area for crafts, and classroom space help keep the heritage alive. Also on the reservation is the Mission San Antonio de Pala, the only one of the original Spanish California missions that continues its missionary purpose of serving Indians.

Continuing eastward, more glimpses of the past can be found in the landscape. Indian sites are scattered throughout the massive Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.

Pictographs, petroglyphs and grinding sites where Indians used rock mortars to process grain and acorns thousands of years ago testify to the long habitation of the region. More grinding sites and settlements can be found at Cuyamaca Rancho State Park south of Julian.

Still other glimpses of the past can be found throughout San Diego County at annual events that keep the American Indian heritage alive.

Yet glimpses are often all that is left. The forces of time, conquest and development have decimated the original Indian bands and erased most of their history.

In addition, according to archeologist and historian Richard Carrico, the history of American Indians living in San Diego County has virtually been ignored by historians.

In his book about the Indians of San Diego, "Strangers in a Stolen Land," Carrico writes:

"As many residents in the county have shunned the Indians, so have historians. San Diego's Indians did not fit the popular image of 'great' Indians. They did not ride about on horseback, raiding wagon trains and frontier forts. They did not adorn themselves in fluttering feathers, colorful beads, and buckskin breechcloths. San Diego Indians did not chase across the lands, hunting bison and living in tepees. Instead, the Indians of San Diego were industrious people who hunted, gathered, fished, and farmed on a limited basis. Their history is not filled with glorious victory, nor is it one only of destruction and death."

Carrico points out that archeologists have recorded more than 10,000 Indian sites in the county. Some of them date back 10,000 years and possibly as many as 122,000 years. But the Indian way of life and the powerful influence of the Spanish missionaries in the 18th Century have made piecing together their story difficult.

Carrico, who teaches in the Department of American Indian Studies at San Diego State University, said recently that the early Indians did not leave a lot behind for researchers to study.

"They had a strong oral tradition and social complexity to their culture, but they did not leave behind much material culture because they didn't need it," Carrico said.

Living in the temperate climate of Southern California meant they didn't need the structures and heavy clothing that give researchers clues about other early cultures.

Even more devastating was the influence of the Spanish. In converting the Indians to Christianity, the missionaries erased parts of the Indian culture.

"For example, the Spanish taught them to make different types of pots and baskets," Carrico said. "A whole art form of how to use fibers was lost in a couple of generations."

Today, the actions and motives of the missionaries are a source of controversy, but Carrico points out that, regardless of their intentions, their actions were devastating for another reason: "They breathed on them." The Spanish brought European diseases to which the Indians were highly susceptible. Many bands were decimated by disease.

Much of what is known about the Indians is seen through the eyes of the Spanish. Even the names that for many years were used to identify the main divisions of San Diego County Indians--the Luiseno and Diegueno--merely reflect the geographic areas assigned to specific missions rather than true cultural groupings.

The Luisenos lived in the northernmost part of the county, which was assigned to the Mission San Luis Rey. "There probably was an Indian name for the Luiseno, but we don't know what it is," anthropologist Shipek said. "We know what other Indian bands called them, but not what they called themselves."

The Spanish saw the Indians as uncivilized (the pamphlet handed out by the Mission San Luis Rey today boasts that within a short time after the Spanish arrived, the Indians "progressed from a state of barbarism to a relatively high level of civilization"), but experts such as Carrico and Shipek contend that the Indians already had a relatively advanced culture; the Spanish just didn't understand it.

Carrico points out that the San Diego Indians were known for their pottery making.

"On the West Coast, pottery making is an exception--you don't find it north of Orange County," he said. "And they are world renown as basket makers. In addition, their rock paintings show a very high degree of art."

Equally significant was their plant usage and knowledge of pharmacology, Carrico said. The early Indians made use of the microclimates within the San Diego region to cultivate and process an extremely wide variety of plants.

Shipek contends that their understanding of the environment shows that they learned lessons modern settlers are struggling to grasp.

They did not just subsist on the land; they cultivated and cared for the land so that it would sustain them through times of drought or other climatic hardship.

Controlled burning, cultivation of drought-resistant plants, and using plants to discourage erosion were among the tools they employed to control their environment.

"See how much smarter they were?" Shipek said.

Regardless of the validity of the Indian way of life, it was foreign to the Spanish and the American settlers who came to control the land. The Spanish period and the American period that followed permanently changed the Indian culture of San Diego County.

According to Carrico, by the 1880s many Americans believed the Indians would soon vanish. The establishment of the reservation system had removed Indians from their longtime settlements and confined them to small tracts of land, where they were herded together with other Indians from many locations. With the Indians cut off from their homes, many whites believed, their culture would die.

Indeed, pieces of the past have been lost. Little is known of the original languages and many of the original customs. Yet the search for the past goes on, and interest in the past among Indians is on the rise.

"A lot of Indians have been wandering around, wondering who they are," said Randy Edmonds, executive director of the Indian Human Resource Center in San Diego. "So they are going back to the basics of their ancestors."

Carrico points out that one of the remarkable traits of the Indians of San Diego has been their resilience. They have adapted to all the changes they have faced.

"Indian culture never dies," Carrico said. "It just reinvents itself."

Where to Get in Touch with Indian Culture

Here are some ways the general public can get in touch with the American Indian heritage of San Diego.


Indian Cultural Fair, April 13.

An American Indian Cultural Fair, with traditional dance, storytelling, music, arts and crafts and native foods will be held from noon to 8 p.m. Saturday in San Marcos.

The event, sponsored by California State University San Marcos and San Diego State University North County, will be at the Red Barn, 149 E. San Marcos Blvd. Admission is free.

Anza Borrego Desert State Park Cultural Heritage Seminar and Desert Symposium, April 12-14.

Presentations Friday on Indian cultural heritage include "Ethnobotany of the Cahuilla Indians" at 9 a.m., "Working with Native American Tribal Councils" at 2 p.m., "Spirits of the Earth--Intaglios and Geoglyphs" at 3 p.m., and a presentation by the Cahuilla Bird Dancers at 7:30 p.m.

The event will be held at La Casa del Zorro in Borrego Springs. Additional events at the park include a symposium Saturday on the scientific value of the desert, and natural history walks on Sunday beginning at 9 a.m. Included will be one walk to Indian pictograph and petroglyph sites. For information, call 767-3776.

Cupa Days, May 4 and 5.

The Cupeno Indians living on the Pala Indian Reservation honor their ancestors with this annual celebration. Featured are Indian arts and crafts exhibits, traditional ceremonies and entertainment, and food booths, representing Cupeno and many other tribes.

Located off California 76 on Pala-Temecula Road. For information call 742-1590.

San Diego American Indian Cultural Days, May 18-19.

This annual event in Balboa Park celebrates the Indians of San Diego and those who have moved here from other parts of the country. Featured are arts and crafts exhibits, traditional ceremonies and entertainment, information booths and food booths. Sponsored by the Indian Human Resource Center Inc. For information call 281-5964.

Indian Fair, June 1-2.

Indians of the Southwest are the focus of this annual event in Balboa Park sponsored by the Museum of Man. Featured are arts and crafts exhibits, traditional ceremonies and entertainment, and food booths. For information call 239-2001.

Corpus Christi Fiesta, June 2.

Religious ceremonies and Indian folklore are featured in this annual celebration at the Mission San Antonio de Pala on the Pala Indian Reservation. For information call 742-3317.


Cupa Cultural Center. Situated on the Pala Indian Reservation, the cultural center contains a small museum of local and Southwestern Indian artifacts plus a library, work area for crafts, and classroom space.

It is dedicated to keeping the heritage of the Cupeno, Luiseno, Diegueno, and Cahuilla Indians alive. Off California 76 on Pala-Temecula Road. Open Monday-Friday 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturdays by appointment. For information call 742-1590.

Museum of Man. The most extensive display of San Diego County Indian artifacts can be found at this Balboa park museum.

The museum also conducts field trips to Southern California Indian sites and sponsors a yearly rock art symposium each November. Open daily 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m. For information call 239-2001.


Mission San Luis Rey. The mission, founded in 1798, became the home of more than 2,000 Indians. A small museum features Luiseno baskets, pottery and other artifacts. Its cemetery contains a large wooden cross dedicated to the memory of the 3,000 Indians buried around the mission. 4050 Mission Ave., Oceanside. Open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 12:30 p.m.-4 p.m. Sunday. For information call 757-3651.

Mission San Antonio de Pala. This mission, founded in 1816, is the only one of the original Spanish California missions that continues to serve Indians. The quaint structure includes a small museum and cemetery. The chapel features the original Indian designs on its walls and ceiling.

Grounds and chapel open 7 a.m.-6 p.m.; museum and gift shop open 10 a.m.-3 p.m. For information call 742-3317.


Anza Borrego Desert State Park. Indian sites are scattered throughout the park. Most accessible are the pictographs at Blair Valley and the bedrock grinding morteros, Indian grinding sites, at Morteros Canyon. For information call 767-5311.

Cuyamaca Rancho State Park. The park contains a small Indian museum, which leads to a nature trail and a replica of a traditional Indian house. Also at scattered sites in the park are morteros. California 79 south of Julian. For information call 765-0765.


Palomar College. The American Indian Studies Department offers 19 courses and a certificate in American Indian studies. For information call 744-1150.

San Diego State University. The Department of American Indian Studies offers courses and a minor in American Indian studies. The department also sponsors an annual powwow each spring and other cultural events. For information call 594-6991.

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