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Discovering San Diego's Native American Heritage

County offers wealth of sites to see and history to learn 

From the first Kumeyaay settlements some 12,000 years ago to today's wide-ranging cultural presence and contributions, San Diego's rich Native American heritage has helped shaped the region in many important ways.

To help you discover that history as well as the enduring impact of Native American peoples in San Diego, here's a look at some key facts to know and places to see around the county.

Native Peoples in San Diego

Reservations

San Diego County has the most Native American reservations of any county in the United States, with 18.

Tribal Bands

The tribal bands that govern those reservations are the Barona, Campo, 'Ewiiaapaayp (Cuyapaipe), Inaja-Cosmit, Jamul Indian Village, La Jolla, La Posta, Los Coyotes, Manzanita, Mesa Grande, Pala, Pauma, Rincon, San Pasqual, Santa Ysabel, Sycuan and Viejas. (One reservation is governed jointly by the Barona and Viejas bands.)

Two additional tribal bands here have no federally recognized lands: the San Luis Rey Band of Luiseño Indians and the Mount Laguna Band of Luiseño Indians.

Cultural Groups

The county's tribal bands are part of four distinct cultural groups: the Kumeyaay/Diegueño (also known as Iipay~Tipai), Payómkawichum (Quechnajuichom/Luiseño and Acjachemen/Juaneño), Kuupiaxchem/Cupeño, and Cahuilla peoples.

Of the 20,000-plus Native Americans who make up the four tribal groups in San Diego County, only a small percentage live on reservation land.

Native American Heritage Sites

Iipay~Tipai Kumeyaay Mut Niihepok

The Iipay~Tipai Kumeyaay Mut Niihepok (Land of the First Peoples) outdoor exhibit area, opened in Old Town in 2021, commemorates the area's Kumeyaay heritage.

Barona Cultural Center & Museum

The Barona Cultural Center & Museum is dedicated to the history and heritage of the Barona band in San Diego.

Kumeyaay-Ipai Interpretive Center at Pauwai

The Kumeyaay-Ipai Interpretive Center at Pauwai, a partnership of the city of Poway, Friends of the Kumeyaay and the San Pasqual Band of Indians, explores the lives of the Native Americans who populated the Poway area.

Cupa Cultural Center

This center in the Pala area of Inland North County is dedicated to preserving, perpetuating and enhancing traditional cultural practices of the Cupeño people. The Cupa Cultural Center was founded and is operated by the Pala Band of Mission Indians.

Kumeyaay: Native Californians/Iipai-Tipai Exhibit at the Museum of Us

The cultural heritage of the Kumeyaay people is the focus of this permanent exhibit at the Museum of Us, the Balboa Park institution devoted to stories of the human experience in San Diego. Discover such Kumeyaay traditions as pottery and basket-making, games and ceremonies. The museum also incorporates a Cosmology Dome that helps illustrate Kumeyaay beliefs about the meanings of the constellations and other phenomena of the night sky.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

The largest state park in the contiguous United States, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park features new exhibits at its Visitor Center that document the human history of this sprawling reserve in eastern San Diego County. Interpreted trails also help visitors access and explore ancient Cahuilla and Kumeyaay village sites, as well as hunting trails and rock art. And a museum in the park houses artifacts from numerous area indigenous tribes.

U.S. Grant Hotel

Since 2003, this historic Downtown hotel, one of the oldest in San Diego, has been owned by the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation. Representations of the evening primrose — a key symbol of life in Sycuan culture — can be seen throughout the hotel. The U.S. Grant Hotel also is graced by a $6.5 million art collection, with many of the pieces created by Native American artists, including painter and onetime San Diego Padres outfielder Gene Locklear.

Junípero Serra Museum

While this museum at San Diego's Presidio Park is named for the Spanish founder of Mission San Diego de Alcala, the Junípero Serra Museum also "explores the earliest history of San Diego—the stories of the people that lived along the river's edge since time immemorial." The institution is run by the San Diego History Center.

Tribal Casinos

There are nine casinos operated by Native American tribes in San Diego County.

East County

Five of the casinos are in East County: Sycuan Casino, Viejas Casino, Barona Valley Ranch Casino, Jamul Casino-San Diego and Golden Acorn Casino.

North Inland

The other four are in the North County Inland region: Harrah's Resort Southern California, Valley View Casino, Casino Pauma and Pala Casino.

A 10th casino, Pechanga, is just north of San Diego County in the Riverside County town of Temecula.

Tribe-Sponsored Venues and Services

San Diego tribes are major named sponsors of several prominent sites around San Diego.

Viejas Arena

Viejas Arena, the on-campus home of San Diego State University basketball as well as a popular concert venue.

Pechanga Arena San Diego

Pechanga Arena San Diego (formerly the San Diego Sports Arena), home to four local sports teams and likewise a longtime concert venue.

Sycuan Green Line

Sycuan Green Line, a key 24-mile segment of the San Diego Trolley system that runs from Downtown San Diego to Santee.

Land Acknowledgements

Numerous San Diego educational and cultural institutions have issued Land Acknowledgments recognizing and honoring the area as Kumeyaay land. Among them are San Diego State University, the University of California San Diego and other educational institutions, as well as such arts and culture organizations as the Museum of Us, San Diego Natural History Museum and La Jolla Playhouse.


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