Fred Dickey's Island of Human Drama
Ystagua, the Indian Predecessor of Sorrento Valley
Ystagua, the Indian Predecessor of Sorrento Valley
By Fred Dickey Oct. 24, 2016
You’re stuck in traffic again, this time at the Interstates 805-5 juncture in Sorrento Valley. You’re thinking about the taillights just ahead rather than where you actually are.
On Sorrento Valley Road, just below your underpass, was a quiet neighborhood of well-kept homes, peaceful neighbors and hard-working folks.
While you wait for traffic to start moving, let’s pay a visit to the town of Ystagua in, say, the year 1700.
The people of Ystagua (it’s pronounced phonetically as “Estawa”) were California Indians who today call themselves Kumeyaay, and they had lived there since time was a memory.
A family lived in a circular hut a dozen feet in diameter called an e’waa. The dwelling was covered by cattails or tule leaves atop a frame of bowed willow branches. They also had a seasonal home in the mountains. There were no gated communities or ghettos.
If you resided here, as 200 people did, you wouldn’t lock your door at night. You wouldn’t call for a cop because there was none.
Our host is Richard Carrico. He’s a 69-year-old lecturer at San Diego State University in the Department of Indian Studies. He knows enough about the people who lived in Ystagua to serve as guide for their visitors’ bureau. He was raised in San Diego, but chooses to live on the edge of the desert in Warner Springs where he probably feels the vibes of long-ago California.
His book, “Strangers in a Stolen Land,” is a definitive work on San Diego indigenous peoples in their thousands of years. His opinions were formed by years of studying Spanish records, native lore and DNA tests on unearthed bones.
Ystagua covered about 300 acres. It was sited in a sheltered valley less than four miles to the coast and two miles to a lagoon thick with clams. There were two convenient springs nearby.
Eight miles from the town were foothills where acorns could be gathered and deer and rabbit could be hunted by a bow strung with animal sinew and arrows with flint heads or fire-hardened wooden points.
The old location-first rule applied to Ystagua, just as it does today in Sorrento Valley.
There may have been 14,000 Kumeyaay in several dozen villages in 1700 in what is now this county, Carrico says. They bordered the Luiseño people at the San Luis Rey River in present-day Oceanside. The two peoples had different languages and cultures, but they respected territory and got along fine, even inter-marrying.
The Kumeyaay of Ystagua were socially conservative because they recognized, as small-town residents always have, that you have to go along to get along. Any enemy you make is one you might have to face every day.
Conflicts that couldn’t be settled by talking would go to combat between the antagonists. But clubs, not knives, were used, and the fight was supposed to end when one was knocked down. If the person were foolish enough to get up and resume the fight, then it could end in death.
Rare crimes of serious violence were settled by the family of the victim. If the matter became of concern to the entire village, then the elders would step in, and a really bad guy in their midst would quietly stop being in their midst, if you get my drift.
The Kumeyaay made some beautiful art, but it’s been lost because it wasn’t frescos on chapel walls. Apart from surviving rock paintings, the art they created was mainly attractive decorations of baskets which, of course, have almost all disappeared.
They were a scrub-behind-the-ears clean people, to the point of seeming weird about it to the Spanish and even the later Americans who interacted with them — and probably made the Kumeyaay hold their noses.
“They were strongly monogamous,” Carrico says. “Divorce was where you set your husband's or wife's favorite things out in front of the e’waa, and … you were divorced. That was it.”
It was a patriarchal society where men hunted and women did the food-gathering and chores around the e’waa. Children were expected to behave, but records indicate that physical punishment was considered extremely bad form. Old and infirm people were cared for, even if they did no work.
Ystagua had gay people, as has every community since time began. They were called "people of two spirits, " and were treated well, Carrico says. “It was perceived that the creator had given them something special.”
The Kumeyaays’ clothing costs would cause layoffs at Walmart. Carrico says, “The men wore a loin cloth, essentially a thong. The women were topless and either wore a thong or a deerskin or bark skirt. They would take bark off willows and other trees and pound it into strips. Both would sometimes wear moccasins made of yucca and agave fibers, and a rabbit-skin cover in winter, and sometimes a basket hat.”
Religion was somewhat akin to the Bahai faith. The idea was: If it works for you, it’s cool, just respect the other person’s viewpoint. There were priests but no dogma to memorize, something that would be cheered by children in catechism class.
To the Kumeyaay, God was not a being per se, but a spirit that had to be individually defined. However, they did have an agreed-upon sense of things. Carrico explains: “They believed the spiritual is within each person. It's already there, and what the priest does is help you focus or suggest explanations. But it's not from on high.
“For the Kumeyaay, looking at that sunset, and sitting on the cliff, and trying to grasp the cosmos, they didn’t need a priest to interpret. The tribes had a behavior code of what was right or wrong, but it wasn’t tied to religion.
“They believed when you died, you left this earth and you went up to the Milky Way as a spirit. The Milky Way was called the backbone of the universe. It's where all the spirits lived. They practiced cremation, and that might tie in to the idea of one’s essence drifting up toward the heavens.”
The Kumeyaay weren’t afraid of the ocean, even going out in flimsy crafts. They would find an oak log and carve and burn it into a two-person dugout canoe with no stabilizing outrigger. Alternatively, they would fashion rafts out of tule reeds.
They would go to the kelp beds a lot, but would paddle into deep water occasionally, Carrico says, and would even venture to what is now the Channel Islands off Santa Barbara and to the Coronados southwest of San Diego.
The risks they took rewarded them with 30 species of fish, which they would grill, dry, smoke and make into their version of sushi.
The acorn was a staple of their diet. Carrico explains how they prepared it: “To make an acorn edible, you have to leach all the tannic acids out of it. If you just crack an acorn open and grind it, it's terribly bitter. You have to leach the bitterness out with water. You’re then left with acorn flour and a residue of water loaded with tannic acid that you can use to tan hides.”
Physically, the Kumeyaay were about the same size as the Spaniards, who eventually conquered them. Women were about five foot, 110 pounds, and men maybe a half-foot taller and 25 pounds heavier.
If you found fat people in Ystagua, they would have to be hard partiers. Carrico says the residents mainly had a lean diet of nuts, seeds, berries and seafood, plus occasional venison, rabbit and small rodents such as rats. Topping off a big meal were tasty snails and bugs. Acquired tastes, all. A cardiologist would have no one to preach to.
Carrico says the Kumeyaay were “complex collectors,” which is an academic’s way of saying they had a lot of eatables to choose from — and that they chose widely. Also, they were immune from the feast-famine roller coaster of most Native American tribes because the plants were mainly drought-resistant, and there was always the ocean to provide some moisture.
The Kumeyaay lived about as long as Europeans, roughly 45 years on average. But they avoided some of the nastier “white” diseases such as influenza, plagues and leprosy and STDs. However, it was still 1700 and appendicitis was a death sentence. Also, conditions they had to live with — or not — were childbirth deaths, pneumonia, heart and liver disease, accidents and all the other ways a human motor can cough, sputter and quit without a Scripps Clinic within driving distance.
Carrico says, “They had an expected number of infant deaths and birth complications, even with midwife help. Although not everyone agrees with this, it looks like they would occasionally practice infanticide, where they would kill or let die a child that clearly was deformed or had a problem. You intuitively didn’t want that child in the gene pool.”
Health care was probably at least as good as Europe, which would have been a comparison of little comfort. The Indians used a combination of herbal concoctions. Very common was willow bark, sometimes used as a tea, with an effect similar to aspirin.
Carrico says, “They had 80 or 90 plants they used. A popular one was white sage. It smells like Noxzema. You pound it up and make a salve out of it and rub it on for respiratory ailments. It's like Vicks VapoRub.
“A lot of ferns were used. Yerba santa was used for open cuts and sores; besides helping close the wound, it sterilizes it. Women used moss for feminine hygiene. They used coffee berries as a laxative and ipecac as a purgative. Sumac was made into a medicinal tea. Aloe vera was turned into a salve. Everybody knew a little bit of medicine.
“What they mainly treated were cuts, bruises, wounds, headaches, vomiting, constipation, those types of ailments.”
Some herbs they must have tried were poisonous. That probably meant some practitioners didn’t survive their experiments. Innovations that get swallowed or use a knife are always iffy, at least the first time. In our own civilization, who first volunteered for circumcision?
Carrico says they also had specialists who dealt with the mind and the spirit. We might think of them as witch doctors, though we might as easily call them psychiatrists.
Across the continent, Native Americans through history were as warlike as any people on the globe. Napoleon would have not have been out of work. No grass grew on the war path.
The peaceful Kumeyaay, though, didn’t need a standing army. They never went to war, although they would defend themselves on the rare occasions when another tribe might take too ambitious a yearning for their clams or their women.
The eastern fantasy of “the noble red man,” in early America and adopted by popular culture, was of a feather-garnished brave of the Hiawatha genre riding a pinto mustang bareback in search of a buffalo to kill, an enemy to scalp, and pursuing lovely black-haired maidens with “Indian Love Call” in the background.
The Kumeyaay didn’t roll with that. They had no desire to scalp others and would probably wisely run from a buffalo. All they did was mind their own business, raise their families and act like civilized people should.
The head-down, hard-working residents of Ystagua lived an orderly, harmonious life. A day with no surprises was a good day. So, what would they think of today’s neon-ized gambling halls run by their descendants?
Well, they might say casinos will eventually destroy what remains of the culture, or they might say casinos will provide the money to preserve it.
Or they might instruct those descendants to take what they can and call it payback. And then they might add that Spaniards have to pay a cover charge.
Next Monday: Oh, oh. Here come the Spaniards.
Fred Dickey’s home page is freddickey.net
He believes every life is an adventure and welcomes ideas at [email protected]