There are more Indian reservations in San Diego County than in any other county in the nation. The 18 reservations comprise 124,000 acres. Although the total acreage of tribal land is relatively small—193 square miles of the 4,205 square miles in the county—the land is rich in beauty and history. But the history of Native Americans in San Diego County extends far beyond those 18 reservations and 193 square miles. That’s because the entire county was once home to a number of tribes dating back more than 10,000 years. For example, the ancestral lands of the Kumeyaay Indians extend from northern San Diego County to northern Mexico, and from the Pacific Ocean east to the sand dunes of Imperial County. Reminders of this Native American history can be found virtually everywhere in the area. Finding Native American artifacts can be as simple as kicking up a pottery shard while on a hike, or coming across an area of grinding stones near a grove of oak trees where Kumeyaay women at one time spent hours grinding acorns into shawii, a food staple of the period. In one high-profile example, workers expanding the University of California, San Diego chancellor’s cliff-top residence in the 1970s unearthed the remains of a Kumeyaay man and woman, which later proved to be among the oldest human remains discovered in the Western Hemisphere. The San Diego wildfires of 2001, 2003 and 2007 burned away dense, decades-old chaparral, revealing Native American artifacts and remains of old tribal structures and villages long hidden by nature. Recent efforts by Native American tribes aim to make the discovery of ancient artifacts more design than matter of chance. Since 2005, the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians has participated in programs that provide technical training related to locating, assessing and storing Native American artifacts and cultural resources. A handful of tribal members and tribal government staff have received this training, which had been provided by consulting firms. But the Viejas Band took it a step further in 2009, when it developed its own Tribal Cultural Resource Monitoring Program. Seven tribal members have graduated and have received certification after receiving training both in the classroom and in the field. One of those graduates is Viejas tribal member Bear Cuero. “The idea fascinated me; I wanted to learn more about my culture and my people,” Cuero said. “Anyone can kick up some arrowheads or parts of pottery, but it was important to me that I learn exactly how to look for artifacts, how to handle them, how to categorize and store them so we have an accurate account of our own history.” And that’s exactly what the program is all about, said Viejas Land Use Manager Lisa Haws, who helped coordinate the program at Viejas. “The goal is to get out in the field and participate in organized surveys, both on and off the reservation. Our tribal participants know the local Native American history first hand—they’ve lived it. Their parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles have handed down stories from generation to generation. And the pieces of that history, actual physical pieces, are scattered all over these lands today.” Oftentimes, non-Natives are the ones who locate these artifacts—during construction projects for example— either in the planning and survey phases or during the actual construction process. “It’s important that tribal members become involved in the location, inventory and storage processes for these artifacts. After all, it’s their history we’re talking about,” Haws said. According to Cuero, he has accompanied archeologists on a number of surveys, including one at the site of a future high school in the community of Alpine, located less than two miles from the Viejas Reservation. “Even before the school district chose that particular site for the school, we knew there were important cultural resources there, including traditional use areas such as a dance ring and milling sites,” he said. “But those were casual observations over the years. Now we will be directly involved with the school district as those cultural resources are cataloged and either stored off site or preserved in place. “We are educating our own people to become directly involved in the preservation of our own history,” Cuero added. Viejas’ Tribal Cultural Resource Monitor Training Program will continue, and, in fact, other tribal members have expressed interest in joining and becoming certified next session. Cuero sees the program as a way of giving back to his people, both current and past generations. “They’ve given me a lot over the years and I want to give back,” he said. “This is all about opportunity and I hope other tribal members take advantage of it.”
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