Learning and Growing in Partnership with Our Region’s Indigenous Communities

The San Diego/Imperial County region boasts a rich Indigenous cultural heritage as well as a range of diverse Indigenous communities who continue to forge a dynamic future for themselves. But for many residents of Southern California, knowledge of Indigenous history, culture, contributions, and contemporary lives is scant at best. There is much we can learn to better understand the role of philanthropy in supporting the self-determination and sovereignty of First Nations. On October 11th, Catalyst members will join Do the Work: Indigenous Communities for a unique session with two of the 12 federally recognized bands of the Kumeyaay Nation: the Campo Kumeyaay Nation and the Iipay Nation of Santa Ysabel. Together we’ll learn about tribal members’ lived experiences and the aspirations of their respective nations. We’ll also delve into their far-ranging efforts connected with food justice, economic development, and health.

In preparation for Catalyst’s Do the Work program itinerary, we are focusing here specifically on the Kumeyaay peoples. However, it should be noted that the Payómkawichum (also known by their Spanish name, Luiseño), Kuupangaxwichem (Cupeño), and Ivilyuqaletem (Cahuilla) are distinct Indigenous groups which historically inhabited different parts of the Northern San Diego region. Today, San Diego County is home to 18 federally recognized Indian reservations — more than in any other county in the United States — though not all local tribes have their own reservations, nor do all indigenous people live on reservations.

A (very) abbreviated look at the Kumeyaay and their relationship to property, land, and natural resource management

Evidence of human settlement in Kumeyaay historical territory goes back 12,000 years. Kumeyaay lands stretch along the Pacific Ocean from the San Luis Rey River (which is shared territory with the Luiseño) in the north, to Ensenada, Mexico in the south, and exten­ding east to the Colorado River in Imperial County.  The Kumeyaay, also known as Tipai – Iipay, consist of two main groups. Tipai encompasses the southern Bands of the Kumeyaay, including four villages in Baja California, Mexico. Ipay refers to the Northern Bands within San Diego County. As a whole, Kumeyaay are also called by their historical Spanish name, Diegueño. The Kumeyaay people organized themselves along clanship (called Sh’mulq) which lived throughout this territory and maintained familial, spiritual, and defensive alliances with one another.

Territory was not defined in the same manner as European societies, which viewed resources on the land as property of the landowner, but rather reflected a more nuanced relationship with the land, natural resources, and the relationships of the peoples living on that land. For example, a hunter tracking big game could travel through many Sh’mulq territories without issue as long as he did not try to establish residence on that land without permission. The lands covering present-day Point Loma, the Silver Strand, and Mission Beach Strand were considered national territory — anyone from throughout the Kumeyaay Nation could go to these areas to fish, gather shellfish, hunt, and use the plants here. Winter villages might be shared by more than one Sh’mulq, but in warmer seasons they typically separated to live in individual summer village sites.

The Kumeyaay utilized sophisticated environmental management practices, including prescribed burnings of land to promote the growth of transitional plant species. The practice of rock-drop water management allowed for the creation of wetlands—and has been revived in recent decades to help raise the water table on reservation land. The Kumeyaay also maintained a strong ethnobotanical heritage — the knowledge within a culture about utilizing different plants for medicines, tools, and traditional land stewardship, including farming.

The drastic changes to the Kumeyaay way of life which occurred between first European contact and today are vast and far too multifaceted to do the Kumeyaay peoples justice in this brief summary. Suffice to say, the Spanish, Mexican, and American regimes in the Southern California region each contributed to the near complete annihilation of the indigenous population — in addition to the dismantling of indigenous territory, systems of government, languages, cultures, and traditional practices of caring for, and living in accord with, the natural world.

Maintaining a thriving Indigenous culture

Thanks to the strength and perseverance of our region’s Kumeyaay cultural bearers, many aspects of Kumeyaay heritage are flourishing today. Kumeyaay bands are working to honor traditional beliefs about respecting and caring for the land, incorporating both Indigenous knowledge and modern techniques to support the well-being of their environment, economy, and culture. One aspect of this is Indigenous Traditional Ecological Knowledge, which serves as the basis of a contemporary system of agricultural production known as regenerative farming. Regenerative farming echoes Indigenous values and practices of working with the land, not against it — including enriching topsoil, enhancing water conservation, and increasing biodiversity while eschewing industrialized products such as fertilizers and pesticides.

Both the Campo Kumeyaay Nation and the Iipay Nation of Santa Ysabel work in collaboration with the nonprofit Coastal Roots Farm, including initiatives to provide organic produce to tribal members, particularly homebound seniors who are food insecure. The Encinitas-based nonprofit is also partnering with both nations as they build out gardens and farming areas on tribal lands using Traditional Ecological Knowledge. These collaborative relationships are better understood within the context of San Diego County’s burgeoning food justice movement and efforts to build greater food sovereignty in communities deeply impacted by inequities.

In addition to agricultural and natural resource management, Indigenous populations are also asserting their rights to serve community health needs, guide their own economic development, and implement their sovereignty. The passage of the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act in 1975 and the American Indian Religious Freedom Act in 1978, by the U.S. Congress led to greater empowerment of indigenous tribes to control their own affairs related to health care, education, housing, and more. More than a decade later the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988 codified the rights of tribes to operate gambling operations on reservation land, with the specific goals of strengthening tribes’ economic development, self-sufficiency, and tribal government bodies. While this legislation laid the groundwork for essential components of Indigenous sovereignty, much has been accomplished in our region directly through the resilience and ingenuity of Kumeyaay leadership.

Continue your learning

We hope you join us on October 11th for Do the Work: Indigenous Communities, as we learn how to build authentic partnerships that advance food justice, economic development, health, and other Indigenous community priorities across our region. To learn more about the issues that will be touched on during this immersive learning experience, we recommend the following resources:

  • Watch a powerful documentary on the Kumeyaay Nation and their presence in this region this time immemorial.
  • Watch the recording from Catalyst’s 2021 annual conference on Indigenous partnerships and regenerative farming with Javier Guerrero, Coastal Roots Farm and Lorraine Orosco, San Pasqual Tribal Government.
  • Access resources on Kumeyaay history and culture.
  • Explore an interactive Kumeyaay placenames map of the San Diego region.
  • Watch a brief video series from the National Museum of the American Indian highlighting the Campo Kumeyaay Nation’s environmental restoration work on reservation land.
  • Watch a brief video from Coastal Roots Farm illustrating their approach to regenerative and organic farming.
  • Visit the official website of the Campo Band of the Kumeyaay Nation.
  • Visit the official website of the Iipay Nation of Santa Ysabel.
  • Watch an episode of PBS’s Historic Places with Elsa Sevilla exploring the sophisticated and complex society of the Kumeyaay.
  • Read a recent article in the San Diego Union Tribune illustrating how the cultural appropriation of Indigenous heritage is still playing out in our region today.

Special thanks to Emily Burgueno, Head Seed Keeper of the Iipay Nation of Santa Ysabel, and Javier Guerrero, President and CEO, Coastal Roots Farm, for contributing to this article.

Cover image courtesy of The Dyrt.