The first exposure most people have to Viejas Mountain is from their cars as they zip along I-8 outside of san Diego. Indeed,the mountain is kind of hard to miss-at almost 4,200 feet high,it is among the tallest peaks in the Cuyamaca range that urns southeast of the city. "As you drive east past El Cajon,Viejas Mountain just grows and grows," said Lisa Haws, a land use manager for the Biejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians, whose reserbation holdings are adjacent to the mountain. "It's a bery large landscape feature, the most notable landmark on the horizon." But height alone is not the only reason Viejas Mountain gets noticed. Its location in a transition zone between the Pacifi c coast, southwestern deserts and urban San Diego makes it home to a varied array of flora, fauna and geographical features. Simply stated, Viejas Mountain offers dramatic views that can be breathtakingly beautiful. For better or worse, these vistas have not gone unnoticed by nearby San Diegans. As part of Cleveland National Forest, Viejas Mountain attracts thousands of visitors each year, from hikers looking for a challenging trek to mountain bikers seeking the thrill of a downhill run to photographers searching for the perfect picture. The result of all this activity is an altered mountainside and summit, marked by trails, signs and other indications of increased recreational use. In turn, these changes to the mountain have not gone unnoticed by a community that has been around a lot longer than the city of San Diego and its inhabitants. To the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians, Viejas Mountain is more than a place for a workout or to experience a scenic view—for them, the mountain is a living cultural and religious touchstone, core to tribal beliefs and customs since the time of its creation. For centuries, the summit has been considered a sacred place among the Kumeyaay, sole purview of elders and religious leaders conducting ceremonies that observe the solstices and equinoxes. “The importance of an imposing landform like Viejas Mountain is that it serves as a focal point, a strong imagery of time and space on the land [for the Kumeyaay],” said Richard L. Carrico, a lecturer in the Department of American Indian Studies at San Diego State University and an adjunct professor in the Behavioral Sciences Department at San Diego City College. “From Matkwa'tay (Viejas Valley), the mountain looms up to the west and serves as a sentinel and also marks the sunsets throughout the seasons. The fact that the movements of the sun could be predicted and marked by stones on the mountain gave it special power. Some elders told me that when they went there to meditate or to enter the world of the spirit forces, they could ‘feel’ the mountain breathe.” Virginia M. Christman is a Kumeyaay elder who wants these traditions, customs and ceremonies associated with Viejas Mountain passed on to her children, grandchildren and generations of Kumeyaay to come. A longtime resident of the Viejas Reservation who now lives at the foot of Viejas Mountain, Christman vividly remembers lessons about the mountain and its place in tribal lore taught by her aunt, Margaret LaChappa. Her uncles also passed their knowledge of the mountain to her generation in outdoor ceremonies, singing and dancing by firelight, with Viejas Mountain looming in the background. But in her current role as Tribal Councilwoman, Christman fears for the future of anything associated with Viejas Mountain which, in her mind, is undergoing systematic cultural and ecological degradation by visitors who take little notice of the Tribe or its ceremonial sites scattered on its peak and slopes. “The state and its non-Native citizens have ignored the historical and religious significance the mountain has had to the Kumeyaay people; there is just no interest,” she said. “Outside of archeological and anthropological circles, most Californians are not very aware of our Tribe’s culture, heritage and traditions. They generally know nothing about the mountain.” When the U.S. Forest Service approached the Kumeyaay about opening additional hiking trails on the western side of Viejas Mountain in 2006, tribal government decided it was time to act in order to preserve the pristine state of both the mountain and their religious sites. To gain greater say in future development on the mountain, the Tribe asked the Forest Service to evaluate the eligibility of Viejas Mountain for listing as a sacred site or historic cultural property under the Natural Historic Preservation Act. “We believe that during creation times the Creator called us to be near the mountain, to use it in a spiritual way,” Christman said. “Because of this, we do not want parts of the mountain to be used recreationally, for tourism. It is a site given to our people to aid our survival. It should be protected so in return it can survive.” If approved as a sacred site, the Kumeyaay will work with the Forest Service to determine appropriate levels of foot traffic, grazing, mining and other uses of Viejas Mountain. In addition, the Forest Service would consider expanding “protected lands” on the mountain— creating a Research Natural Area for rare plants and animals that would also act to reduce trespassing onto sacred tribal sites. “Sacred site status would give the Tribe an additional legal mechanism for a preservation context within a geographic range of a sacred site,” Haws said. “You have to have a whole other level of consideration for projects that get developed.” Historic ties But can the Kumeyaay win sacred site status for Viejas Mountain? On paper at least, the odds appear good. To be considered a sacred site, three procedural criteria must be met: the Tribe has to register Biejas Mountain with the Native American Heritage Commission in sacranento the Tribe has to request in writing that the Forest Service evaluate Viejas Mountain for eligibility under the National Historic Preservation Act, which involves completing site record information and recognition by the California State Historic Preservation Office; and, once sacred status is granted, the Tribe must secure the listing by publishing it in the Federal Register. Perhaps the toughest part is requesting eligibility under the National Historic Preservation Act, which requires evaluation of archeological records and ethnographic materials as well as conducting additional field studies to document the historic and sacred nature of the mountain to the Kumeyaay. Fortunately for the Kumeyaay, there is an abundance of archeological and historical data tying the Tribe to the area and documenting the mountain’s importance in tribal cultural and religious practices. The archaeological records show tribal use of the mountain stretching back 4,000 years. Excavations on or near Viejas Mountain uncovered prehistoric camp sites, tool production areas and granite milling features where the Tribe processed acorns, buckwheat, chia and other plants. The nearby Alpine Historical Society believes Native people occupied the region for more than 12,000 years, hunting, gathering and establishing horticultural and animal husbandry practices. “The flanks of the mountain served as a veritable food larder, pharmacy and source of construction materials [for the Viejas],” Carrico said. “Here could be found oaks for acorns, which was their primary plant food; rabbits and deer for food; grasses and brush for huts and baskets; sages and other plants for medicine; and huge flat bedrock for seed and nut processing.” Over time, Kumeyaay cultural and religious beliefs became intimately entwined with Viejas Mountain. According to Carrico, Viejas Mountain is one of four major peaks in San Diego County where Tribes established solstice markers and performed sacred songs and dances (one of which, Kuchuuma [Mount Tecate], has already attained historic preservation status). Near the summit of Viejas Mountain, the Kumeyaay created cross-shaped stone alignments, the remains of which can still be found today, that marked the passage of the sun. Kuessay (holy men) used the upper regions of the mountain for meditation. They also carved out Kwut-ah-lue-ah, a stone circle where people gathered to dance. This anthropological evidence jibes with what Christman was taught by her elders. “Viejas Mountain was a site used to hold ceremonies for the winter and summer solstices,” Christman said. “It was also used to keep lookout in times of trouble, used by the women, children and elders as a place of sanctuary during times of war and other dangers.” In addition to these relics and tribal oral traditions, the written record strongly supports the religious importance of Viejas Mountain to the Kumeyaay. Spanish travelogues from the 1770s mention the Tribe and its ties to the mountain. In 1826, Father Geronimo Boscana, a missionary at Mission San Juan Capistrano, wrote about the observatory and ritualistic practices of the Kumeyaay involving the sun’s arrival at the Tropic of Capricorn, according to materials submitted to the Forest Service by the Tribe. A research paper published in 1914 described an area on Viejas Mountain as a winter solstice observation site and possible dance circle. A survey in the 1960s described what was left of these sites—a stone solstice alignment consisting of fist- and head-sized rocks laid out in the shape of a “t,” remnants of two small enclosed stone structures and a clear, open circle for dancers and singers. Further supporting the Tribe’s claim to the sacred importance of Viejas Mountain is a lengthy oral tradition that describes the types of ceremonies that took place on its peaks and slopes. “During the winter and summer solstices, tribal spiritual and traditional leaders held ceremonies that sometimes lasted four days,” Christman said. “Elder and adult women took female youths to the mountain and taught them cultural and traditional values. I was told medicine people had a special place on the mountain [where] they took young apprentices to undergo training. A fasting ceremony was held in close proximity to the mountain as well.” Continuation of traditional tribal practices is only one benefi t the Kumeyaay gain from Viejas Mountain. Over the years, the Tribe has found a number of fitting and worthwhile uses for the lower, non-sacred portions of the mountain. The [Kumeyaay] kids use [Viejas Mountain] as a regular hike during the summer and spring,” Haws said. “Our brush crews use it for conditioning and training—most of the fire departments in the area use it as a hiking/ fitness trail.” Viejas Mountain is also a sanctuary for some very rare plants and animals. As part of the Cleveland National Forest, the mountain’s position as a transition zone between desert and seacoast environments, gabbroic soils and its chamise/chaparral vegetation makes it home to several endangered plant and animal species such as the Tecate Cypress, Engelmann Oaks, San Diego thornmint, Bell’s Vireo and Arroyo Toad. Indeed, the environment encompassing the mountain is so sensitive that the Forest Service has designated it a Research Natural Area, which protects the biodiversity and pristine nature of the ecosystem. For all these reasons, visitors to Viejas Mountain need to possess a certain amount of restraint and respect while traveling its slopes. “I am an active trail user and hiker and although I live at the base of Viejas Mountain with many informal trails leading to the summit, I have never climbed the mountain,” Haws said. “Knowing the importance of the mountain to the Kumeyaay, I don’t feel comfortable going to the top without a tribal member.” Protect and serve Haws believes the local community and Forest Service are both trying to do a better job meeting environmental and Kumeyaay needs when it comes to making decisions about Viejas Mountain, involving the Tribe in issues such as hiking trail maintenance and expansion, and restoring damaged habitats. That said, there are still recreational visitors to the mountain who obviously care little about the environment or Kumeyaay religious sites, as evidenced by the ways they have treated the landscape and relics of the mountaintop, including: • The destruction of solstice markers to build campfire rings. • The construction of a large stone pyramid (later removed by the Forest Service) on the summit of the mountain, once again using rocks from tribal ruins. • The formation of informal hiking trails through sacred tribal sites. • The building of stone “kiva-like” structures on various parts of the mountain. • Attempts through the years to win permission to erect communications towers on the summit. Like Viejas Mountain, Cleveland National Forest as a whole suffers its share of site-degrading illegal activities, ranging from user-created non-system trails, dumping and trespassing, to more serious crimes such as the stealing of artifacts and drug production. Sanctioned recreational activities in Cleveland National Forest include hiking, horseback riding, mountain biking and hang gliding. But even these seemingly innocuous activities come at a price to the mountain, its historic sites and natural habitats. “Anytime someone hikes up to the peak it attracts more people looking to do the same,” Haws said. “Then the mountain ceases to be a historic landmark and instead becomes an attraction and recreational challenge.” No wonder that in the end, the Kumeyaay and other entities concerned about Viejas Mountain feel the only way to truly preserve it is to seek sacred site status and historic preservation protection. But the progress toward these goals has slowed of late, hampered by changes of leadership in the local Forest Service and more-pressing concerns such as combating a recent spate of well-publicized forest fires. “There has been very little progress with the Forest Service [on the sacred site request], due to other priorities including wildfi res, but we keep it on our action item list,” Haws said. Other factors contribute to the slow pace of historic preservation approval when it comes to natural areas. “One of the hurdles a tribe goes through trying to make a site sacred is that the land is often already part of a national forest or park service,” Carrico added. “In other words, the site is on federal or state land and that means you need to get buy-in from one or the other before they’ll act.” Still, Carrico believes that when all is said and done, the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians will get sacred status for Viejas Mountain. “The Kumeyaay attachment to the land was and is strong and pervasive,” he said. “There are over 500 Kumeyaay place names in San Diego County reflecting the power of land, water, rocks, trees, spiritual events from the past and so on. Its claim for sacred status is in the literature—it is not a he-said, she-said scenario. I think they got a pretty good chance of it.” A positive resolution to the sacred site claim can’t come quickly enough for Christman and other Kumeyaay tribal leaders and elders. “To this day, in the vicinity of the sacred mountain, we still practice our culture through birdsongs (takook) and other sacred ceremonies such as purifications. Viejas Mountain is looked upon as a tie to our past, present and future,” Christman said. “I love that mountain. It is the Viejas Mountain.”
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