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Canku Ota
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(Many Paths)
An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America
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The Gift of Tribal Tradition
by Danielle Goodman - Vision Magazine, San Diego, CA

An intriguing woman with a beautifully woven basket upon her head and an abalone shell around her neck greets me warmly with “Howka, mamuyuth miñay?” Although Karen Vigneault is speaking in a language I don’t understand, I realize she’s welcoming me with a common salutation that means, “Hello, how are you doing?”

Vigneault is part of the native Kumeyaay tribe, which extends from San Diego County out to Arizona all the way to the ocean, and down to Baja, California towards Ensenada, Mexico. I was lucky enough to experience some of the Kumeyaay tradition and history through Vigneault’s passionate storytelling.

Prior to the settlement of the Spanish and European settlers, the Kumeyaay thrived as independent hunter-gatherers. They cherished the land that supported them as sacred.

Today, like many native tribes that remain in what is now California, the Kumeyaay have adapted to their displacement, deriving the funds they need to sustain themselves from the casino industry.

For nearly 40 years, Vigneault has been collecting articles, photographs and various artifacts on the Kumeyaay. Now, as the founder of the non-profit Kumeyaay Historical Society, she hopes to utilize these historical treasures to create insight and awareness on the Kumeyaay tribe. Through a collaboration with the San Diego Women’s History Museum, she hopes to make these items available for research and cultural presentations, as well as to preserve them for her tribe.

It is clear that addressing the challenge to honor the Kumeyaay heritage and traditions within a changing world is important to Vigneault. Certain customs may have faded over the tribe’s long history, but today, they are being brought back to life.

Certain traditions, such as funeral ceremonies, which are about liberating the Spirit from Earth, are now a mix of Catholic and Kumeyaay rituals. However, customs like basketry, language, and pottery continue to thrive and are being taught to young tribal members in hopes of strengthening the foundation of fading practices.

Vigneault points out, “The past is what we learn from. Our past is our future. The Creator gave our elders these gifts that have become our traditions. They kept these traditions alive because they are a part of who we are.”

During the month of December, the Kumeyaay celebrate Winter Solstice, known as Hilyati, along with other natural cycles throughout the year. The tribe’s traditional calendar remains extremely flexible with the shifting of celestial events and the changing conditions of each year. Astronomy has served as a valuable guide for various customs in relation to the seasons, such as indicating when plants could be harvested.

Practical products for everyday life are made with materials abundant in nature. Baskets are woven from grass or willows and can be waterproofed for the handling of water or the use as hats. Bark or reeds from willow can also be used to make traditional skirts for women, which Vigneault wears when she participates in tribal dances.

Another custom that Vigneault shares is her tattoo, which consists of three vertical lines along her chin. The chin tattoo is specifically performed on adolescent Kumeyaay women as a rite of passage. Today, few women share this once common attribute.

Vigneault shares her inspiration to receive her tattoo: “Our rite of passage ceremonies were wiped out due to the oppressors and religion. I was inspired by Anna Sandoval, who was the first female Kumeyaay leader of our local reservation. She is the only other person from our tribe that I knew who had it. When I was younger, I was always in awe about how she preserved one of the old ways of women. I always wanted to do the same but thought deeply about when and how. So on my 50th birthday I had the ceremony. I invited many women from my reservation that are close to me. We did it the traditional way, using an agave needle.”

Kumeyaay customs feed into the strong philosophy that everything comes from nature. The spiritual connection with the environment rests in the tribe’s conscious use of the gifts of the Creator, or Amayaha. This is illustrated through the Kumeyaay’s many allegorical bird songs, which serve as an alternative from written language to enforce collective teachings within the tribe such as morals, geography, food, and history.

Songs can also be sung about anything you see and hear—like plants, the sky, and the mountains, to name a few. The metaphorical reference to animals substantiates the concept of being united with the natural environment. Today, these ancestral bird songs are used as a unifying element for commemorative ceremonies and rituals.

The customs of the Kumeyaay are being preserved for the sake of tribal identity and spiritual expression. “They are the essence of us as Kumeyaay people,” Vigneault explains. “It is through our language, songs, dances, and ceremonies that the Creator hears our prayers.”

The Kumeyaay present a way of life that focuses on honoring tradition and strengthening culture. Through their wisdom, we can reflect on our own lives and find inspiration to honor our own customs as our journeys continue to evolve. Isn’t that what life is all about?

For more information on Karen Vigneault and the Kumeyaay Historical Society, visit

Find out more about the Women’s History Museum at

Danielle Goodman is a graphic designer and writer with a passion for art and culture and an interest in the connection they share. Contact her at danigood23@

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