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MEETING REPORT: Exploring the Kumeyaay Culture

photo by Janet Ward

By Sabine Prather.

The speaker for our July meeting was anthropologist and California State University-San Marcos professor, Michael Wilkin-Robertson. He recently wrote a book called “Kumeyaay Ethnobotany: Shared Heritage of the Californias.” Born and raised in southern California, he’s lived in Baja for 30 years. He fell in love with the Kumeyaay culture from the time he was young, amazed that they could survive and thrive in their severe environment. His book begins with historic landscapes, then covers cultural history, followed by ethnography, language, and 42 specific plant surveys. It ends with reflections on Kumeyaay sustainability practices and ways we can put that knowledge to work. The presentation followed basically the same pattern.

The Kumeyaay were nomadic, eating shellfish in the spring, fruit and vegetables in the summer, and nuts in the fall. The Kumeyaay nations spread from Escondido to the tip of Baja, from the coast to the Colorado River watershed. Like the Kumeyaay, the plant life they lived on transcended borders.

Many native plants struggle to survive among the coastal hotels and houses in California and do much better in the rural back country of Baja. Coastal southern California is part of the California Floristic Province (CFP), with a Mediterranean-type climate and a distinctive flora similar to other regions with a winter rainfall and summer drought climate like the Mediterranean Basin. This climate produces drought-resistant, sun-loving plants that make up the resources for the Kumeyaay.

For example, they produce nets and beautiful baskets that can hold water. These are made from Juncus acutus and Juncus textilis, rushes that grow in salt and freshwater marshes. The Kumeyaay have learned to collect plants to encourage them to grow more prolifically, like the rushes and prickly pears. Other baskets, made from willow leaves and stems, hold dry material like nuts and seeds. Kumeyaay pottery is fired with Mohave Yucca and Willow; mule fat, Agave and Yucca also provide the materials to make bows and arrows.

The Hollyleaf Cherry was an important food source as were the buds of the Bladderpod. Manzanita seeds made a nice drink. Plants like the Elderberry, Ephedra, and Lizard’s Tail were used for medicine.

When asked how the Kumeyaay knew what was edible, Wilkin-Robertson theorized that one of the ways may have been trial and error. They also watched animals and what they liked to eat. In addition, shamans had visions and dreams that told them how to prepare resources.

According to our speaker, many of the tribal elders still live off the land, but they have made modifications to accommodate modern culture. A typical modern ranch might have a traditional shelter (ramada) made with wood poles and thatch, an inoperable refrigerator for storage, an adobe kiln, and a truck. A younger Kumeyaay man told how he rode his horse to the top of the nearby mountain to get a signal on his phone.

Wilkin-Robertson explained that proceeds from the sale of the book supports the Tecate Kumeyaay museum, which does outreach and education for grade schools and provides scholarships for college. Signed copies of the book were available for purchase.

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