Courtesy Barona Cultural Center & Museum
The Barona Cultural Center & Museum is dedicated to preserving the Native American culture and history of San Diego County.

Barona Cultural Center & Museum: Bringing History to the Next Generation

Diana Saenger

The Barona Band of Mission Indians reservation covers a big territory in East San Diego’s Lakeside, California. Along with a casino, golf course, private homes, wastewater treatment center, gas station and schools, is the Barona Cultural Center & Museum. It’s the hub of daily life on the res. It represents past and present, is full of history, and artifacts, the museum offers classes, and a connection to the community.

One of the biggest projects the museum took on was “More Than Words” a dictionary for the Barona Band. Because not everyone speaks the language, the Barona Inter -Tribal Dictionary or ’lipay Aa Tiipay Aa Uumal dictionary is helping save the language and making it accessible to more tribal members. The work actually began in the 1980s when linguist Margaret Langdon began the first attempt at a dictionary. When she passed away, her understudy, Amy Miller, took over the work and helped those at the Barona Museum create the current dictionary. Miller is a linguist who works with many tribes and continues to document the language and its many regional dialects. The dictionary is on exhibit at the museum and online and available for purchase in the museum store.

Through the museum one learns that the Barona Band initially settled their first reservation at El Capitan Grande in San Diego County, only to be ordered to move and forced into California’s presidio mission in the 1700s. In 1769 they revolted and burned down the mission. In 1875, the federal government established the Capitan Grande by Executive Order of President Ulysses S. Grant.

The Legacy Collection at the Barona Cultural Center & Museum. (Courtesy Barona Cultural Center & Museum)

Early on, the Barona Band lived by utilizing natural resources for their homes, food and everyday tools. In 1994, tribal members purchased the Barona Ranch northeast of Lakeside. It became the world-class Barona Valley Resort and Casino. In 2000, work began on the Barona Cultural Center & Museum, the first museum on tribal land in San Diego County with a goal of presenting the local Kumeyaay-Diegueño Native culture. In the late ‘90s the museum was given a collection of 2,000 artifacts found by Don Speer while on his job.

“Don Speer was hired by the tribe to help start gaming,” said Laurie Egan-Hedley, museum director and curator. “Working with the tribe, he had realized how much culture was lost. He purchased the original collection of artifacts from the owner and donated it to the tribe.”

With an online catalog featuring the Speer collection, along with other collections, the museum is one of the largest repositories of ancestral and contemporary Southern and Baja California Native American material. Four collections; Object Collection, Photograph Archive, Media Archive, and Document Archive, are stored in preservative cabinets, and shelving units comprise archival records, paintings, sculpture, photography, textiles, basketry, ceramics, and gaming pieces. Ranging from ancient Paleo-Indian points to contemporary fine arts, the collection includes works of aesthetic, religious, ceremonial, and historical significance as well as articles produced for everyday use.

The museum offers tours to tribal groups, children and the public. The 40-minute tour includes a talk, storytelling, discussion of the ‘Iipay Aa language, videos, songs from Bird Singers, and interactive displays. There are talks about men’s roles, women’s roles, and how they are defined by age and artifacts on display.

“I think the museum profession found if people can see the real items that we’re talking about the story is clear; so we aim to always have the real things and artifacts on display,” Egan-Hedley said. “We go to the gallery that reflects how life was 10,000 years ago with the tools and instruments they used. Then we walk around the corner to modern life. We have a temporary gallery space that we rotate. At this time it’s a tribal sports exhibit featuring Native American athletes and the competitive spirit that still exists at Barona. Sports are important to the reservation. Our very own Matt LaChappa made it all the way to the San Diego Padres.”

Barona Band member Matt La Chappa played for the Padres. (Photo by Diana Saenger)

Native American heritage classes and workshops are available to tribal members, the public, adults, and San Diego schoolchildren. Classes have included Legacy From Our Mother—the story of Indian basketry, and others. The Ancient Spirits Speak series of classes include weaving a coiled basket, native cooking classes—many from the Yucca plant, how to make Agave sandals, and spear-making.

Outreach programs embrace learning opportunities and ways to engage with people of all ages. A Power Point presentation shows traditional life and includes artifacts, baskets, tools and an informational and educational booth.

Teaching younger school kids California history is a priority. There is a public charter school adjacent to the museum where they learn about the Kumeyaay-Diegueño culture and do a yearly heritage project.

“This is more than a museum where people just walk in and look around,” Egan-Hedley said. “There’s a lot going on behind the scenes that the public doesn’t see. We work with the tribal community quite a bit. We want to make sure the kids know their family history, where they’re from, and why they’re here. We like to make the connection about their parents and grandparents and where they came from. We want to bring everyone’s story to all the next generations.”

The “Legacy From Our Mothers” exhibit featured a collection of 33 baskets. This exhibit is currently not on display. (Courtesy Barona Cultural Center & Museum)

The museum is open Tuesday to Friday from noon to 5 p.m. and on Saturday from noon to 4 p.m. For more information visit the museum website.

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