Step inside history—literally—at the Barona Cultural Center & Museum. Outside this San Diego County museum, which is part of the Barona Band of Mission Indians Reservation, sits an ’ewaa, the kind of thatched dome structure that Kumeyaay people used to build regularly as part of their fairly mobile lifestyle. Walk inside—since these were just sleeping huts, there’s only enough room to sit a bit—and then head into the museum to learn more about the history of the Kumeyaay, from their mythology to their present-day stories.
Located a mile past the main entrance of the Barona Resort & Casino, this award-winning museum packs a tremendous amount of compelling information into an intimate space, with hands-on learning, evocative exhibits, and an enthralling theater experience. Indeed, in 2019, the Barona Museum won the National Medal for Museum and Library Service, in recognition of the contributions the museum has made to its own community.
“What started out as a small museum on our reservation has grown into a well-respected educational institution that has won numerous cultural awards and has impacted thousands of young children, community members and people from all over the world,” says Raymond Welch, Chairman of the Barona Band of Mission Indians. “Through our guided tours, education outreach programs, and hands-on classes, our museum is dedicated to the preservation of our culture, our traditions, and our history for today and future generations. Peyii enyeway ‘esekaayches! We are still here!”
Follow Their Journey
Since time immemorial, Kumeyaay People lived idyllically, moving with the seasons around the Southern California region now known as San Diego County to avail themselves of the plentiful resources in their territory. They made the most of fishing, hunting, and harvesting plants within the area’s differing climates, shifting during the year from the coastal regions to the valleys, the mountains, and then the desert.
One home base, though, was in the area now known as Mission Valley—which offers the beginning of the story of how the Barona Band got its name. With the arrival of the Spanish missionaries and soldiers in the mid-1700s, Kumeyaay People were no longer able to live as their Creators intended, but were enslaved on the missions, and later on the ranchos under Mexican governance. At the time of statehood, with a bounty on their heads, Kumeyaay People were “pushed into the rocks,” increasingly pushed to the east side of the region. After suffering culture and land loss to three waves of newcomers, President Grant put land in reserve in 1875, known as Capitan Grande Reservation.
However, the City of San Diego suffered a severe water shortage in 1919 and Congress passed the El Capitan Act, essentially allowing the City of San Diego to purchase federal lands to build a reservoir. The land was the Capitan Grande Reservation. After raising bond money in 1932, the city intended to pay out the Kumeyaay People and expected them to assimilate into American society. The Capitan Grande group, instead, pooled their small amount of money and purchased Rancho Barona to re-establish their reservation and sovereignty.
In order to save face, the federal government set out to make this a model reservation. Famed architect Irving Gill—known for San Diego landmarks including the Marston House in Balboa Park—was part of that next chapter, designing the homes and a church for the new Barona reservation. Gill’s style had enjoyed its heyday long before and this was his last commission. Sixteen of the 30-some homes planned were built. The Barona People tried to make a living as ranchers in their new home for 40 years.
Always looking for ways to be self-sustaining and maintain sovereignty, the Barona band opened a bingo hall in the 1980s that proved popular to the larger community. After much work, successful votes, and compacts with the State of California, Barona’s casino was born.
Check Out the Exhibits
The museum exhibits showcase fascinating artifacts from much earlier days, but also offer a clear-eyed look at the injustices and struggles that the Kumeyaay people have faced over the past 250 years at the hands of the newcomers.
Just inside the museum doors, you’ll get a nice primer on the People’s language, ‘Iipay Aa, a part of the Yuman language family. Push the buttons on displays that let you hear how words like “haåwka” (“hello”) sound in ’Iipay Aa, or the sounds of their traditional singers’ songs. Other interactive stations let you guess which natural materials were used for different shades of rock paint, or play with a miniature version of a stone solstice marker.
Look at the displays behind glass (some on loan from the Museum of Us at Balboa Park) that include traditional cultural materials such as baskets, pots, and bows, as well as photos of ancestors.
Walk Through the Timeline
The museum also offers a few in-depth exhibits that offer a nuanced perspective on the band’s history. Peyii ‘Enyeway ‘Esekáayches: We Are Still Here! was created by Barona Indian Charter School students, and offers an illuminating tour of Kumeyaay history. Read your way through the vivid timeline, accented by photos and maps, and see how their challenges ran parallel to many Native Californians—and how inhumane policies and treatment ran deep.
Pause in front of the Barona Veteran's Wall of Honor, which recognizes more than 50 Barona tribal members and community members who have served the country over the decades, some receiving Purple Hearts.
Head toward the back of the museum for more interactive language stations, then explore the room that houses Stones in the Meadow: Irving Gill’s Church and Cottages on the Barona Indian Reservation. The pictures and architectural salvage detail Gill’s architectural contributions to the reservation, and his own complicated career. You can sign up to take a docent-led tour of the church itself on the first Friday of each month.
Sit by the Campfire for Stories
Don’t miss “Our Way of Knowing,” a 20-minute, multisensory film experience that tells the creation story of the Kumeyaay people. For many visitors, the names of twin brother Creators, Tu-chai-pai and Yo-ko-mat will be unfamiliar, but their stories—about the first humans, animals, and their relationships to the land—will easily resonate. The small theater, with its curved screen, makes you feel like you’re in front of the campfire with the tribal elder who narrates, and the scent of sage wafts around the room.
Throughout the exhibits, notice the ongoing appearance of a little rock-art figure, known colloquially as the “’Iipay Man”and represents a pictograph that still exists on the tribal lands (albeit in an undisclosed location). Stop in at the museum store for shell jewelry, baskets, and gourd ornaments, as well as books and stuffed animals. Check the website and the museum’s Facebook page for the latest on classes and special programs. Kids from preschool age through 2nd grade can request an Adventure Backpack as their own guide to the museum, complete with goodies to take home.