|Cover Story||January 27, 2011|
By Frederick Gomez
To say that Poway is proud of its Native American roots, viz. the Kumeyaay (pronounced: coo-me-eye), is as much a truism as to say we need gravity to keep us anchored to Mother Earth.
The scientific jury is in general consensus that the Kumeyaay people were – more likely than not – the first aboriginal residents in San Diego County. Unless new archeological discoveries provide opposing evidence, the scientific jury has remained, by and large, unanimous in this verdict.
Whether the Kumeyaay were actually the very first Native American people to occupy the North County area of Poway is strongly suspected, but not 100% certain, as there were other aboriginal groups early on, in the same vicinity, such as the Luiseno (the southernmost Shoshonean division in California), as well as others. However, hard science seems to validate the Kumeyaay as Poway’s first people. In speaking to various authorities, including Kumeyaay sources, this appears to be an accepted conclusion among the wide spectrum of the anthropological and archeological communities.
One of the many sources I found was at the lush and historic Balboa Park. I spoke to Phil Hoog, Director of American Indian Affairs, in the Curatorial Department, at the prestigious San Diego Museum of Man, to ask of his expertise on the Kumeyaay being Poway’s first residents. The well-respected curator replied, “I think that is very difficult to know for certain, as there may have been other tribes in the area. But, I think it is a safe assumption, scientifically, to say ‘yes, the Kumeyaay were the first people in Poway.’”
That the Kumeyaay have left a major, indelible influence in Poway is without question. Vestiges of early Kumeyaay presence seems omnipresent in Poway; so much so that – ironically – it is sometimes overlooked, in the same way that we might overlook the proverbial forest due to the tree directly in front of us. For example, foot traffic through Poway’s City Hall might be all-business, with people trekking through at a hurried pace that, sometimes, resembles more a foot race. Such visitors may not notice the five beautiful display cases in the City Hall lobby, all of which house artifacts, historical photographs, and a magnificent timeline which chronicles the rich history of the Poway area, from the time the first Kumeyaay made a footprint in the valley to the present Kumeyaay descendants of today.
Outside the edifice complex of Poway’s City Hall, visitors may glimpse – if they are not in too much of a hurry – wonderful Kumeyaay sculptures, the likes of which professed dilettantes and patrons of art museums drool over. But one need not be an art connoisseur to see the obvious beauty. These gorgeous sculptures, by the way, are the creation of local Kumeyaay artist, Johnny Bear Contreras, who is world-renowned for his work. One sculpture titled, "Seeing," is of a muscular six-foot tall Kumeyaay warrior in traditional war dress. “Seeing,” aptly, has a Kumeyaay subtitle: ‘Emaay ‘Ehaa Keypini,’ which has a rather emotional and provocative translation: “Creator Hear Me.” It is, somehow, conciliatory that such an imposing Kumeyaay warrior would be the one to greet incoming guests and visitors at Poway's City Hall.
The other Kumeyaay sculpture, titled "Settling Woman," is just as imposing as the warrior, but in a totally different context of that same word. The serene likeness of a Kumeyaay woman sitting, may be discovered in a courtyard, located on the west side of the City Council Chambers. It also has a Kumeyaay subtitle: ‘Emal Kuuyum,’ which seems to have an eloquent contrast to her warrior counterpart. ‘Emal Kuuyum’ translates to, “Headed Toward Earth.” And there she sits, in timeless beauty, outside, tending to her chores, often unnoticed by passers-by. The image is not only one of regal, sculptural aesthetics, but of a moment in time frozen; a frame of history standing still; a window from which we can witness our very own fundamental cultural roots, our elemental beginnings, all caught -- motionless -- in the simplest, yet purest gesture, of making one's livelihood from the bounty given to us by our nurturing Mother Earth. Every single human civilization on the face of this Earth has its own meager, humble beginnings. This solitary Native American woman plying her humble chores represents the earliest beginnings of our noble American heritage, today. She symbolizes the tapestry of Native American influence, which weaves its way across the United States, crisscrossing into other bands, other tribes, that form the matrix of Americana. She is a solitary, cultural figure that is tantamount to astronomy’s Big Bang theory. She constitutes America's first, proud, beginnings. Close to this working Kumeyaay woman is a 15x18 foot metate area (grinding stone area) which was excavated in 1996, on the construction site of Scripps Poway Parkway. The woman seems to be at one with the basket she’s holding, with a river bedrock about her. The bedrock represents water, which was the basis of life for the Kumeyaay. My shadowing companion asked me how I felt staring at her edifice. I said I felt a strange pull, as the moon pulls on the ocean tides with its relentless gravity. I felt an unraveling of emotions: sadness to be apart from her inanimate world; wistfulness, as I longed to speak with her, and quiet feelings of being very proud that my bloodlines interconnected me to her – she seemed as a family member, with weaved basket in hand, by a bedrock of water, revering nature’s elements, which surrounded her.
These works of art are free for the viewing, for those who wish to slowdown their pace, and notice their surroundings. For those who stop to gaze, a priceless experience awaits. Beauty that will skin the eyes and allow one to see the inner magic that resides in these sentinels of stone. Wondrous works of art that speak of an earlier time, effigies that give a storyline, a tale of fabled American folklore, history, and passion, and life. This is your history. My history. Our history. Merged in bronze.
How fortunate for the city of Poway to have on display these great pieces of Kumeyaay art sculpture.
Johnny Bear Contreras’ sculptures, though immobile, impact and inspire us into seeing precious insights. There is a classic artistic saying in Robert A. Heinlein’s “A Stranger In A Strange Land,” which fits Johnny Bear’s sculptural masterpieces. Heinlein gives three levels of artistic greatness: A great artist, Heinlein contends, will replicate an old woman exactly as she looks, in every detail. A greater artist will recreate her – from his imagination -- as she might have looked as a young girl. But the greatest of artists will show you the old woman exactly as she looks now – but, will emotionally move and inspire you to see the little girl inside of her, as she once was, through the windows of her aged eyes, past the heavily wrinkled face, and the slightly creased grin. Johnny Bear Contreras falls into this third category. His masterful artistry allows you to see and feel the inner emotions that seem to escape from the pores of his sculptures. If only you open your heart.
Poway’s Kumeyaay sculptures, outside their city hall buildings, have that same emotional pull that leads us to recognize the fact that these bronze pieces are, inwardly, alive. If we do not respond emotionally, the deficiency is within ourselves, and not of these pieces of stone because true art has its own imminent value, independent of us and our judgment: Art measures us, we do not measure art. Johnny Bear Contreras is as poignant as his creations. He gives a beguiling voice to his muse: “Often times man can be moving like liquid, or sedentary like stone. He may be slumped on the steps that society has placed before him or he might have created the steps on which he will fall. The steps might also be for advancement." By the way, smaller replicas of these two sculptures of the Kumeyaay warrior and the Settling Woman can be found at Poway’s Kumeyaay-Ipai Interpretive Center.
Though Johnny Bear Contreras is a local Kumeyaay native, his driven, inner-powers have catapulted him into the world's spotlight and into the pantheon of respected masters in his chosen art form. Born and raised on the San Pasqual Indian Reservation, his emergence into the arts was an illustrious one. In 1997 he was only one of nine world artists to be chosen to create a sacred work of art for the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, in Los Angeles, California. His "Spirit of the Earth" was -- with great emotion -- installed in the Prayer Meditation Plaza at the Cathedral. The result was his impression, revealed through his art, of the Kumeyaay’s story of creation.
Often times, local talent is too promising to stay provincial, and my Kumeyaay brother found this to be true. Detroit, Michigan, beckoned Johnny Bear Contreras and he was commissioned to create a special piece for their Solanus Casey Center, in 2001. His breathtaking piece, "Sister Mother Earth," stunned and captivated the hearts of Michigan's capital city, where it is greatly revered and proudly displayed for all to witness, to this day.
In 2006 our native son (literally) was bestowed an award of the Smithsonian Fellowship. But, as life often teaches us, sometimes the least likely source of work may be the most cherished. He was asked to create a special memorial for a local family who had grieved the loss of their child. Johnny Bear Contreras gave from the inner recesses of his Kumeyaay heart. His precious memorial creation for the distraught family was simply called, "The Journey." It depicts a young girl being guided to the next world by a dolphin. The soothing image was, lovingly, installed for the family, and the reflection of the little girl in the windows of the Family Center represents a gift that is forever there for those who wish to remember her -- more positively -- as she journeys from one world to a much better one.
The Kumeyaay presence in Poway is considerably less old than their 12,000 year presence in other areas of San Diego County, with anthropologists and archeologists giving a more recent Poway settlement. I contacted Richard L. Carrico, respected archeologist and historian at San Diego State University’s Department of American Indian Studies to get his input. Carrico is also president of the Board of Trustees for the San Diego Archaeological Center and a highly-acclaimed author of San Diego County’s native people, “Strangers In A Stolen Land” (Sunbelt Publications). I asked Carrico what his assessment is on Poway’s earliest settlement by a Native American people. Carrico’s reply via email states, “. . . the cultural group that is identified with the Late Prehistoric is known to have been in Poway (Pawaii) as long ago as 2,000 years and perhaps as long ago as 3,000.” As to my question if that first Native American people in Poway were, in fact, Kumeyaay, Carrico’s response was, “There are some, but not many site dates older than 3,000 years ago in Pawaii. The rock paintings, bedrock milling sites, large village sites, and most of the archaeological materials that have been uncovered are in fact associated with the Iipay/Kumeyaay.” All other (reputable) sources concurred with Carrico’s assessment that the first Poway inhabitants were, in fact, the Kumeyaay.
The sovereign Kumeyaay-Diegueno Nation of indigenous California Native Americans are known by several different names, and spellings, too cumbersome to list here. However, today, the most common usage is: Kumeyaay (USA), Kumiai (Mexico), Diegueno (Early Spanish origins), and Tipai-Ipai (also Iipay (northern) and Tipay (southern) tribes).
This article can only begin to scratch the surface of the rich Kumeyaay legacy. Such an expanse of historicity and Kumeyaay heritage would require volumes upon volumes to reach any semblance of being suitably comprehensive.
The forum which Lyle E. Davis’ The Paper offers here is a most critically important beginning point, only. The Kumeyaay experience must be told and retold in a cohesive manner, so that it is kept viable -- not just in academic classrooms, and on tribal reservations, and isolated museums – but, in mainstream publications, such as this one, so that all people, everywhere, can learn of and, in so doing, better understanding may be achieved.
In researching this exclusive material for Lyle E. Davis’ The Paper, I found that some pivotal Kumeyaay historical points were scattered and not collectively organized. I was even informed by some Native American institutions that they were unaware of some details of their own culture, as well as the accuracy of such details, all of which they hoped would, one day, be rectified, better clarified and preserved in easily-accessible written sources.
Just how important is it to organize the Kumeyaay history into a readable context, and in fun-to-read prose so that people and students of all stripes will be motivated and excited to learn from it? It is of paramount importance. It needs to be chronicled accurately and coherently to perpetuate and preserve a precious heritage that belongs to all of us Americans.
I spoke to Tribal Chairman, Allen E. Lawson, head of the San Pasqual Band of Kumeyaay Indians about the importance of such endeavors as this one, and the need to ‘get the story out’ and Lawson underscored this vital necessity.
The influential and powerful Tribal leader, Lawson, eloquently expressed words that are difficult to ignore, “It is absolutely important that we get reliable and accurate Kumeyaay information out to the public. Information that will put things in perspective. So that we can learn together; and work together; and partner together, so that we can all truly understand and get along that much better.”
Under Tribal leader, Lawson, the San Pasqual Band of Indians have given generously of their time and monetary resources to support the Kumeyaay-Ipai Interpretive Center at Poway. By so doing, the San Pasqual Band – under Lawson’s tutelage – perpetuates the lifeblood and history of San Diego’s first peoples. Tribal leader Lawson’s “Valley View Casino” is a model for Native American entreprenurialship and their ability to adapt to business interests so that they may be a force in today’s economic world. And position themselves to support such causes as stated above.
How deeply ingrained is Native American ancestry in our Golden State? According to Richard Carrico (Dept. of American Indian Studies, Ibid) California has the largest Native American population in the entire U.S. Carrico told me, “Yes, with more than 350,000 native people (in California) followed by Oklahoma and Arizona.”
This includes some 108 federally-recognized Native American tribes: desert, mountain, inland, valley, coastal, and river tribes.
Of the 19 California Indian reservations, San Diego County has more Native American reservations (in number, not acreage) than any other county in the United States! As Carrico sizes it up, “We have 19 reservations and that is indeed the most in the U.S., although collectively all of them put together would easily fit into the Navajo Reservation with thousands of acres to spare.”
Of just the Kumeyaay tribes, confined to Southern California, the U.S. Government formally recognizes 13 Kumeyaay bands: (1) Campo Kumeyaay Nation (aka Campo Band of the Kumeyaay Nation), (2) Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians, (3) Barona Band of Mission Indians, (4) San Pasqual Band of Indians, (5) La Posta Band of Mission Indians, (6) Mesa Grande Band of Mission Indians, (7) Inaja Cosmit Indian Reservation, (8) Capital Grande Band of Diegueno Mission Indians, (9) Manzanita Band of the Kumeyaay Nation, (10) Jamul Indian Village -- a Kumeyaay Nation, (11) Santa Ysabel Band of Diegueno Indians (aka Iipay Nation of Santa Ysabel), (12) Ewiiaapaayp Band of Kumeyaay Indians (aka Cuyapaipe), and (13) Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation.
At present, there are only four (4) surviving (aboriginal) Native American Indian (nations) that still exist in San Diego County today: (1) Cahuilla Indians, (2) CupenoCupeño Indians, (3) Kumeyaay-Diegueno-Ipay-Tipay Indians, and (4) Luiseno Luiseño Indians.
Sometimes a national overview is necessary to prevent abstract confusion with our locality here in our city and state: Alaska and Oklahoma have the highest (percentage) of Native Americans (Alaska first, then Oklahoma); but California has the highest (total number) of Native Americans (not percentage-wise, but sheer volume) of any state. San Diego County has more reservations than any other U.S. county, but New Mexico has the largest reservations (in acreage/size). And for the record, the Cherokee Nation comprises the largest Native American group (in total number), followed by the Navajo. (These were among the most popular questions inquired of me by non-Native American laypersons, so I wish to include them here, to avoid any statistical confusion, which seemed prevalent.)
The Kumeyaay comprise the earliest and largest Native American group in San Diego County and their varied culture and Kumeyaay presence in Poway can be experienced in a most exhilarating way, at Poway’s Kumeyaay-Ipai Interpretive Center, a fabulous trove that has drawn visitors from everywhere.
Poway’s anthropological crown jewel is, without question, this Kumeyaay-Ipai Interpretative Center, located at 13104 Ipai Waaypuk Trail (formerly known as Silver Lake Drive) in the city of Poway. Free tours are conducted at the center, on Saturdays, between the hours of 9:00 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. These docent-led trails are exhilarating and refreshing to traverse, especially if the outdoor weather is sunny and clear. Any additional information can be obtained by calling (858) 668-1292.
The mere mention of the city of Poway is, in essence, to speak (in part) the language of the Kumeyaay. The name “Poway” is derived from the language of the Diegueno and Luiseno Indians, who roamed the area many centuries prior to the Spaniards. The early Diegueno Kumeyaay, reportedly, used a variation of today's "Poway" spelling. As can be expected, there is some controversy as to the exact root word. Surviving documents at the Mission San Diego de Alcala formally records the valley as "Paguay" as early as 1828. There is no precise agreement as to the translation, but, in general, "Paguay" is thought to have meant "the meeting of little valleys," or "end of the valley." The Mission San Diego de Alcala's spelling of "Paguay" is even under scrutiny by historians. Records were not always scrupulously maintained, and the variation of early spelling ranged the gamut from: “Paguai,” “Paui,” "Pauai," "Pauy," "Powaii," "Pawiiy," and "Pauwai." The San Pasqual Band of Indians (a Kumeyaay tribe), recognizes “Pauwai” as meaning "merging waters" and/or "arrowhead") as the early designated name and translation. This may hold the key, because in another early spelling: “Powaii,” a clue seems to emerge. Phil Hoog, of The San Diego Museum of Man says, “I did not discover much information on the origin of the word “Poway.” I only understood that the word used to be Powaii (and other spellings as you mentioned as well) and the term “waii” (various spellings) when used in a Kumeyaay word makes reference to water. So your reference to “merging waters” may be correct.”
Whatever the original source of spelling, and translation, today's Kumeyaay-influenced valley is officially known as Poway.
The name “Kumeyaay” is also somewhat elusive. But a little intellectual detective work for Lyle E. Davis’ The Paper is well worth the effort, especially when it benefits his loyal readership, who often read The Paper for exclusive and enlightening tidbits about their neighboring communities, such as Poway, and the rich history behind it. But this is history that is also cosmopolitan, not just for local tastes. According to archeologist and historian, Carrico, “The term Kumeyaay has been said to mean “strangers” or in some instances ‘people from the coast/west.’” This seems to align itself with The San Diego Museum of Man’s curator, Phil Hoog, as his independent research also came up with a translation that echoed Carrico’s reference to the coast/west. Hoog findings reveal the following: “I have been told by a Kumeyaay that the name “Kumeyaay” traditionally means ‘people of the bluffs.’ Bluffs refers to the bluffs near the ocean, however, the term was used to describe all of the Kumeyaay people who were living from the coast to the desert. The name itself is the same in both Ipai and Tipai (Kumeyaay dialects).” (Author’s note: Bluffs frequently, but not always, refer to cliffs near a river or ocean.)
The city of Poway was incorporated in 1980. Its modern nickname, the "City in the Country" is not to be confused with the early aboriginal translation(s). Despite the "City in the Country" sobriquet, Poway is anything but, with a burgeoning population of nearly 52,000 residents, today.
In an effort to preserve the pristine surroundings that would become Poway’s prestigious Kumeyaay-Ipai Interpretive Center, the city of Poway launched an ambitious campaign to acquire the various parcels of land in 1987. The city united their efforts with the San Pasqual Band of Indians, and the Friends of the Kumeyaay, to achieve their goal. Funding also came from various benefactors, including the Metropolitan Water District, and a grant from the Cultural and Heritage Commission of the State of California. The nearly $800,000 initial investment was well worth the effort, as the present archeological site is a magnet for historians, researchers, school children, and the general public who may wish to visit.
In addition to the aforementioned benefactors, funding sometimes comes from assorted Kumeyaay entities such as the San Pasqual Band of Indians’ Valley View Casino, as well as the Sycuan, and Viejas reservations. One natural benefactor is the city of Poway, which has ownership of the Kumeyaay-Ipai Interpretive Center. It is noteworthy to point out the consistent dedication and financial assistance from The Elders Pride Group, a collection Kumeyaay out of San Pasqual who give of their own free will and resources. Their loyalty and persistence is, truly, inspirational and reflects the very best in the Kumeyaay character.
I dropped in at the Kumeyaay-Ipai Interpretive Center at Pauwai and met the very affable Mike Horan, president of The Friends of the Kumeyaay, and his charming wife of 49 years, Sandee. Mike told me there are eleven members of The Friends of the Kumeyaay, and 26 active docents. It amazes me that all parties involved are volunteers with no monetary rewards, other than the satisfaction of preserving one of America’s most precious and priceless anthropological and archeological grounds.
Mike Horan is a full-blooded Irishman who talks of the Center as you would of a loving child. Often non-Native Americans become deeply involved with Native American cultures. Mike and Sandee Horan, as well as all the docents and Friends of the Kumeyaay at the Center, are non-Native Americans. Their collective dedication is an inspiring one and in their hearts and spirits, I suspect, they are Kumeyaay.
Mentoring comes from the San Pasqual Band of Indians to ensure accuracy in the dissemination of Kumeyaay historical data. San Pasqual tribal council member, Dave Toler, is a familiar name and presence at the Center and his input is a valued one. I spoke to Toler and found his eagerness to assist me to be a most admirable trait in his character. It was Toler who referenced me to the president of the San Diego Archaeological Center, Richard L. Carrico, a first-rate world authority on Native Americans.
Hmm, good answer. And that darned gnat was back in my tear ducts. When I asked member/ photographer, Suzanne Emery, the same question as to what motivates her, Emery’s reply was a classic one: “Chocolate and wine!” she blurted out with perfect comic timing. She went on to say it was the spiritual aspect of Native Americans, as well as their closeness to nature and the various medicinal value of plants, etc.
Visits and tours at the Kumeyaay-Ipai Interpretive Center are all free (but donations are welcome and classes, such as Basket Making do, understandably, have a fee). The first leg of one’s visit begins at the site’s Education Center. The Center’s opening exhibit, titled “Poway’s First People: Art and Culture” highlights artifacts from the 5-acre site, replica items of Kumeyaay daily living, and an educational photo exhibit of North County rock art; rock art that is still visible on the conducted Site Tours. Well-informed docents talk about all of this at the Education Center, whetting the appetite of visitors who await the second leg of their journey on foot, where they will see items from an actual ancient Kumeyaay village site. At the Education Center, artifacts are introduced from what is called a “discovery table.” This opening orientation talk at the Center is of a 20 to 30-minute duration. Then, the Site Tour commences, which lasts anywhere from 30 to 45 minutes, depending on the stops, and questions, along the way. Comfortable shoes and attire are strongly suggested, especially on warm, sunny days. Terrain is hilly, and free bottled water is provided prior to departure. No lunches are allowed to be eaten on the grounds because they tend to attract bees, wasps or, hmm, gnats.
If you find time to visit the Kumeyaay-Ipai Interpretive Center at Pauwai, and you happen to see that affable surfer-Irishman, Mike Horan, tell him “Howka-Miiyu” for me. It means, “Greetings.” As a Kumeyaay descendant, myself, I know that my heritage is in good hands with Mike, and Sandee, and Suzanne Emery (amazing photographer!), and all their colleagues.
Whatever you do, if Mike is around, please don’t yell, “Surfs Up!”