The Barona, Campo, Pala Indians of San Diego County


The evacuation from Warner's Ranch to Pala. "We have always been here. We do not care for any other place. It may be good but is not ours. There is no other place for us."
  • The evacuation from Warner's Ranch to Pala. "We have always been here. We do not care for any other place. It may be good but is not ours. There is no other place for us."
  • Image by Sawyer

"To tame a savage you must tie him down to the soil. You must make him understand the value of property and the benefits of its separate ownership. You must appeal to those selfish principles implanted by divine providence, and make them minister to civilization and refinement."

Taking Highway 67 north from El Cajon you travel for about five miles to Lakeside. At this point it narrows from four lanes to two, an asphalt road which winds its way through the hills for about 20 miles to the town of Ramona. But if you're heading for the new homes of San Diego Country Estates, just outside Ramona, Highway 67 is not the fastest route.

To save a little time you might turn off 67 just before it loses its status as a freeway and make a right turn, heading for Wildcat Canyon Road. It's a two-lane strip which meanders up the canyon, past sycamore and live oak, through the sage and manzanita. About six miles into the canyon, just beyond the Silverwood Wildlife Sanctuary, you pass over a ribbed cattle guard framed by two posts and a fence stretching away on each side. On the posts are signs which read: Indian Reservation No Trespassing No Hunting.

At this crossing Wildcat Canyon Road enters the Barona Indian Reservation, a sprawling expanse of rugged, dry land shaped roughly like an hourglass. The road runs the entire length of the reservation, and although the speed limit is posted, cars heading for Country Estates whiz by, past the old mission church and the trailers and grazing cattle off the road, and frequently a young heifer wanders onto the pavement in front of a speeding car.

"Each month we get one or two cattle killed on that road and if the county makes it even wider, people will drive faster. I'm afraid that sooner or later it's going to be a child that's hit," says Josephine Romero. She is a solidly built Indian woman of middle age with long black hair, going silver at the temples, pulled back behind her in a traditional braid. She is the tribal chairperson - a term she prefers to chairwoman - of the Barona reservation, one of 17 Indian reservations in San Diego County.

"It's a country road, really, and people here sometimes just walk on it. But all this traffic is getting bad," she says. "The county owns the easement on each side and they can widen it if they want, and that's what we're afraid they're going to do. Nobody here likes the idea one bit, but what can we do?"

Before the development of San Diego Country Estates, the traffic wasn't much of a problem. The main concern has always been reminding travelers that they are on Indian property; that they shouldn't get out of their cars and hike, or pull out a pistol to pop off a few rounds at a beer can. But things are changing.

"When these reservations were established, it was on land they thought they would never use," Romero says, "so they gave it to the Indians. Now with the development, with the modern roads and transport, these areas have become prime locations. So they're building around our boundary lines, pressuring from the surrounding areas. They see all this beautiful land and they think we won't do anything with it, but we do. We use it for grazing; we like to live with the open spaces; we don't like too much development."

Romero climbs into the cab of her pickup truck for a tour of the reservation. A decal on the rear window shows the profile of a Plains Indian with headfeathers and war paint. On the bumper is a sticker which says, simply, "Indians."

When the Spanish first established Mission San Diego in 1769, they came into contact with an Indian civilization that may have dated back more than 40,000 years. The Indian clans of the area had a highly specialized hunting and food gathering economy. Food staples included acorns, lambs, celery, currants, wild plums, berries, mussels, fish, quail, ducks, rabbits, and deer. Clan size was limited to between 10 and 15 families in order not to overtax the scarce resources of the semi-arid environment. The Spanish were quick to name the local bands Diegueño, Luiseño, Cahuilla, Cupeño. They recorded the impressive health and vitality of the local Indian civilizations, their nomadic lives and naturalistic faith, even as they attempted to undermine that faith and convert them to Christianity.

Those the Spanish were able to convert to Christianity and farming became known as "Mission Indians." During this settlement time, a number of Mission Indians were killed by the Spanish while attempting to escape from forced labor details. Two who did manage to flee went on to organize an attack on the mission by 800 Diegueno Indians on November 4, 1775. A missionary and two artisans were killed before soldiers from the nearby presidio were able to drive them off.

Still, the effect of the Spanish on the local Indian population might be seen as relatively benign when compared with that of the 49ers. In California in 1848, thousands of prospectors and miners swarmed across the new territory in search of gold. Where the Spanish had seen the Indians as heathens with souls in need of redemption, most Americans saw only savages impeding the course of progress and civilization. Massacre and forced relocation soon became so widespread that the California Indian population was reduced from around 250,000 at the turn of the 19th Century to just over 16,000 at the turn of the 20th. What little law existed in California at the time did not recognize the killing of an Indian as a criminal offense. In fact, a state law effective in the 1850s permitted the sale for slavery of Indians judged to be loitering or vagrant.

In 1850 Antonio Garra, a St. Louis Indian, led an uprising after the Americans attempted to impose taxes on the homes and herds of local Indians. The Cupeños burned out the Warnew Ranch in the San Jose Valley, 80 miles northeast of San Diego. "Fitzgerald's Volunteers," a locally assembled militia, then marched out of San Diego to burn the Cupeño village. The uprising lasted over a year, gradually fading away after the execution in San Diego of Garra and several other leaders.

In 1851 and 1852 a series of 18 treaties were signed with the California Indians guaranteeing them perpetual safety on proposed backcountry reservations in exchange for 75 percent of their traditional lands. Although the Indians abided by the treaties and moved to the designated areas, the U.S. Congress, under pressure from California gold hunters, refused to ratify them, even as the government proceeded with the land appropriation. Shortly thereafter, the treaties "disappeared" from the Senate archives, not to be "rediscovered" until 1905.

In 1964 the U.S. Department of Justice agreed to pay the Indian people of California for the 65 million acres of land taken under the terms of the unratified treaties. At prices consistent with the 1852 land market, that came out to 47 cents an acres. When the descendants of the California tribes finally got their checks in 1972, they found that their total compensation amounted to $650 per person. In protest, many Indians returned their checks, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs placed the money in a special trust fund.

"The BIA is supposed to be a guarantor of Indian rights under the original terms of our treaties," says Lannie Deserly, "but at the end of the Second World War they started discovering oil, gas, and uranium under what they thought were worthless reservation lands. So in 1953 the BIA began a program they called termination - to terminate the Indian. They withdrew all federal support from the reservations and forced the Indian to relocate in the city, to become part of your mainstream culture. This is how your urban Indian population came into being."

Deserly, an Oglala Sioux from the Fort Peck Reservation in northeastern Montana, is himself a victim of relocation. Today he is director of the Indian Center of San Diego. The center, housed in an old building at 1623 Fifth Avenue, acts as a social and cultural center for the urban Indian population of San Diego, estimated to be about 7,500. Its services and programs include a legal clinic, vocational training and job referral, day-care referral, a health clinic, a newsletter, and a Monday night meeting of the "Traditional Five" chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous. "Alcoholism is still a major problem with the Indian population." Deserly explains, "I'd say it's a problem at some point in the lives of between 50 and 75 percent of the people here. The problem in San Diego easily parallels that in New York, L.A., Rosebud, South Dakota, or Dallas, Texas.

The U.S. Indian Health Service (IHS) is the agency that is supposed to provide Indian health care in the United States. Since 1953 it has provided only minimal medical services in California. Before then it had a hospital in Riverside that the Indians referred to as the "Death House," since you only went there, the Indians say, when you were ready to die. Complaints and protests by the Indian people resulted in state inspections and an ultimatum from Sacramento, either clean up the hospital or let the state take over. The Indian Health Service, in tune with the BIA policy of termination, closed down the facility and withdrew virtually all medical services from California. The state, however, failed in its pledge to assume operation of the hospital. California's Indians were left without health services other than the modest IHS hospital in Winterhaven, one mile from the Arizona border, and those available through private practices, generally too expensive, and in the case of San Diego County, located an average of 25 miles from the reservation.

In 1961, Dennis Magee, a Pala Indian, was one of two Indians to graduate from San Diego State on a football scholarship. He had majored in business administration. In 1970 he helped found the Indian Health Council of San Diego, and between 1972 and 1976 he raised over $300,000 to open the new medical-dental clinic on the Rincon reservation, 40 miles north of San Diego.

"We're now seeing about 28 medical and 18 dental patients a day," Magee explains. "Indian life expectancy is 45 years nationwide, but up to 61 years here in San Diego. But that's still 11 years short of the average. And our infant mortality rate is twice that of the county as a whole. Tuberculosis is four times as great, as is our death by accident rate. Other problems we commonly run into here include diabetes, hypertension, obesity, poor nutrition, weak vision, bad teeth and gums, and, of course, alcoholism."

One factor which may contribute to the high rate of alcoholism among San Diego's Indians is the high rate of unemployment. According to the California Employment Development Department, 60 percent of San Diego's Indian population is currently unemployed. Some reservations, Campo for example, record substantially higher rates, but for different reasons.

The little town of Live Oak Springs, surrounded by the 15,010 acres of the Campo Indian Reservation, sits in Hill Valley, a region of high desert between the tail end of the Laguna Mountains to the west and the In-Ko-Pah Mountains to the east. Valacia Thacker and her family live in a house trailed which is both in the town and on the Campo reservation. A barbwire fence runs a few feet from the trailer, dividing the two. Mrs. Thacker is the tribal chairman (the term she prefers) of the Campo reservation. Stepping out of her trailer into the cool mountain air, she looks about her at the rolling hills and steep canyons thick with groves of oak. "The air's clean out here," she says. "The water is good, too. It's a nice place to live."

In ironic contrast to the idyllic setting, Campo's resident population (approximately 205, not all of them Indians) suffers with what Thacker estimates to be 87 percent unemployment. "We're so isolated," she says, "that getting any kind of work nearby is a real problem. We're trying to get our own industry. That cloverleaf you came off from Highway 8? We own that land, and we want to put up a truck stop and a motel, a laundry, and a restaurant so Indians can work there. We're also thinking about a mobile home park on the reservation; a regular park with people who're going to live here and pay rent, not an RV park with people in and out."

The difficulties created by the reservation's distance from any population center are mirrored in the living patterns of its residents - they are spread far and wide over the land. "Until July, 1972 we didn't have electricity out here," says Thacker. "That meant that to talk with anybody you had to get in your car and drive all around. It made things difficult for tribal work. Now just about everybody has a phone and I can stay in touch."

Improved communication has also facilitated the scheduling of regular trips from the reservation to El Cajon. Thacker's mother, Mabel C. Meza, 62, drives a large white van into the city, picking up passengers throughout Campo and from other reservations along the way. The mobility has allowed Campo Indians access to shopping and specialized health care not available on the reservation.

But the isolation remains, and despite the advantages of open spaces and clean air, life for Campo Indians continues to present problems. Thacker notes, for example, that young people tend to leave after finishing school at Mountain Empire Senior High, a converted World War II POW camp located in the town of Campo. There is little for them to do on the reservation, but not much more, it seems, for them in the city. If higher education is the answer, as many suggest, few enjoy the benefits.

The native American in San Diego has an average of ten years of formal education. Many older Indians had only the BIA schools available to them, and until the Bureau's schools closed in the 1930s, the instruction that was offered did little more than prepare the Indians as workers for local farmers and merchants. Higher education was not encouraged.

"When we first moved to Barona in '32, I attended public school. We'd have to leave about six a.m. There was an old bus that would take us to the Grossmont district," recalls Josephine Romero. "We'd get back around four or five in the afternoon. There was a lot of prejudice I remember, as far as not letting the Indians get an academic education. I guess they thought the Indian wasn't capable of a profession. I remember this also from when I went off to the Sherman School, which was the BIA school in Riverside; I went there for six years. As a vocational school it was one of the best. I remember I was able to get a job in a laundry the year I graduated. But academic-wise, no.

"Now, this sort of thing went on till very recently. A few years back my son decided he wanted to be an architect. The BIA said they couldn't help him. If he'd wanted a trade like plumbing they could have helped him."

It's little wonder then that a national survey conducted in the late '60s found that the Indian youth in the 12th grade had the poorest self-image of any group tested. But today a new awakening of Indian culture and pride has begun to reverse this trend. Tutors from on-campus Indian programs at Grossmont, Palomar, and SDSU, members of the Native American Student Alliance, and others are now going back to the reservations to encourage their younger brothers and sisters to continue their educations, not to get away, but to get back; to be able to make a more effective contribution to their people.

"Indians were out in force in National City this weekend. There was no demonstration; they were out having fun." - Channel 8 coverage of an Indian bowling tournament. March 27, 1977

Stereotyping of Indian people continues to run the gamut from the comic image of the drunken roustabout, to the more threatening image of the militant firebrand, with warbraids and rifle. But if there is a common denominator which can accurately be applied to the majority of Indian people, both here and throughout the United States, it is a desire for self-determination, for greater control over the lands and resources they can still call their own. Thus, the question of whether or not to preserve Indian historical sites, and for whom, has become a focal point of debate within the academic community. Some younger and more sensitive scientists such as Dennis O'Neil, an anthropologist at Palomar College, have come to appreciate the debt their profession owes to the Indian nations, both living and dead, and work in close cooperation with local tribes. Others continue to see themselves as elite trustees over the Indian past. Still others have turned mercenary, allowing themselves to be hired by developers whose vested interests require favorable environmental reports and testimony on the relative worthlessness of Indian lands.

O'Neil says the problems growing from increased development and the resulting conflict with archaeological sites stem largely from the attitudes of local governments. "The county, and most city governments in San Diego," he says, "have not yet come to realize that archaeological sites are limited unrenewable resources, and as a result, the government agencies who are responsible for watching over the environment are allowing developers to bulldoze over important sites with inadequate restraints."

The complicated situation surrounding the Warner Hot Springs resort and the Cupeño Indians serves to illustrate the frustrating quagmire encountered in legal preservation efforts.

In 1903 the last Cupeño families at Warner Ranch were removed and relocated on about a half-dozen San Diego reservations. Their eviction resulted from the federal government recognizing the land claims of the Juan Warner family. When Congress authorized a commission to resolve territorial disputes brought about by California's statehood, the Indians were not informed, unaware that settlers had petitioned for and were later granted legal ownership of their land.

With the successful removal of the Cupeños, the Warner ranch was able to reorganize itself from a working ranch for cattle and horses to a resort ranch, advertising the medicinal benefits of the local hot springs. In the early 1970s the Warner Hot Springs resort came under the ownership of A. Calrossi, Incorporated. Advertising the name of Bing Crosby, a minor investor, Calrossi applied to the county for permission to expand the 3,000-acre complex to include condominiums, space for campers, and a new golf course.

Disturbed by the probable effect the development would have on their historical sites, the now scattered Cupeños sought the assistance of the California Indian Legal Services (CILS), a nonprofit group that operates out of a brown suburban ranch house in Escondido. Through the efforts of CILS, the county board of supervisors was persuaded that valuable archaeological sites were at stake and required Calrossi to file an environmental impact report.

Calrossi, discouraged by the prospect of much time and money to be spent on the report, agreed to settle the matter with the Indians. By the end of last summer, the Indians thought they had reached an agreement they could live with when the corporation consented to cut back its projected expansion plans and turn over 350 acres of land containing the disputed archaeological sites to the Cupeños. However, this fall Calrossi sold its holdings to a New York company which then sold it to a West German multi-national corporation with Old West-style resorts in Germany, the United States, and Spain. Whether the new owners will respect the nonbinding agreement made last summer remains to be seen.

The California Indian Legal Services, with three lawyers and a number of legal workers in its San Diego County offices, works to protect the Indian land base (123,814 acres divided among San Diego's 17 reservations), Indian water rights, and civil rights. It is presently representing eight local reservations and two in Riverside County who have identified themselves as intervenors (interested parties) in state hearings regarding San Diego Gas and Electric's plans to string extra-high voltage lines from the proposed Sun Desert Nuclear Project across the Indian land.

Though the pressures on Indian people and their culture continue, and though the problems created by both neglect and overregulations still plague them, there have been encouraging developments recently, but they have much more to do with the Indian community itself than with outside influences. It is a cultural, spiritual, and political reawakening of what it means to be native American.

Josephine Romero walks through the Catholic Indian cemetery behind the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Mission Church on the Barona reservation. Many of the dead here had to be moved from their original burial sites when the City of San Diego flooded out the old cemetery at El Capitan, several miles away. She stops at the grave of Yellow Sky, something of a legend among the Indians of Barona. He used to walk the desert between Yuma and San Diego wearing only a breach cloth, trading firewood for a meal whenever he got hungry or was in need of companionship. They said he was over 100 years old when he finally died sometime in the late 1920s. When the remains of the dead were being dug up to be reinterred at Barona, his was the only skeleton to be found fully intact.

"It used to be a stigma," she says. "You tried to hide the fact that you were an Indian. You couldn't vote, you weren't a citizen (U.S. citizenship was not granted to all American-born Indians until 1924), you were just a ward of the government. Well, nobody wants to feel that way."

"Then came what they called 'the revolution,' and my children were much into that; they began asserting themselves, wearing bandanas, growing their hair, saying, you know, "we're proud of what we are," and through that came this awareness and bringing back to the people their own culture."

"The younger ones got away from it - what it means to be in the circle," says Peggy, an older woman from the Campo reservation. "They became acculturated. But now they are coming back. It makes me so proud."

"When the students invited us to their pow-wow they were so respectful, they come to us now to learn the language and the crafts and the sacred songs. It makes us feel like we mean something again; that there's a future for the people."

"We tried to have a respectful pow-wow," agrees John Rouillard, head of American Indian Studies at San Diego State, one of several such programs at area colleges that enroll upwards of 2,000 students, including about 200 native Americans. "There's a definite trend, starting probably with the Alcatraz takeover in 1969, of young Indians wanting to go back to tribal work. It's very inspiring. Tribalism, you see, is the heart and soul of the Indian community. It provides a spiritual alternative to the materialism of the society."

"My heart is still back in South Dakota, but also out there in Pala and San Pasqual. There is a thread, you see, that links us all to the land."

Perhaps it is that thread, that connection with the land that supports and nurtures all people, that makes the struggle of the American Indian unique. Deprived, exploited, and forced once again into the fight to defend and preserve their resources against the forces of unchecked growth and profit, the hope of the Indian may indeed be the hope of us all.

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