El Cajon Historical Society
Food from the Earth: El Cajon Valley's Abundance
by G. Carroll Rice
called it Amut-Tar-Tum (level-ground-center).
These native people and their ancestors used every resource from the sea to the
mountains for nearly 12,000 years, and were intimately familiar with the lush
valley. The water table was high, springs were abundant, and streams crossed the
valley to nourish the soil. Oak trees provided shade, wood and acorns while
other plants offered seeds, roots and greens.
Nature was the
gardener of the valley, but the Indians labored in it as well. They transplanted
trees to shade trails, moved food and medicinal plants closer to camping areas,
and burned off the underbrush at regular intervals. There is also evidence that
they diverted streams to irrigate planted crops and conserve water for the dry
seasons. Food gathering, preparation and storage required a full-time effort
from every man, woman and child.
Life in the valley
centered around the oak trees (there were several species and there were
individual words for each) and running water. Acorns were gathered, dried and cracked
open. The kernels were removed and pounded with stone pestles (haapachaa) on stone mortars (pi or ehmuu), and the resulting meal was placed in baskets in running
water to wash away the bitter tannic acid. Cooked, the acorns became a ‘mush’ (shawii), the staple carbohydrate of the
While many of the
Kumeyaay made an annual trip to the mountains in the Fall to gather acorns, there
is evidence everywhere in the valley of their harvesting and grinding them here.
For example; when Johnson Avenue
was built from Main to Bradley, dozens of
grinding stones were revealed at a depth of three feet; there must have been a
line of oak trees and perhaps a stream there long ago.
A pond near present-day
and Madison persisted into the 1920’s and contained small fish. Surely there
were cattails (epilly) growing along
the streams. Young cattail leaves are tender, and while the roots are tough,
the ‘tails’ are usable as flour or made into a soup.
Around the edges
of the valley, the women sought yuccas with their starchy roots and edible
flowers. Samuel Brown (firstname.lastname@example.org) states that his mother gathered
mushrooms (matepan) as well as yucca
Canyons in the
surrounding hills produced wild grapes, and cactus offered its fruit (ihpaa chewuw) and leaves for the careful
gatherer. It’s likely that families making the trek from mountains to the sea
brought mountain pine nuts (ehwiiw), gooseberries,
currents, pine and manzanita berries with them.
Bow (aatim) and arrow (epal or kupaal) hunters
harvested deer (ekwak); while others
sailed the rabbit stick or boomerang (hampuu)
close to the ground to kill rabbits,
hares (hallyaaw and kunyaaw), squirrels (ehmaall) ), and other small game.
Insects, such as grasshoppers (tuumuw),
were frequently eaten. One very old Indian told my parents that while the white
man brought many unhappy changes, he had to admit that he appreciated beef. “It
tastes much better than grasshopper.”
The Valley’s agricultural
revolution began when Spanish missionaries arrived in San Diego in 1769 and introduced livestock,
grapes, olive trees, and European farming methods. By the mid-1890’s, the lives
and food resources of the Kumeyaay had changed for ever. The replacement of native
plants was rapid and dramatic. The oaks were cut down and Brazilian pepper,
Australian eucalyptus, and a variety of fruit trees were planted. Yellow-flowered
mustard, alfileria with its distinctive ‘pins,’ wild radish and other exotic
plants replaced the local grasses. When commercial crops of wheat, barley and
oats were planted and ‘went wild’,
the Kumeyaay adapted quickly and harvested the introduced grains.
In the 1960’s, anthropologist
Dr. Florence Shipek interviewed Delfina
Cuero, a Kumeyaay woman born in 1900 at Jamul, who said she couldn’t find plants
she had gathered in her youth. Hers was one more comment on a hunting and
gathering paradise transformed into a bewildering blend of agriculture and
Note: A special thank you is due
Anthropologist Cheryl Hinton, Director/Chief Curator at the Barona Cultural
Center and Museum for her
assistance in the preparation of this article.
The Autobiography of Delfina Cuero. Edited by Florence Shipek. Translated by Rosalie Pinto
Shop, 1968. Reprint, Banning, CA: Malki
Museum Press, 1970.
Shipek, Florence C. Pushed into the Rocks:
Tenure, 1769-1986. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1987.
Melicent Humison, Indians of the Oaks,
Acoma Books 1978, Ramona, CA
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