Cultural Museum brings ancient Kumeyaay ways to life
Story and photos by Mimi Pollack
TECATE, Mexico — There are only 70 to 80 people left in Baja California who speak Kumeyaay, according to Michael Wilken Robertson, an anthropologist with a specialty in ethno-botany who is curator of the Kumeyaay Museum in this city hugging the U.S.-Mexican border.
In a recent interview, Wilken Robertson related that when he first started his journey studying the indigenous people of Baja California, he was told there were no indigenous cultures there.
He said he knew something had to be done to preserve these ancient cultures and traditions before they were lost, especially those of the Kumeyaay people, whose name also is transliterated from their language as “Kumiai.”
The Kumiai are the indigenous people found on both sides of the border. The Museo Communitario de Tecate (Tecate Community Museum), which boasts a separate Kumiai building, offers exhibits in English and Spanish documenting the life and history of these people. The museum is a component of the Centro Cultural [Cultural Center] of Tecate.
Tecate is a border town, best known for the brewery that makes Tecate Beer and for the sprawling Rancho La Puerta health spa. The city, about a 40-minute drive east of the San Diego-Tijuana region, retains much of its old-world charm. The Centro Cultural occupies two square blocks of land that once was a chicken ranch on the outskirts of town, but is now considered to be pretty much part of the downtown area.
In addition to the Community Museum, the Centro Cultural, includes an art museum with rotating exhibits. Near the Kumiai building, there is two-story, faux-adobe building which houses photographs documenting Tecate’s history. All of this is sponsored and managed by the Corredor Historico Carem, a non-profit organization that is dedicated to identifying, preserving, and presenting to the public the historical and cultural heritage of Baja California.
The Kumiai building is the jewel of the place. It officially opened in June 2011. The shape of the building is very interesting, as it was designed by the artist James Hubbell to invoke indigenous themes.
It was evident to me that Wilken Robertson is the heart and soul of the place. One could see the passion he felt while he was giving a tour. On the inside of the Kumiai building, there are beautiful stained glass windows and paintings on the wall that represent the history and nomadic life of the Kumiai who spent their time moving between the desert, mountain and coastal areas during their seasonal migrations. Other exhibits depict the way they lived. There are baskets of various types, carrying devices, mortars and pestles and other tools that had to be both functional and portable. There are also interactive, bilingual electronic displays.
An oak tree that was planted in the middle of the complex serves as a good metaphor for the museum and what it represents. It started out as a stick with a few leaves. It almost died. They gave it water and good soil and it survived and thrived.
The oak tree is a sacred tree for the Kumiai, and it serves them in many ways. Like the tree, the museum can also serve. Wilken Robertson said he hopes it will spark and encourage interest in younger generations who will come and learn with new appreciation for their culture.
Wilken Robertson said some missions of the museum are to tell the Kumiai story, help overcome discrimination, and help to preserve Kumiai culture, traditions and language.
Along with the Kumiai building, the grounds include a traditional, indigenous dwelling, a water well, and a garden featuring native plants, each with its own use.
There is also a small gift store with traditional indigenous arts. Emilia, a Kumiai woman who is one of the remaining 70 to 80 Kumiai speakers, manages the gift store The day I was there, her granddaughter, Irene, was also there. In Spanish, I asked Emilia if Irene could speak Kumiai, and she told me that the girl knew only a few phrases, but that she was teaching her. Let’s hope she learns, and teaches her children, so those 70-80- speakers are not the last!!
The museum at Calle Tláloc 400 is open Wednesday through Sunday, and tickets are $2.50 for adults and $1.00 for children. For more information and directions, call tel. 665/655-6419.
Pollack is a freelance writer who specializes in cross cultural affairs. She may be contacted at email@example.com
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