Kwahup to San Diego’s Indian Country

Discover an abundance of Native culture in one of California’s loveliest regions

by Deborah Utacia Krol, Salinan Native publications

SAN DIEGO, CA – Millions of visitors flock to San Diego each year to enjoy sun, surf and the city’s famous zoo and wild animal park.

But those who venture a little farther afield will discover an abundance of Native culture in one of California’s loveliest regions. In fact, San Diego County boasts the largest number of reservations in a single U.S. county-18.

The major cultural groups in the region are the Kumeyaay (or Diegueño) and the Cupeño (or Cupa) peoples, as well as the Luiseño and Cahuilla. From fabulous casinos and resorts to tiny cultural centers, plus an annual schedule of powwows and festivals, visitors will find plenty of Native happenings to keep their itineraries filled.

The largest tribe in San Diego is the mighty Kumeyaay Nation. With 18 communities spanning California and Mexico, 12 in San Diego County alone, the Kumeyaay tribes offer visitors a rich cultural heritage spanning thousands of years.

KwaHup-or come in-to Kumeyaay country with a trip to the Barona Museum (619/443-7003, ext. 219). Located on the Barona reservation near Lakeside, the museum houses a large collection of Kumeyaay artifacts, some dating as far back as 8,000 B.C. “These elegant artifacts show the artistry and skill of Barona’s ancient Native American ancestors,” notes tribal member Beaver Curo. Interactive displays, listening alcoves and dioramas provide a window into traditional Kumeyaay life, song and custom.

The Barona Powwow is held here every Labor Day Weekend. Like other tribal gatherings in the area, the Barona Powwow spotlights southern California tribal dance and song alongside the pan-Indian powwow tradition. Bird singers perform their timeless songs to the rhythm of the men’s gourds, while women and men alike gracefully glide like eagles and hawks soaring through the air. Don’t miss the peone games; this ancient gambling game is played with white and black bones, blankets and steely nerves, and it frequently lasts the night.

Mission Trails Regional Park, eight miles northeast of downtown San Diego, features 5,800 acres of Native culture. Start at the Visitor and Interpretive Center, then follow the trails that lead to ancient village sites. Cowles Mountain, within the park, is the site of a restored Kumeyaay observatory, where painstakingly arranged stones point the viewer’s eye toward the city’s highest peak. Peer along the stones at sunrise during the winter solstice to see the light of the rising sun balanced on the peak.

The county’s newest attraction is the Kumeyaay-Ipai Interpretive Center. Located in Poway at the former Silver Lake Archaeological Site, the center lovingly preserves its corner of the Pauwai Valley as the Kumeyaay people knew it before the Europeans came. Trails wind around grinding rock stations, ramadas and a traditional Kumeyaay willowbranch house on the five-acre property.Dedicated in June 2002, the center plans to build its museum soon.

In the north lies the sleepy community of Pala. Today the Cupeños (Cupa), or Kuupangaxwichem, “people who slept here,” live here with their Luiseño neighbors as the Pala Band of Mission Indians.

Despite being one of the tiniest tribes in California, the Cupeños keep their language and culture alive. The Cupa Cultural Center (760/742-1590, houses many Cupeño artifacts, and is the home of Cupa Days. The gathering, held the first weekend in May, commemorates the tribe’s forced journey from their lush, spring-fed homeland to Pala Mission.

If you’re in area in the second week of September, come to the county’s biggest Native event, the Sycuan Powwow (619/445-7776,, held on the Sycuan Reservation, east of the city off I-8. With a huge prize purse, and hundreds of dancers and drum groups from across the continent, Sycuan has become synonymous with the genre. Arlene Galvan, who headlines the organizing committee, says that last year’s powwow was the best ever, with “wonderful bird dancing” and the ever-present peone games.

In San Diego’s Old Town, visit Shumup Ko Hup (619/297-1930). This Native-owned cooperative store, whose name means “dream come true,” features a variety of baskets, jewelry and other items handcrafted by Kumeyaay artisans.

Come experience the rich heritage of San Diego’s Indian Country!

Details: Many of San Diego’s tribes host gatherings and other events open to the public; however, it’s best to call ahead before attending any tribal gathering.

Visit for contact information on the Kumeyaay communities and their events.