The California Desert: A Place of Traditional Culture

by Michael P. Sampson

For millennia in Southern California, deserts have been places to achieve spirituality, wisdom, or revitalization, obtain daily sustenance, corridors for travel, localities for commercial uses, and other human activities. The Colorado Desert, a region encompassing Imperial County and portions of San Diego County and Riverside County, evocatively conveys the cultural significance of the desert landscape. This desert region provides opportunities for us to explore the complexities of the human experience while offering a means to achieve our own re-creation and emotional awakening. The space and peacefulness we humans find within the desert opens the mind and expands our conscience. There is a poetic beauty in the landscape features and vegetation of the Colorado Desert, which in turn allows us to connect with our inner being.


A visit to desert lands today can lead us, too, into an existential journey whereby we tangibly sense the human condition in the past. Village sites in prehistory certainly were considered for use because of the presence of certain natural resources; in the Colorado Desert, those might include agave, mesquite, water, economically important stone materials, etc. However, we at the Center for Research in Traditional Culture of the Americas believe Native American people, such as, the Cahuilla, Kumeyaay, and Kwaaymii who lived in the Colorado Desert, viewed the land more holistically and felt a strong sense of connection to places. In turn, they identified a spiritual nature in landscape features [mountains, ridges, mesas, springs, creeks, boulders, etc.] and appreciated the inherent capacity of desert lands to inspire, to provoke memories in oral traditions, and to otherwise promote knowledge and wisdom.


Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, a broad, timeless, geologically diverse wilderness of stark magnificence in the western Colorado Desert, abounds in locations that tell an explicit human story in prehistory and historic times. Two such places of traditional cultural importance to California’s indigenous people within this park are the village site on Mine Wash and the Morteros Village Site in Little Blair Valley. The latter two places are interpreted for the general public by the State Park and hold definitive cultural significance for the prehistoric human experience in this desert region. The State invites park visitors to experience these places as respectful visitors. In the coming blog posts, we will describe the traditional values of these places.


%d bloggers like this: