San Diego Kumeyaay Etched ‘Resistance Art’ in Floor and Roof Tiles of Early Spanish Churches

by on September 22, 2017 · 1 comment

in Ocean Beach

Richard Carrico. Photo by Frank Gormlie

Richard Carrico, anthropology professor at SDSU, held an audience of over 60 people transfixed last night at the OB Historical Society monthly presentation with his slides and descriptions of how Kumeyaay laborers sketched artwork on floor and roof tiles of the churches they built for the first Spanish colonists in San Diego.  He called it “resistance art or abusive art”.

Carrico admitted to the crowd – once he was introduced by Society president, Eric Duvall inside the former Methodist church on the corner of Sunset Cliffs and Saratoga –  he grew up in Ocean Beach in the 1960s – and holds a warm place in his heart for the place.

He usually does an annual presentation for the OBHS – on his favorite subject: the life, history and culture of the Kumeyaay clans, San Diego’s largest Native American tribe. Since the 1980s, he’s devoted 30 years of his life to archeological digs and studies of them.

Carrico began with some basics on the early Spanish churches. SDSU excavations at the original Spanish fort, which was established in 1769, uncovered 1600 roof tiles, he said. From the site of the Presidio, the priests moved the church out to Mission Valley in 1774, but it was burnt to the ground by Kumeyaay in November 1775. The priests returned to the fort at the mouth of the valley and had their laborers build another church.  Then in 1805 yet another church was constructed at the site where the Mission de San Diego de Alcala stands today. (It was restored in 1925.)

During excavations of the first Mission churches in San Diego, Carrico told the audience, researchers found thousands of old floor and roof tiles made by Indian laborers. And for decades, they were left stacked and off to the side figuratively speaking with no thought to any markings on them. Only years later, did Carrico and other archeologists rediscover these markings as actually etchings with meaning for the Kumeyaay.

The tile etchings were a way for the Kumeyaay to continue their ancient artistic practices and their use of symbology while under the yoke of the Spanish. The Indian workers drew with their hands or sticks on the tiles they made while the tiles were wet, and then unbeknownst to their Spanish and priest overlords, placed them on the floors and roofs. “It was a form of resistance,” Carrico said, “the etchings were not random artwork.”

Some of the markings were representational – he displayed one slide of a tile that showed curved lines for hills and a definite flag on a flag pole – with potentially Spanish military symbols.

This type of “resistance art” was not restricted to San Diego, Carrico explained, and has been found in other locales in Baja and up north in some other California Missions and by other tribes.

“It’s my guest,” Carrico said, “in all the missions made with Indian labor, these things are around,” referring to the etched tiles. “They’ve very similar,” he continued, “to Zumi sand paintings.”

The Kumeyaay, he said, were the only tribe in California to use colors to define directions. East was white, west was black, north was red, and south was blue. These colors were used in their rock art and in other expressions.

(Unfortunately this reporter did not take photos of any of the slides of the tiles.)

Some of the symbols the etchers used looked like waves, zig-zags, concentric circles, four lines drawn parallel (the Kumeyaay culture is a system based on the number “four”, Carrico tried to explain, whereas American culture is a system based on “three” – 3’s are everywhere, 3 strikes, 3 outs in baseball, with 9 innings, 3’s in religious symbols, etc).

One image of a tile showed the entire piece looking like a woven basket or woven thatch – before tile roofs, the churches had thatch roofs.

One of my favorite images was a complex and detailed drawing of a floor tile that represented the Kumeyaay’s creator, and archeologists found it right in front of the Spanish altar. So, while kneeling in front of the altar, the Indians could look down and see the image of their own creator.

Now, that’s resistance art!

If  you ever get a chance to hear Carrico speak or buy his books, do it. He’s one of the few chroniclers of a San Diego history we’re still just getting to understand.


{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Marc Snelling September 22, 2017 at 12:26 pm

I wonder how many people realize that San Diego County has more Indian reservations than any other county in the US? 18 There are another 12 in Riverside County.

The Kumeyaay are split by the US/Mexico border, even though they were here long before it existed. Like the Haudenosaunee on the US/Canada border. Here we have the Jay Treaty which grants status Indians the right to cross the border freely. William Commanda held the Jay Treaty wampum belt for the Kitigan Zibi Anishinaabeg here.

Native history is devalued in the countries that currently exist on Turtle Island. There is a lot there for those with the right eyes to see it. Like Mr Carrico.


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