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Shining Light on Baja’s Indigenous Peoples

The following is an excerpt from a blog by Baja Amigos and contributors Dan and Lisa Goy.  This particular blog focused on Canada’s National Aboriginal Day, which honors the heritage of the indigenous peoples.  The portion of that blog published here shines a spotlight on the history of the Indian groups in Baja California, whose ranks were decimated in the 17th century, and whose peoples remain in much smaller tribes, even today.  That said, in some areas of Baja, like Ensenada’s Valle de Guadalupe, groups like the Kumiai, Pai Pai and Kiliwa continue to contribute arts and culture to the community through festivals (the famous San Necua event at the far end of the wine valley area, near LA Cetto), health fairs, and more. Indigenous art (basketry, pottery, beadwork) and herbal and medicinal creations can be found in stores in the Ensenada area. The northern border areas (from Tecate-Mexicali down to the San Fellipe area) also have threads of ancestral culture (the Cucapás) woven into their regional culture.

Photo: Francis Parker, 1873 (San Diego Historical Society)

From Dan and Lisa’s post:

The primary native speakers of indigenous languages in Baja California Norte in the 2000 census were the Pai-Pai (193 speakers); Kumiai (159); Cochimí (80), and Kiliwa (46).  All of these tribes were of the Yuman Linguistic family whose ancestors had probably migrated to the Baja Peninsula thousands of years earlier.  Estimates of the Kumiai population in Mexico at the end of the Twentieth Century put their numbers at 600.

Although ancestors can be identified genetically from many of Baja indigenous groups, the Kumeyaay (Kumiai) nation, whose territory includes both Alta and Baja California, is the only group to survive culturally.

Ironically, most of the Mexican indigenous languages spoken in the two Bajas are actually tongues brought to the Peninsula by migrant workers from other states, in particular Oaxaca.  The use of Oaxacan migrant labor in Baja California Sur has been a well-established practice since the 1970s.  For more than thirty years, many Baja California growers have recruited Oaxacans almost exclusively, with La Paz as a major destination for most Mixteco laborers.  Today, the Mixteco and Zapoteco Indians are the only significant indigenous languages spoken in Baja California Sur.  It is likely that most of the 1,955 Mixtecos and 606 Zapotecos living in Baja were probably born in Oaxaca.  In the 2000 census, 8,083 persons in Baja Sur claimed Oaxaca as their birthplace, while another 8,564 listed Michoacán as their birthplace, the original home of the Purépecha language.

Baja Indigenous Groups:

The Pai Pai Indians – also known as Akwa’ala – occupied the northern Sierras in the interior of the northern Baja California Peninsula.  Their original territory included the lower Colorado River Valley in the present day municipalities of Ensenada and Mexicali, as well as adjacent areas in western Arizona, southern California, and northwestern Sonora.

The Kumeyaay (Kumiai) Indians were hunters, gatherers and fishers who inhabited coastal, inland valley, and mountain regions along the present-day Baja California border region with the United States. The traditional Kumeyaay territory originally extended from around Escondido in California to the northern part of the present day municipio of Ensenada. Occupying the southern section of present-day San Diego County in California, the Kumeyaay inhabited the region near the San Diego Presidio when it was founded in 1769. The Kumeyaay in the vicinity of San Diego were also referred to as the Diegueño by the Spaniards.

The Cochimí Indians inhabited a considerable part of the central Baja Peninsula, from north of Rosario to the vicinity of Loreto in east central Baja California. Like many of the other Baja tribes, the Cochimí Indians survived by fishing in the coastal areas and gathering fruits and seeds for sustenance in other areas.

The Cucapás (Cocopá) living in the desert region along the Colorado River in the frontier zone of Baja California Norte and Sonora, fished and hunted deer, rabbit, moles, mountain lion and coyote.  They also collected a wide variety of desert products, including cactus flowers, potatoes, and wild wheat.

The Kiliwa Indians were hunters who inhabited northeastern Baja California. The Kiliwa lived along the eastern slope of the Sierra San Pedro Mártir and ranged down the Gulf Coast.  Their habitat also extended into the Colorado Desert.

The Guaycura (Guaicura or Waicuri) lived in the middle part of the lower Baja peninsula, inhabiting the Magdalena Plains from Loreto down to and including the La Paz area.

The Pericú occupied the southern tip of the peninsula around San José del Cabo and several large Gulf islands, including Cerralvo, Espíritu Santo, San José, and Santa Catalina.

Meet Dan and Lisa Goy, Baja Amigos RV Caravan tours!  From time to time, Dan and Lisa will take with them as they travel through Baja and have face-to-face, heart-to-heart experiences in this magical land.  They are seasoned Mexico campers and they want to share their tales and their knowledge of Baja with you and with fellow RVers.  So hop on the caravan and buckle up for a fun ride!

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