When it comes to celebrating traditional cuisines, the descendants of San Diego County’s indigenous people have many centuries worth to draw from.

San Diego County is “one of the oldest continuously inhabited places on earth,” said Kristie Orosco. Orosco, an ethnobotanist and member of the San Pasqual Band of Mission Indians, works as an independent consultant on sustainable resource management. She also teaches classes and workshops on native plants for the San Diego chapter of the California Native Plant Society, the Kumeyaay-Ipai Interpretive Center, and the San Diego Archaeological Society.

Monica Madrigal gathers thisle chia- Preparing roasted agave

The oral traditions of San Diego County’s indigenous people, borne out by decades of study by historians, archaeologists, and other physical and social scientists, have shown that Native Americans were living in this region for 10,000 years before the first Europeans—the Spaniards—arrived in 1769.

Leaching acorn meal
Leaching acorn meal

The ancient residents called themselves Kumeyaay, in a language then unwritten but now part of the curriculum at Kumeyaay Community College and other institutions founded by their descendants to preserve their history and culture.  

Orosco’s work to preserve this history and culture has included helping preserve native plants, such as elderberry and prickly pear cactus, that have traditionally served nutritional and medicinal needs for local indigenous people. Native plant gardens can be found at San Pasqual and at other tribal community reservations including Rincon, Pala, and Barona. Members of all these local bands also contributed to building an ethnobotanical garden on the campus of Cal State San Marcos in collaboration with the university’s Anthropology Department.

Food and food preparation are integral parts of the indigenous cultural heritage.  “Food plays a huge part in the Kumeyaay way of life,” said Orosco.

Martha Rodriguez, a member of the San Jose de la Zorra Kumeyaay group affiliated with the Sycuan Cultural Center, conducted a yucca cooking class in 2016 at the Barona Cultural Center and Museum. She and others conduct such classes annually in the county, teaching how to prepare dishes using yucca, acorns, mesquite, and prickly pear cactus, among other traditional native plants.

These events have attracted a growing number of non-Native American attendees. This reflects what Orosco called “a growing awareness in the non-native community about the sustainable nature of the native people’s lifestyle.”

It’s part of a heritage that Native American people themselves often had to struggle to hold on to. Centuries of overt and covert oppression by encroaching European and American cultures took away much of that ancient connection to the natural world on which indigenous cultures were based.

“We were no longer celebrating the seasons, caretaking our land, using digging sticks to aerate the soil, pruning plants, or thinning stands of trees,” said Barbara Drake, an educator with the Los Angeles-based Gabrielino-Tongva Band of Indians in a 2016 interview for KCET in Los Angeles. “We were no longer spreading seeds or saving them.”

Drake was among the founders of the Chia Café Collective (“CCC”), “a grassroots group of Southern California tribal members and their allies committed to the revitalization of native foods, medicines, culture, and community,” according to the KCET program.

For over 20 years, the CCC has promoted classes, workshops, demonstrations and native food celebrations. One such event is an annual agave harvest and feast held at the Malki Museum on the reservation of the Morongo Band of Mission Indians in Banning. This event has helped to reestablish the nutrient-dense agave, historically a staple food for indigenous people.

“So many foods like agave were almost forgotten,” Lorene Sisquoc, a member of the Cahuilla/Apache community and CCC co-founder, told KCET, “but now we’re continuing to gather, eat, and celebrate these native foods.”

The CCC has published a book, Cooking The Native Way. It is indeed a great cookbook, offering 23 recipes from acorn bread to nopales tortillas to yucca petal hash. But it’s also a concise primer for people seeking to learn more about the cuisine that has sustained indigenous people in this region for thousands of years.

The CCC also invites the general public to share in this indigenous heritage, “honoring the ancestors by offering an alternative to the industrialized food chain and all that it represents—the multinational corporate control of seeds, production of genetically modified foods, and the promotion of unsustainable agricultural practices damaging to all species and the earth which sustains us,” as stated on KCET. “The CCC encourages everyone to cultivate native food plants in their gardens or in containers on their decks, porches, and windowsills, and to become active in community gardens.”

Deborah Small took that to heart. Small is an artist and ethnobotanist who teaches at Cal State San Marcos. She got involved with the the CCC some 18 years ago, “starting out as a documenter (photography is one of her fields). But she soon started growing her own native plants in the yard of her North County home. Her garden today includes a wall of prickly pear cactus, reflecting part of the CCC’s mission “to reconnect with the land.”  

For more information:

“Revitalizing Native Foods,” article by Deborah Small for KCET, 11/8/16:  kcet.org/shows/tending-the-wild/what-happens-when-native-people-lose-their-traditional-foods .

Chia Café Collective, see Deborah Small’s ethnobotany website: deborahsmall.wordpress.com/tag/chia-cafe-collective/

Cooking The Native Way, originally published in 2016, will be available to the public in January 2018 from Heyday Books: heydaybooks.com/. Go to the website’s “Upcoming” list and you’ll find it available for pre-order.

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