Native Peoples and Native Plants of Baja California

By Michael Wilken-Robertson, author of Kumeyaay Ethnobotany: Shared Heritage of the Californias

Photo by Paul Long

For over ten thousand years, native peoples have made their homes in the rugged landscapes of the northern Baja California peninsula. Throughout this vast period, the natural environment changed dramatically as cool, moist climates of the late Ice Age gave way to the warmer and more arid climates of the present. By the arrival of the Late Prehistoric cultural period approximately 1,300 years ago, ancestors of historical western Yuman peoples inhabited the lands from the Pacific coast to the Colorado River Desert, in the areas known today as northern Baja California and southern California.

Photo by Michael Wilken-Robertson

These mobile hunting, gathering, and fishing peoples had developed cultures that allowed them to make a living in the region’s arid environments through the utilization of a variety of plant resources, hunting small and large game, gathering shellfish, and fishing. Although their linguistic relatives to the east—the Cocopa, Quechan, Mohave, and Maricopa—practiced agriculture along the Colorado and Gila Rivers, the western Yumans, like most other native peoples of the Californias, found ways to enhance the productivity of their landscapes without farming.

Photo by Deborah Small

The earliest written accounts by European explorers and missionaries, from some of the first direct contacts between indigenous and European cultures, vividly describe the ancestors of today’s Yuman peoples, their interactions with the distinctive environments of the region, and the ancient ways of life as they existed at this critical juncture in their history. The permanent occupation of Kumeyaay territory by European missionaries and colonists beginning in 1769 continuously reduced the freedom of the Kumeyaay people to traverse their diverse territories in annual rounds of hunting, gathering, and fishing. Kumeyaay territory was bisected in 1848—only recently in terms of indigenous history—by two distinct nation states that have imposed on the region an international boundary, as well as separate political and economic structures, cultures, and languages.

Photo by Michael Wilken-Robertson

Today, many Kumeyaay Indians in the far-flung ranches of northern Baja California still regularly practice the skills necessary to transform native plants into food, medicine, arts, tools, regalia, construction materials, and ceremonial items, among others. Kumeyaay Ethnobotany explores the remarkable interdependence between native peoples and native plants of the Californias through hundreds of vivid photographs and lively narratives.

At the heart of the book are in-depth descriptions of 47 native plants and their uses, however this carefully researched work also provides archaeological and historical background, descriptive passages from early chroniclers and ethnographic accounts, explorations into the endangered Kumeyaay language, interviews with contemporary plant specialists, as well as discussions of ongoing cultural revitalization efforts. Out of this comprehensive perspective emerges a fascinating portrait of the region’s ancestral peoples, their living cultures, and the native plant specialists who have enthusiastically shared their ever-relevant wisdom for future generations.

Photo by Michael Wilken-Robertson

Anthropologist Michael Wilken-Robertson’s research and advocacy work with Native Baja Californians has explored traditional arts (pottery, basketry, oral narratives and song), ethnobotany, history, languages and cultural landscapes of the indigenous peoples of the northern Baja California region. He has developed lifelong collaborative relationships with native artists and traditional authorities to foster cultural revitalization and sustainable community development.

Photo by Don Bartletti for the Los Angeles Times

Wilken-Robertson’s fascination with native plants and the natural landscapes of the Californias has inspired him to explore the many ways that humans have interacted with their environments, from the ancient past, into the present. As a dual citizen of the binational California—Baja California region, he enjoys moving between countries, cultures, languages, people and places. For over three decades he has organized cultural exchange activities between Paipai, Kumeyaay, Kiliwa and Cucupá peoples of Baja California and their counterparts in California and Arizona, as well as through museums, universities, and state and national parks. Wilken-Robertson’s collaboration with the non-profit organization Corredor Histórico CAREM helped to create the Tecate Community Museum and Ethnobotanical Gardens.

Photo by Deborah Small

Kumeyaay Ethnobotany can be purchased at the Discover Baja office, on the online store, or by calling 800-727-2252.

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