I recently visited San Antonio Necua, a community about two hours southeast of San Diego in Baja California, Mexico. This village is home to approximately 200 of the 600 living members of the Kumiai tribe.
The Kumiai are indigenous to Baja California and California, and their culture goes back in this region for at least 1300 years. However, some people say they’ve been here much longer—there is archeological evidence of human habitation going back 12,000 years. These days the Kumiai (or Kumeyaay as it’s spelled in the U.S.) live in thirteen reservations in San Diego County in the U.S., and five communities in Baja California, Mexico, including San Antonio Necua.
The San Antonio Necua festival, which takes place on June 13th each year, is a cultural gathering of Yuman tribes (Pai-Pai, Cucapah, Kiliwa and Kumiai) with traditional dancers and bird singers, an intertribal piak tournament (a native game similar to hockey), arts and crafts exhibitions, guided nature hikes, horseback riding, a bonfire at sunset, and a free meal prepared by the people of San Antonio Necua. There is also a craft store, a restaurant serving Mexican food, and a museum on site, including examples of traditional Kumiai buildings made of tulle.
My friends and I arrived at around noon and headed straight for the arts and crafts tables, which included pottery, beaded jewelry, and necklaces carved out of dried avocado seeds into shapes like turtles and mushrooms. The Yuman people are renowned for their finely worked baskets woven from juncus, a native rush that grows in wetlands, with black-dyed juncus worked into elegant patterns of stars, snakes and flowing, abstract designs.
The Kumiai also weave willow granaries, baskets in a more rustic style. The willow leaves and branches used in this ancient type of food storage basket contain salicin (the compound from which aspirin is derived), a natural insect repellent that helps protect stores of grains, acorns and pine nuts. I own one of these baskets myself. I bought it when the leaves and branches were green and though it gradually turned brown, I love the sweet smell of willow that it still gives off.
While looking at the crafts I met Mike Wilken, an applied cultural anthropologist and curator of the Tecate Community Museum, who has worked with local tribes for over 20 years. According to Wilken, “Traditional ceramics, basketry, agave fiber nets, bows and arrows, brooms and other tools were rapidly falling from use by the middle of the twentieth century due to the introduction of metal, plastic and glass. Today this trend has been entirely reversed. Growing interest among collectors and emerging markets for authentic, indigenous arts of Baja California has allowed many of the artisans to dedicate all their productive hours to traditional handcraft production.”
After looking at the crafts, my friends and I wandered over to the outdoor kitchen and seating area to enjoy a cup of Mexican agua de tamarindo (a tasty juice made from sugar, water and tamarind pods) under a canopy of shade trees. Meanwhile, our hosts were busy making preparations to feed the more than 100 people in attendance, cooking in an outdoor adobe oven.
The majority of visitors were members of the tribes, giving the festivities the feel of a big family reunion. This impression was heightened by the fact that the food and drinks were free for everyone. I’d had a huge breakfast so I didn’t eat, but all of my friends did, and they reported that the barbecue, salsa and fresh tortillas were delicious.
After lunch we had some time to wait before the traditional dancing and singing, which were to start at around 5:00 pm, so we decided to go on the nature walk. Horacio González, a representative of the Instituto de Culturas Nativas who has been working with the Kumiai for many years, served as our friendly guide.
The path led along a gravel road and past the campgrounds, shaded by a forest of beautiful old oak trees. Each campsite has a barbeque grill, water faucet and picnic table, and there are bathroom and shower facilities on-site.
From there we walked along an arroyo. Unlike many places in Baja, this valley has water year-round, as evinced by the lush vegetation and old trees. Horacio told us that before the arrival of the Spaniards, the Kumiai were nomadic. They moved up and down these same arroyos, from La Mission to Ojo Negros in the Sierra. This is why they built their houses and other buildings out of whatever local brush and branches were available—they had no need for more permanent structures. Horacio also showed us some stones and rounded bowls carved into a rock at an ancient camp near the river; these were used for generations as mortars and pestles for grinding grain.
As we continued across the arroyo and back toward town we could see a mountain rising up in the distance. Horacio told us that the pines on this mountain are considered the protectors of Necua. The legend goes that long ago some Kumiai boys were looking for pine nuts. Warriors from another tribe were chasing them, but the boys escaped.
The rival warriors, tired after a hard day unsuccessfully chasing their enemies, decided to sleep next to a spring. They refreshed themselves by drinking the water and went to sleep, but they didn’t know that that the water was haunted—the water of a sorceress. The next morning, they happily woke up, ready to look for the boys and their precious cargo of pine nuts, but they could not move. When they looked at each other they saw that their arms had converted into branches. So, since that day those warriors were condemned to protecting Necua and its territory. This, Horacio said, is the explanation of why there is an isolated hill with pines over Necua, but not the surrounding hills, and also why the water spring still exists but none of the people from the tribe drink its water.
After returning from the nature walk, we took seats around an open shelter, made of wood poles with a roof of arrow weed leaves. Each bird singer who came to perform stood at the front, singing and shaking a gourd rattle or tortoise-shell rattles filled with native palm seeds.
The dancers formed lines facing the singer and, stepping in time with the song, danced slowly forward and back. The crowd seemed relaxed, attentive and happy as they watched the different groups dancing, some wearing ceremonial clothing (long, patterned skirts for the women), and others in street clothes.
I’ve since learned that originally, Kumiai bird songs were only one of several song cycles, including wildcat and salt dances, and funeral songs, which enabled the people to orally transmit the legends and the lessons that preserved and strengthened their culture over thousands of years. However, this tradition was damaged by the arrival of Spanish missionaries in 18th century. They forced the Kumiai to cease practicing their ceremonies, especially those perceived to have religious significance. Due to this, and to the loss of three-quarters of the population during the missionary years, the other song cycles were lost.
After the singing and dancing, it was time for the lighting of the bonfire at dusk. This is a Necua tradition that caps the festival day. All the lights were turned off as the people gathered expectantly around the big pile of wood that the men and boys of the tribe had gone together to gather earlier. Next, a group of twelve or more teenagers, accompanied by a few elders wearing loincloths and riding horses, arrived. Yelling, they circled the bonfire clock-wise and then counter-clockwise, lit the bonfire and again circled it. All the people watching began to cheer and clap their hands.
My friends and I truly felt welcome and inspired by the opportunity to participate in this celebration. Luckily the annual festival is not the only opportunity for those who would like to visit Necua and learn more about Kumiai culture. The restaurant, the Museum of Necua History, and the Craft Center are open every Saturday and Sunday, from 10 a.m.-5 p.m.
Those desiring a more in-depth experience can also call in advance to book The Kumiai Experience, a four-hour eco tour. The Traditional Chief of the tribe will greet participants and perform a Kumiai blessing with sage burning. Also included: a talk about Kumiai history and culture, a 45-minute hiking tour where you can learn about local, medicinal plants and visit an ancient camp site; a class of basket making or flour tortilla making; and a performance of traditional songs and dancing. A lunch of carne asada or burritos is optional.
Those interested in seeing more craft work by the Yuman tribes are also invited to attend the annual artisan fair held in San Antonio Necua on the third Sunday of April each year, and the Nativa Festival, held each August in downtown Ensenada, featuring the works of about 200 native artists.
If you go: the community of San Antonio Necua is located in Valle de Guadalupe off Ensenada-Tecate Highway 3 (at Km. 73.5 take dirt road and continue approximately 5 miles, passing L.A. Cetto Winery and following signs to Necua). Camping is available for $5/night per vehicle with up to 4 persons. Eco-Tours available by appointment. Contact Horacio Gonzales at CUNA, tel. (646)178-8780 (Spanish), or (646)108-9278 (English), or email him at email@example.com.