Diegueño Tribe of California

Published on September 17, 2010 by Alice

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Diegueno House at Campo

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Diegueno House at Campo

The name Diegueño, pronouned dee-eh-GAY-nyo, is derived from that of the Mission San Diego de Alcalá (thus, the tribal name is sometimes written as San Diegueño). It translates as the “the little people of Diego.” Those CALIFORNIA INDIANS who were forced by the Spanish to live at the San Diego mission or to help support it, beginning in the 18th century, con­sisted of peoples of more than one tribe, but the major­ity were from two Yuman-speaking groups living in present-day southwestern California as well as across the Mexican border in Baja California: the Northern Diegueño (Diegueño proper or Ipai for “the people”), primarily of San Diego County; and the Southern Diegueño (or Tipai, Kamia, or Kumeyaay, also mean­ing “the people”), primarily of Imperial County. Both groups are known as the Tipai-Ipai. They and other California tribes who were forced to convert to Chris­tianity are classified as MISSION INDIANS despite the fact that some among them resisted the Spanish pres­ence in their homelands.


The Diegueño were similar in culture to both the Uto­Aztecan-speaking LUISEÑO to their north and the Yuman tribes to the east, such as the YUMA (QUECHAN), classified in the Southwest Culture Area (in which some scholars also place the Diegueño). Diegueño social orga­nization was based on clans, with tribelets made up typ­ically of a single clan traced patrilineally. A clan chief and his assistant lived in the main village with a number of satellite and temporary villages under him. Permanent dwellings were dome-shaped structures with pole frame­works and various coverings: mats, thatch, palm leaves, wood, bark, and earth. Temporary shelters were made of brush. Caves were sometimes used for shelter as well.

Acorns, mesquite beans, and sage seeds were among the many wild plant foods gathered. Coastal tribelets depended on fish and mollusks. Deer and smaller game were hunted inland. Some groups farmed tobacco, the main crop. Both baskets and pottery were used for con­tainers. Men often went naked; women wore two-piece skirts and coiled basketry hats; when foot protection was needed both sexes wore sandals made of agave fiber.

Diegueño religious practices included the keruk, a clan mourning ceremony that lasted four to eight days and included feasting, dancing, gifting, and the burning of images of the dead. Deer-hoof rattles were among the cer­emonial objects used by shamans in the various rituals. Vision quests of boys were aided by the narcotic and hallu­cinogenic effects of jimsonweed. An older man aided a youth in drinking a beverage made from the pounded plant in a special soapstone (steatite) bowl, holding his head so he would not drink too much, then walking and chanting with him. He also led him to a small enclosure where the youth would be encouraged to dream in quest of a guardian spirit. Ground paintings sometimes 15 feet in diameter of powdered white soapstone, powdered charcoal, red oxide of iron, and seeds of various colors illustrated the Diegueño world in these ceremonies. The Diegueño were the only California tribe to develop a system of color-direc­tion symbolism: red for north; green-blue for south; white for east; and black for west.

Contacts with Non-Indians

Gaspar de Portolá, governor of the Spanish-held province of California, and the Franciscan priest Junípero Serra founded the San Diego de Alcalá mission in 1769, the first of 21 such missions founded in coastal California by the Spanish. The Diegueño at first resisted such “civilizing”— the teaching of the Spanish language and Christian dogma, the singing of hymns, and a dependency on agriculture—as offered by the missionaries. Warriors attacked the mis­sion without success within a month of its founding. Seven years later, however, in a larger attack, the Diegueño man­aged to burn part of the mission and kill three Spaniards. Yet Spanish efforts persisted, and the militants were paci­fied. The closing of the missions in 1834 by the Mexican government provided little relief for many of the area’s tribes, now largely dispossessed of their traditional way of life. The California gold rush starting in 1849, a year after the takeover of California by the United States, meant growing numbers of non-Indians on Indian lands. After 1875, the Diegueño were settled on a number of small reservations.

Delfina Cuero

In 1968, The Autobiography of Delfina Cuero was pub­lished. Delfina, an elderly Diegueño woman born in about 1900, related her story to the ethnobotanist Flo­rence C. Shipek. Her account is filled with the details of traditional Diegueño daily life, including food sources, use of medicinal herbs, rituals, and art. It also speaks of the great prejudice she encountered as a Native Ameri­can. Delfina died four years later.

Contemporary Diegueño

Diegueño rancherias, or reservations, include Barona, Campo, Capitan Grande, Cuyapaipe, Inaja-Cosmit, Jamul, La Posta, Manzanita, Mesa Grande, San Pasqual, Santa Ysabel, Sycuan, and Viejas. Barona, Sycuan, and Viejas now have successful bingo and gaming operations.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Native American Tribes by CARL WALDMAN

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