Did you know that San Diego County has more Native American reservations than any other county in the United States? The over 20,000 Native Americans that live on those reservations are collectively known today as the Kumeyaay (also called Tipai-Ipai, Kamia, or formerly Diegueño), though they live in thirteen different bands. The thirteen different bands are primarily grouped together based on a shared, Yuman-based set of languages. The languages are all very similar but do vary in regional dialects. Archaeological evidence tells us that the Kumeyaay have inhabited San Diego County for at least 10,000 years! Their traditional lands spanned the length and width of the greater San Diego area and extended down into Baja California, where some groups still live today.
The traditional Kumeyaay way of life made excellent use of the natural resources in San Diego County. Wooden throwing sticks, known as rabbit sticks, were used to kill small game, while longer wooden poles were used as shovels and all-utility implements. Pottery was an important product of the Kumeyaay. Clay was gathered from local river and stream banks to create large coil pots called ollas. The ollas were largely undecorated save for smoke rings from the fires that hardened the clay. Ollas were generally used for food storage, water storage, and sometimes even cooking.
Perhaps the most spectacular of the Kumeyaay arts are their baskets. The Kumeyaay were, and remain to this day, sophisticated basket weavers. The baskets were woven from juncus, willow, or pine. The tightly woven juncus baskets are particularly well known and often feature traditional designs and clan signs; the rattlesnake design is a renowned example of this type of decoration. The baskets were used for food storage and preparation, or could be given away as gifts.
The San Diego Museum of Man is privileged to house a large collection of Kumeyaay artifacts. A number of these are on display in our permanent exhibit entitled “Kumeyaay: Native Californians.” The exhibit explores traditional Kumeyaay lifeways and features the art of pottery and basket making, food procurement, dress and adornment, traditional medicine, games, and ceremonies. In honor of Native American Heritage Month, come by SDMoM and catch a glimpse into the fascinating history of the Kumeyaay!
—Megan Clancy, Registrar