San Diego

Around the Counties: Browsing San Diego County Arts and Culture with Gordon Johnson

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Today's installment of Around the Counties features north San Diego County resident Gordon Johnson. A Cahuilla/Cupeno Indian, Johnson specifies what makes his place of residence so appealing and goes into detail about the powwows and fiestas that take place around him. Currently, Johnson is working on two projects outside of Artbound and introduces "Tears in my Beer" a performance piece that fuses poetry and a series of songs that reflect some of the columnists' past experiences. Lastly, Johnson recommends an ongoing exhibit at the California Center for the Arts in Escondido and a cultural event at the Morongo Reservation taking place next week.

Gordon Johnson.

What makes San Diego County so attractive?

Like all of SoCal, diversity is the headline for San Diego County. Some of the world's finest beaches can be found here. The weather is still warm, the water temps' comfortable, and the waves kicking. The beach is a great place to hang. If you like mountains, we go them too. Go inland about 30 miles, and the mountains rise to almost a mile high. Mt. Palomar State Park [is] always good for a robust hike. The are many great hiking trails that take you through the county backwoods. Keep going east and the desert beckons with rocky arroyos, bristling cacti and dry washes where gold prospectors once traipsed. Oh hell, the list is too long. Good music, good food, always plenty to do.

Bird song dancers at a bird song gathering in Palm springs. | Photo: Gordon Johnson.

Which activities do you enjoy locally?

San Diego County has 18 Indian reservations, and many of them sponsor annual fiestas and powwows. Riverside County, next door, has a good many reservations with similar celebrations. Powwows are usually bigger involving Indians from all over the country. Although some California Indians do powwow dancing for fun, it wasn't part of our culture, so most of the dancers at California powwows are out-of-state Indians. Also, Los Angeles and San Diego have a huge population of relocated Indians, many of whom also powwow dance. The powwow, still has spiritual overtones, but mostly it's a social gathering and the dances are done as competitions with prize money awarded to those judged most skilled. The powwows are also attractive to tourists who enjoy seeing Indians in full dress dancing to drum songs that have become popular all over the country. People sell handmade crafts and art and Indian tacos are a crowd favorite. Powwows are great fun, a feast for the eyes.

Fiestas, however, are more specific to the people here. The fiestas feature ramadas, small brush enclosures where families set up kitchens, and dish up favorite local foods. A combo burrito made of homemade flour tortilla, fried hamburger, beans, cheese, and hot salsa, are a favorite, as are tacos hot out of the oil, filled with hamburger meat, lettuce and tomato, cheese, and again hot salsa. Heck, I'm getting hungry... During the day local teams play softball in tournaments and the games are serious, the winners getting trophies and bragging rights. At nights there are peon games, and an Indian bone game that requires teams to bet sizable sums against each other. And there are bird songs, where groups of bird-singers, rattles in hand, sing the creation songs of the area, songs that have been sung for thousands of years. And there's usually a dance where a local band plays fiesta favorites...

Bird song singers at a bird song gathering in Palm springs. | Photo: Gordon Johnson.

Can you list some of your favorite art venues?

Arboretum at Balboa. | Photo: Gordon Johnson.

Tell us about some projects you're working on outside of Artbound.

  • I'm getting close to finishing the first draft a mystery novel. And then after it's rewrite time and full revision. I'm probably, It's hard to know, a year away from having the whole thing finished.
  • I'm also doing a performance piece I wrote called "Tears in My Beer" which combines poetry set in dive Indian bars in the 1970s, with jukebox songs of that era, sad country songs, that I sing and strum on the guitar. In the 70s, good or bad, I spent probably more time than I should have drinking with my buddies. All those bars had juke boxes and all those juke boxes had the same songs, "He Stopped Loving Her Today," "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain," those kind of songs. So, I learned those songs on the guitar. I have about a dozen of them that I do and I wrote 10 poems that resonate with those times, people, and places. On Saturday nights, everything was rocking. It was kind of a rowdy time. But Sunday mornings, man, were people drinking through their hangovers, peeling labels off beer bottles, wondering, "What the hell did I do?" That is the mood of the poetry. It's reflective. I've been performing locally at a small scale, for the Temecula Valley Historical Society next month. I'm doing it at UCSD in a Native American literature class.

Gordon Johnson performing 'Tears in my Beer' for the Temecula Valley Historical Society. | Photo: Courtesy Gordon Johnson.

What's taking place this weekend in San Diego County? Can you recommend any events to the Artbound audience?

The California Center for the Arts in Escondido has an excellent show of Mexican art going on right now.

Heart & Soul of Mexico at California Center for the Arts (Sept. 28 - Dec. 2)

340 North Escondido Blvd. Escondido, CA 92025, 760-839-4120

The Malki Museum Fall Gathering on Oct. 27 on the Morongo Reservation which celebrates traditional foods and games.

Oceanside beach. | Photo: Gordon Johnson.

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Top Image: Oceanside beach. | Photo: Gordon Johnson.

About the Author

Melody Soto is a journalist living in the San Fernando Valley.
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