by Dr. Theresa Gregor

The Journal of San Diego History
San Diego History Center Quarterly
Summer 2019, Volume 65, Number 2

Nya mat Iipay, I am a Northern Kumeyaay Person

Nya mat Iipay nyait nyuk ktun Elly Kwanaan. I am descended from the Nejo shmull; my ancestral village is Mataguay, White Earth/Battleground, located between Lake Henshaw and Warner Springs near the village of San Felipe. Angel Quilp was the last hereditary chief of Mataguay. My great-great grandparents, Antonio and Andrea Guachino Cuevas, were forced from their home at the same time the Cupeño inhabitants of the village of Cupa were evicted in 1903. My stepfather’s dad, Martin Osuna, was ten years old when the village was raided, and our ancestors had to leave. He told my dad that the soldiers came in on horseback with guns. They burned the crops, tore down fences, and ran roughshod over the village while our ancestors hurried to pack their life’s belongings onto a wagon and horses to carry up the mountain. An old woman cried for days and days after they were removed to Vulcan Mountain. Antonio and Andrea were the first of my family line to live on the Santa Ysabel Indian Reservation. Born free, they were soon restricted to life on a much smaller segment of land than was originally promised in our 1850 Treaty of Santa Ysabel.


Aboriginal Territory of the Kumeyaay Diegueño Nation. Courtesy of the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation.


I was invited to submit a reflection about my perspective on the 250th anniversary of San Diego’s founding. Today, when I think about the celebration of San Diego’s “founding,” my mind automatically travels back in time to consider the occasion from the perspective of my ancestors. How did they feel when the invaders arrived? What emotions and thoughts did they experience? What sights did they witness? What were their daily conversations about? Did they discuss the rapid changes in their world? I imagine their first reactions were cautious, suspicious, perhaps curious, and maybe intuitively feeling that the strangers were not benevolent but were an imminent threat to my ancestors’ safety and well-being. I imagine in the days, months, and years following the arrival of the colonizers that my ancestors’ conversations were like those we have today about all the sweeping social and environmental impacts taking place right before our eyes. And I imagine they suffered a great deal to see their world and lifeway thrown out of balance by the invaders.
Three decades ago, Rupert and Jeanette Henry Costo observed:

The history of California begins with the American Indian, whose civilization existed many thousands of years before the Spanish invasion in 1769. Thus, California can claim an ancient life in the region it now occupies. The indigenous people of the state have never moved, nor have they been moved, to an area other than where they now live. As far back as historic times can be counted, this has been their home…Despite the rapacity of three invasions—Spanish, Mexican, and American, the [California] natives have stubbornly fought to keep their place on this spot of the earth. The love they bear their land is only equaled by the tenacity with which they have held the space remaining to them, from the vast domain they once owned.

The Costos’ words—and the stories of California’s Indian people they dedicated their lives bringing to light—remind me that my voice in this conversation about colonial commemorations, celebrations, anniversaries, and jubilees is one among many that have been marshalled continually as indigenous cries of opposition to settler-colonialism. The Costos’ book documented statewide tribal testimony to protest the nomination for Junípero Serra’s canonization, which fell on deaf Vatican ears.

Our creation story tells us that we emerged from the water. That there was no land, no people, no light, no animals. Tuchaipai and Yokamatis, twin creators, made our world through trial and error, with a struggle between good and bad intentions, and breathed all the energy and life into the world that we experience today.

In the beginning there was no earth or land. There was nothing except salt water. This covered everything like a big sea. Two brothers lived under this water. The oldest was Tcaipakomat (Tuchaipa) [and Yokomatis, the younger brother]. Both of them kept their eyes closed, for the salt would blind them. The oldest brother after a while went up on top of the salt water and looked around. He could see nothing but water. Soon the younger brother too came up. He opened his eyes on the way and the salt water [sic] blinded him. When he got to the top he could see nothing at all, so he went back. The elder brother saw that there was nothing, he made first of all little red ants miskiluiw (or ciracir). They filled the water up thick with their bodies and so made land. Then Tcahipakomat caused certain black birds with flat bills, xanyil, to come into being. So they were lost and could not find their roost. So Tcaipakomat took three kinds of clay, red, yellow, and black and made a round, flat object. This he took in his hand and threw up against the sky. It stuck there. It began to give a dim light. We call it the moon now, halya. The light was so poor that they could not see very far. So Tcaipakomat was not satisfied, for he had it in mind to make people. He took some more clay and made another round, flat object and tossed that up against the other side of the sky. It also stuck there. It made everything light. It is the sun, inyau. Then he took a light-colored piece of clay, mutakwic, and split it up part way. He made a man of it. That is the way he made man. Then he…made a woman. This is Sinyaxau, First Woman. The children of this man and this woman were people, ipai.

Our songs and stories carry these ancient traditions forward, reminding us today about where we come from, why we are here, and how to cope with life. These are the same stories that our ancestors knew, lived by, and incorporated into their daily lives until the invasion and disruption from the Spanish, Mexicans, and then the Americans.

The founding of the mission matters more to the descendants of the colonizers, the settlers. These types of commemorations are a means to legitimize and rationalize the imposition of their occupation of indigenous lands. Celebrating the building of Mission San Diego de Alcalá reifies the religious doctrine the Catholic Church issued in the Papal Bulls of 1452 and 1493, which prescribed what Steve Newcomb calls the “doctrine of domination” to assert dominion and rule over any non-Christian persons. The coercive and violent methods of conversion were honed during the Crusades, centuries prior to the arrival of Spanish missionaries in Kumeyaay territory. Many esteemed scholars and historians have detailed the military strategy the Catholic Church and its attendant sovereigns used to acquire new lands, resources, and subjects. In the long arc of Kumeyaay history and knowledge formation, the missions are a blip, a dark stain that ruptured but did not destroy our lifeways. We fought its presence in the beginning. As Michael Connolly Miskwish has noted, Kumeyaay resistance troubled Spanish officials from the earliest days of the mission, prompting Pedro Fages to describe the Kumeyaay as “the most restless, stubborn, haughty, warlike, and hostile towards us, absolutely opposed to all rational subjection and full of the spirit of independence.”

And we continue to fight the reification and presence today on many fronts in the community, including at political, institutional, community, and social levels. Various members of the twelve Kumeyaay Nations in San Diego County actively educate and voice their opposition to policies and practices that are damaging to our lifeways by fighting for the protection of our ancestors, challenging the erection of statues and monuments to “honor” architects of American Indian genocide, and working to decolonize and repatriate significant cultural artifacts and remains at local museums and history centers. There are also a growing number of Kumeyaay PhDs and educators entering academia and local schools to teach a more balanced history about Kumeyaay and colonial relationships. The goal of all these efforts is simple: to demonstrate our continued presence in our homeland. As Jamul Tribal Chairperson Erica Pinto stated in the San Diego Union Tribune article, “Something to Celebrate? Indians’ Conflicted Feelings about San Diego’s 250th Birthday” (14 April 2019), “This is a great story to tell…It is our story, it is our history, and we are not going anywhere.”

Although settlers continue to replicate and replay these “foundings,” and in so doing, perform a public display of historical amnesia, the real issue that needs to be examined is why there is still a need in 2019 for the dominant culture to re-assert and maintain its fictitious sense of primacy and entitlement to the land. White Earth Ojibwe historian Jean O’Brien describes these types of local history celebrations and their discursive responses in three types of narrative forms: beginning with “firsting” narratives that chronicle local history by recounting the creation of founding institutions, e.g. the 1769 founding of Mission San Diego de Alcalá, or first practices created by Euro-American colonists, e.g. the First Thanksgiving; second, “lasting” narratives, which highlight a single American Indian as the last of their tribe (think Ishi or James Fenimore Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans); finally, “replacement” narratives that deploy discursive tactics to create a “narrative of entitlement” in which colonists and then settlers claim ownership of the land by imposing a revised rhetoric of indigeneity of American Indian territories and places. Maori activist and scholar Linda Tuhiwai Smith calls these kinds of “replacement” narratives simply colonial practices of naming and claiming: “Renaming the land was probably as powerful ideologically as changing the land…This newly named land became increasingly disconnected from the songs and chants used by indigenous people to trace their histories, to bring forth spiritual elements or to carry out the simplest ceremonies.” San Diego and the Mission San Diego de Alcalá were built on the village site known as Cosaay. Where are the statues and celebrations to the First People from Cosaay? When will their sacrifices and contributions be lauded?

Decolonizing History

Smith’s work deconstructs history and its attendant colonial narratives through the process of decolonization, which “is the meaningful and active resistance to the forces of colonialism that perpetuate the subjugation and/or exploitation of our minds, bodies, and lands.” She reminds us that decolonizing history requires unsettling and reordering the narrative from an indigenous perspective, to re-story the land and restore the People. Regarding the commemoration of San Diego’s “birth,” her work is particularly salient. “History,” she writes, “is also about power. In fact, history is mostly about power. It is the story of the powerful and how they became powerful, and then how they use their power to keep them in positions in which they can continue to dominate others. It is because of this relationship with power that we have been excluded, marginalized, and ‘Othered.’”

As I contemplate the invitation to participate in a discussion of the legacies of the mission period and how the San Diego community should commemorate the founding, the answers are simple when placed in a decolonizing framework: we need to stop circulating “degenerative” narratives about American Indian people and culture in our local histories. We need to take seriously and critically the words of Chairperson Pinto that “there is a great story to tell,” and we need everyone to listen and learn it.

I teach my students that decolonization is not just a process for American Indians to undergo; it is a process that anyone residing within the territorial boundaries of the United States can participate in. Otherwise the narratives and histories constructed through a Euro-American colonial logic and lens will continue to imagine the destruction of the First Peoples of this land, which will continue to perpetuate a discursive violence that leads to the erasure and invisibility of more pressing issues in our American Indian communities, such as improving our access to quality healthcare, ending violence against our women, girls, and gender non-conforming relatives, creating viable and sustainable economies in our homelands, and providing pathways for our youth to maintain their culture and also achieve educational success in mainstream institutions. These are the “survivance” stories we need to be sharing with San Diego instead of having to remind everyone that we were here first and that we are still here.

There are multiple opportunities on a variety of local levels to actively decolonize and restore(y) San Diego’s American Indian and settler history, but this will require a conscientious and open dialogue about how to reckon honestly and openly with the discourse to present both sides fairly and accurately. To begin with, public institutions such as schools, universities, museums, parks, and other shared public spaces and places should work to redress and balance the settler desire and privilege of naming and claiming places with more accurate Native accounts and experiences with these places, people, and events. Here I am thinking about sites like the Port of San Diego, the Maritime Museum, Balboa Park, the Presidio, and, of course, Cabrillo Monument and the Serra Museum. This is not a new conversation for City and County officials to engage in; there is a long and distinguished record of Native activists and advocates that have brought forth ideas and suggestions to present a more realistic and balanced representation of the region’s history before me.

Second, our public schools and universities should not have Native-themed mascots of any kind, period. This practice is cultural appropriation at its worst; it does not honor indigenous people to have their images and names plastered all over educational institutions that do not support and offer balanced critique, representation, and access to the benefits an education is supposed to offer. Study after study shows the disproportionate gaps in achievement for American Indian students in the state’s public school system from K-12 to higher education. We have a broken pipeline that needs to be mended, beginning with the removal of Indian mascots. We are, as David Wilkins notes, “nations not minorities” and we have ancient cultures that should not be caricatured, parodied, or appropriated, especially in public institutions with mission statements that purport to elevate understanding and education of the general public. For instance, the intensely debated use of the Aztec image at San Diego State University foments an ongoing imbalance in historical understanding and representation of the First Peoples of the land the university occupies. For Mexican American settlers who politically identify with Aztlan and its attendant indigenous roots as a socially conscientious decolonizing project, the Aztec imagery makes sense, but there were and are not any Aztecs indigenous to San Diego County. The Kumeyaay are the First People of the land and the university should respect that knowledge by rebranding its image to a more culturally appropriate symbol of school pride and spirit.

Third, other communities in the county can likewise revise their tourism and branding to create more honest representations of regional history. There are many opportunities for communities located in San Diego County’s backcountry to decolonize their images and relationships with local Indian Nations by doing away with tourist campaigns such as Julian’s Gold Rush Days. This event allows merchants and tourists, mainly youth and families, to replay and reenact settler nostalgia for the Wild West capitalistic fantasy of getting rich quick and finding gold in the hills —the hills that were sacred homelands to the Kumeyaay. In Strangers in a Stolen Land, Richard Carrico describes the violence and vigilante justice inflicted upon American Indians such as sexual assaults of Kumeyaay women and girls, prostitution (or what we might rightly call sex trafficking today), short term marriages, and interracial fighting, stabbing, and shooting that was often heightened due to the adverse and toxic effects of alcohol. Carrico also documents cases of vigilante violence inflicted upon Kumeyaay and other San Diego Indians between 1850 and 1880, a period in which eighteen treaties signed by the federal government with California Indians across the state were suppressed and unratified unbeknownst to the Indian signatories, who were defending what they believed were their tribal territories and resources from settler encroachment. According to Carrico, the Julian jail did little to protect Indian prisoners from vigilantes. The case of Juan de la Cruz, who was kidnapped from the jail in 1878 and later found dead, was typical.

The public brochures celebrating the history of Julian do not mention the vigilantism that accompanied the local gold rush or the Indian men and women abused by the rapid and overwhelming influx of immigrants to the region. Their lives and their deaths remain almost invisible in the historical record. Yet the town has no problem staging an annual melodrama featuring local sheriffs and desperados who perform Wild West shootouts replete with women dressed up like town “floozies” to entertain tourists. Nor is there any acknowledgement on the “Visit Julian” website explaining that Fred Coleman, the man who found gold in the region, was a former slave from Kentucky, living with (married to) a Kumeyaay woman named Maria when he made his infamous discovery. All people of color are replaced in these types of settler narratives, tourist campaigns, and marketing ploys that create instead a one-sided and incomplete depiction about an often volatile, violent, and cruel time in local history. I propose that Julian merchants and townspeople recommit half the resources they invest on marketing the town’s Gold Rush Days on a new campaign to include the actual diverse history of American Indian and African American presence and contribution. This is the minimum they can do to redress historical and contemporary fictions that the town’s tourist industry has profited from for the past one-hundred twenty-nine years.

Concluding Thoughts

In 1969, during a period of American Indian activism and mobilization for treaty reparations and human rights, Vine Deloria Jr. wrote that “Ideological leverage is always superior to violence…. The problems of Indians have always been ideological rather than social, political, or economic… [I]t is vitally important that the Indian people pick the intellectual arena as the one in which to wage war.” The contemporary issues challenging Kumeyaay, Payomkawichum, Cahuilla, and Cupeño in San Diego are direct outgrowths of the root problems our ancestors personally faced fifty, one hundred, two hundred, and two-hundred-fifty years ago: competition for resources, social inequity, racism, and disputes over land tenure and resources between Native and non-Native communities. These issues are not indigenous fictions, fabricated as part of our “lasting” narrative; they are lived realities inherited and directly experienced by ongoing threats to tribal sovereignty and violations of our basic rights as human beings.

Thus, this latest celebration of San Diego’s birthday gives me the opportunity to include my voice in the historical record to register my reflections about our indigenous place locally and regionally. It is my fervent hope that this essay will open space for an ongoing “dialogue across the boundaries of oppositions,” because the conversation “has to be because we constantly collide with dominant views while we are attempting to transform our lives on a larger scale than our own localized circumstances.”

I teach my students that stories, words, and language matter because they create meaning in our lives. I use a quotation from Navarro Scott Momaday, the first American Indian to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, to illustrate the concept: “Our stories explain us, justify us, sustain us, humble us, and forgive us. And sometimes they injure and destroy us. Make no mistake, we are at risk in the presence of words. Perhaps the greatest stories are those which disturb us, which shake us from our complacency, which threaten our well-being. It is better to enter into the danger of such a story than to keep safely away in a space where the imagination lies dormant.” It is with the stories we circulate about who we are, why we are here, and how we came to being—the discourse and dialogue we enter into with our words—that we can begin to shift, recover, and recreate the knowledge systems necessary to reclaim a place for the First Peoples and their voices to be heard in new, transformative, enlightened, and healing ways.