When Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo’s fleet first sailed into the San Diego harbor in 1542, the Kumeyaay were on hand to greet the strangers. The various bands of the Kumeyaay have called a wide range of land — including what is now San Diego County, east to the Yuma Sand Dunes, north to Warner Springs Valley and south to Ensenada — home for more than 10,000 years.
The Spaniards encountered a complex society, who were master ecologists. The Kumeyaay had developed advanced land and watershed management strategies and social structures. They inhabited a wide range of ecological niches ranging from low desert to sky-high mountains, rich watersheds, forests — both mountainous and dry — and oceanside resources.
Each clan controlled an area, whether a watershed, a desert region or a mountain home, which they traversed with the seasons, coming together in the winters to trade, gamble and sing. “They had a very sophisticated system to make best use of their lands,” says Michael Connolly Miskwish, a member of the Campo Kumeyaay Tribe and renowned historian. “The clans engineered very complex systems, including co-management of resources.”
And, the Kumeyaay created baskets for their daily activities out of juncus, a riparian grass. Women coiled juncus around “rods” of long deer grass to make food and storage baskets, gambling trays, cradle baskets and other woven objects. Willow was also used for some baskets. Today, those early baskets are considered works of art — and some Kumeyaay people are carrying on the tradition.
Even well into the European era, the Kumeyaay managed to retain control of a good area of their lands and communities, continuing to follow their traditional ways — including making baskets — despite the trampling of their rich fields by imported cattle and the attempts to “civilize” them through Catholicism and the mission system. In fact, Miskwish says that the many Kumeyaay clans held onto their lands until the 1860s, more than a decade after the end of the Mexican-American War, at which time the U.S. took ownership of California. Later in the 19th century, Rancherias — Indian trust lands as small as 6 acres—were established by the government. However, this move excluded the Kumeyaay people in what was now Mexico, effectively sundering the tribe by the new international border.
Today, the 12 Kumeyaay bands north of the border control just 70,000 acres of their formerly vast territory. Several communities have ejidos (communally-owned plots of land) in Baja California Norte. And, until about 25 years ago, the Kumeyaay continued to travel as they did before the political border divided them.
“Although the [countries] drew a line through our territory,” Miskwish says, “the border was still pretty open.” He says that ranchers would cut the fence to fetch lost cattle, and Kumeyaay from what was now the Mexican side of the border regularly crossed that same fence to attend funerals and other gatherings.
“The Border Patrol didn’t clamp down till the 1920s during Prohibition, to keep liquor from coming across,” Miskwish says. “But [after Prohibition ended], until the 1990s, the border was open.” After President Ronald Reagan signed legislation giving amnesty to undocumented people living in the U.S. in 1986, the word regarding the border was “we’re going to tighten up.” Crossing the border became extremely difficult and, in some cases, impossible for members of the divided tribe.
“In the mid-1990s, we started working with the U.S. Customs Department to create a way to get [the Mexican-side Kumeyaay] back and forth,” says Miskwish. One big hurdle, though, was getting access for men, as only men who served in the Mexican military were eligible to obtain passports. Fortunately, Miskwish says that a new law enacted in 2000 enabled all Mexican male citizens to get passports.
Then, the Kumeyaay border group discovered another issue: frequent rotations of Border Patrol personnel meant that constant education was necessary to inform new agents of the policy. “So, we made the city of Tecate the prime crossing point,” he says. “It’s been working.”
Kumeyaay people come north to ceremonies, conferences and speaking engagements and to engage in cultural activities. Since the Baja-side Kumeyaay are more fluent in the language, they’re called upon to help their U.S. cousins regain fluency — or begin the process of reclaiming the language, although as Miskwish says, the U.S. Kumeyaay people weren’t forced to divest their language in favor of Spanish during the mission era. “But, after World War II, a lot of parents quit teaching the Kumeyaay language to their kids, feeling that they would be better off just knowing English.”
Many baskets continued to be made on the U.S. side of Kumeyaay country until the Great Depression, says Rose Ramirez, a basketweaver and photographer of Chumash ancestry. She works with Kumeyaay [or Kumiai, as they’re called south of the border] weavers to support their art. “People no longer had disposable income to buy baskets,” she says. So, basketweavers turned their attention to working outside the rancherias to help support their families, and basketry largely disappeared.
Today, Kumeyaay people on the U.S. side are returning to creating baskets for art or for sale, although it’s mostly the weavers on the Baja side of the border who rely on basket sales for all or part of their income. Others, such as Eva Salazar, come from families where basketmaking never took a break. Salazar lives in Alpine, just north of the U.S. border, and is a frequent fixture at art markets and gatherings in the state. And, southern Kumeyaay weavers are frequently asked for lessons in basketmaking and crafting other culturally-significant items like fishnets, sandals and clothing — cultural endeavors that declined when many Kumeyaay people entered the workforce during the Great Depression and after World War II.
Click right and left to see some of the beautiful woven wares of the Kumeyaay: