Who are the Kumeyaay?

By : Mike Connolly

From the earliest contacts, records have indicated that some Sh’mulqs (Clans) did not want to be considered subservient to any societal structure higher than their own Sh’mulq. This independence was also evident in negotiations with other tribes, Spanish, Mexican or US officials, where negotiators would not want to imply any other than their Sh’mulq leadership could speak on their behalf.

When questioned by early Spanish explorers about national identity, individual Kumeyaay gave a variety of answers depending on their interpretation of the question. Variations of the name “Kumeyaay” were recorded as “Quemaya” and “Quamaya.” For some Sh’mulqs, the inquiries were interpreted as a seeking of their word for people, and they would respond in their dialect’s word for people, such as Iipai, Tipaay, Awikipai, or Kawakipai. Some noted political affiliation with a Sh’mulq alliance, such as the Kwit-hal people of the east slope of Cuyamaca Mountain (or, the Ikwainil Tipai (Blackwood People).

The Spanish named the Indians “Diegueno,” in reference to the Mission at San Diego (in the Treaty of Santa Ysabel the United States continued this label by referring to the Kumeyaay as the “Diegueno” Indian Nation). In later years, some groups operating out of self-preservation, or have voluntarily dropped the recognition of the name Kumeyaay. The end result of this variation in response has been a historical record with several different names for the same people.

In the 1950’s Dr. Florence Shipek interviewed many elders, conforming to research conducted earlier in the 20th century. After clarifying the terminology sought, the elders (all over 70 years old) all confirmed Kumeyaay was the general name. These elders were from communities of San Pasqual, Mesa Grande, Santa Ysabel, San Diego villages (Cosoy, Nipaguay), desert Bands, mountain Bands, and Baja California Bands. One of the most telling pieces of evidence of the origin of the Kumeyaay name is the oral history told in ”lightning songs.” These tell of the spread of the Yuman people from the Needles area of the Mohave, up and down the Colorado River. Within the songs are references to “Kumeyaay” west of the Quechan and up the coast.

What is clear is that “Kumeyaay” is one, if not the only, widespread name that was used in reference to all of the Yuman people of the desert to the Pacific. It is also true that Sh’mulqs would at times recognize an overarching governmental structure when necessary for defense, war, or dispute resolution, hence a sense of National identity.

Why did the name Kumeyaay fall into disuse?

Indian people perceived two legal avenues to pursue legal protections for their lands in the period from 1852 – 1875. First, the Treaty of Santa Ysabel (January 7, 1852) which, unknown to the Kumeyaay people, had been voted down by the US Senate and kept hidden in Washington. The treaty guaranteed Reservation land to the “Diegueno” Indian Nation. The second, was a condition in the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, following the Mexican-American War (1846-1848) stating that Mexican citizen’s property would be respected by the United States.

For the Indian people, this meant they should identify themselves as closely as possible with the Mexicans, the Missions, and the converted Kumeyaay. Unfortunately, most of the Mexican land records were ignored, destroyed, or deemed invalid by the Land Commission created to rule on treaty claims. The Indians, along with many Mexicans, lost legal recourse.

In the 1870’s, the Bureau of Indian Affairs of the United States was also separating Indians between the “Mission” Indians, and the “renegades” or “wild” Indians for which the BIA did not feel should have land rights. When some Reservations were created in 1876 for the “Mission” Indians, it probably further increased incentive for the Indian people to deny affiliation with “Kumeyaay” and express membership with the “Diegueno” or “Mission” names. In 1893, additional Reservations were created for the Diegueno Mission Indians, and there was little incentive for Indians north of the border to retain use of a name, which might link them with the Kumeyaay in Mexico (Kumiai, Mexican spelling of the same name). In fact, after having land seized or being driven off home-sites for 40 years, it must have been a terrifying prospect that some government official may find a justification for taking yet another piece of Indian property. It is little wonder that many Kumeyaay became vehement in their denial of affiliation with the name Kumeyaay and just as stalwart in claiming the name “Diegueno.”

By 1900, most all of the Kumeyaay in the US referred to themselves as “Mission” or “Diegueno”. Still, the elders born before 1890 remember their true name of Kumeyaay. The legacy is, that some Sh’mulqs or individuals still feel that Kumeyaay was never a name used in reference to their ancestors or their society, in historical context. To circumvent generations of indoctrination into the use of “Diegueno”, some Kumeyaay are willing to accept it as a post-modern name. For others, the name “Diegueno” is preferred, and most Kumeyaay are willing to respect the wishes of those individuals who wish to continue being identified as such.

For most of the Kumeyaay people, the name itself is an acknowledgement and reaffirmation of the common culture, language, and history of a tenacious people who occupied the most diverse environment of any Indian Nation in the present United States.