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San Diego’s Reputation As A Place To Get Well May Have Started With The Cupa Indians

The Cupa Indians stop for a rest during their three-day journey to the Pala R...

Credit: Courtesy of Out West Magazine

Above: The Cupa Indians stop for a rest during their three-day journey to the Pala Reservation after they were forcibly removed from their ancestral home at Warner Springs Ranch, July, 1903.

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San Diego has a long reputation as a place to heal.

Aired: July 29, 2019 | Transcript

Eric Ortega walked through Warner Springs on a recent hot afternoon.

“I see our homeland,” he said, looking at houses that dot vast rolling expanses of land covered by dry brush and trees.

“My grandmother lived in one of those houses,” said the 54-year-old Ortega. “My grandfather lived in those houses.”

And just east of the homes, sit two large pools of water sprung from the ground. One hot. One cool.

Ortega said practicality and spirituality drew his ancestors to the springs possibly as far back as 4,000 years ago.

“The water was healing,” Ortega said. “It cleaned our bodies and our souls. If you’ve had a hard day of hunting and gathering, you came and you soaked in the hot springs.”

He says it touched every aspect of Cupa society.

“It was constantly part of keeping us strong, our whole culture,” he said. “A lot of our religious events were dunking with the water, sprinkling with the water. It was a big part of our daily life.”

When American settlers started traveling through the area in the 1850s, the Native Americans used the water to turn a profit.

“We would wash their clothes,” Ortega said. “We would let them bathe, let them drink water, feed them; and then, they would pay us and be on their way.”

Around the same time, word got out to ailing Americans, who were arriving in the region, that the hot springs just might be a panacea.

“The claims that were made in the 19th century was that these hot mineral waters could cure just about anything, I mean cancer, tuberculosis, all kinds of diseases,” said Phil Brigandi, a local historian. “The hot springs were, of course, good for some joint-type diseases because they were warm and soothing.”

As the fame of the hot springs grew, he said the property became highly coveted. And even though the land had already been deeded to a man named Jonathan Trumbull Warner decades earlier, the Indians continued to live there.

Photo by Amita Sharma

Pala Mission Band of Indians member Eric Ortega, pictured in this undated photo, looks at the Warner Springs Ranch where his ancestors — the Cupa Indians — lived for generations before they were evicted in 1903.

“Eventually, the folks who own the Warner Ranch, led primarily by a man named John Downey who was a former governor of California, decided they wanted access,” Brigandi said, “... so they instituted a lawsuit treating the Indians as if they were trespassers.”

The lawsuit prevailed. In 1903, the Cupa Indians were removed.

“It was the last of these old federal removals, as we politely call them, where we took the Indians from their natural home and moved them off to a reservation,” Brigandi said.

Some 200 men, women and children were marched on a three-day, 60-mile journey to the Pala reservation.

“The eviction of 1903 was the trail of tears for the Cupeño people and the other Indian people living on the Warner Ranch,” Brigandi said. “They wanted to live where they had always lived. They lived in good substantial adobe homes by the springs. Their church was there. They had a government, a school there, their graveyard with the bones of their ancestors was there.”

Ortega said he knew a prominent member of the tribe, Roscinda Nolasquez, who was 11 when they were forced from their ancestral homes.

“She said they were crying,” Ortega said. “They were howling.”

Brigandi said the Pechanga Indians, who had been evicted from their land 28 years earlier, came down from what is today called Temecula to support the Cupeños soon after they arrived at Pala after the eviction.

“And they brought a barbecued steer,” Brigandi said. “They brought oranges for the kids. And there’s this amazing moment of these two Indian groups together, one who has survived a removal and the other who is in the midst of it. You can only imagine what was said around the campfire that night.”

Descendants of the Cupeños are still trying to get their land back and the water for a price.

In 2013, a bankruptcy judge rejected the Pala Band of Mission Indians bid for the property.

Pala Chairman Robert Smith said he was “blown away” by the decision. But he is still optimistic

“Eventually, we’ll have to buy our land back,” Smith said. “Whatever it takes, we want to do it.”

Meanwhile, standing outside a security fence surrounding the property, Ortega shared Smith’s optimism about owning the hot springs someday. If that happens, he said everyone will be welcome.

“We will gladly share it as we did in the past,” Ortega said

Logo for Cal Dream project The California Dream Project is a statewide collaboration focused on issues of economic opportunity, quality-of-life, and the future of the California Dream. Partner organizations include CALmatters, Capital Public Radio, KPBS, KPCC, and KQED.

Photo of Amita Sharma

Amita Sharma
Investigative Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksAs an investigative reporter for KPBS, I've helped expose political scandals and dug into intractable issues like sex trafficking. I've raised tough questions about how government treats foster kids. I've spotlighted the problem of pollution in poor neighborhoods. And I've chronicled corporate mistakes and how the public sometimes ends up paying for them.

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