Tommy Pico and the Kumeyaay Nation: A Brief Historical and Cultural Context

Tommy Pico for The New Yorker

While reading Homegoing, I found myself repeatedly feeling like something was missing from my understanding of the book. It was difficult to answer questions concerning homophobic  culture in Ghana versus Britain when I didn’t have any initial cultural background about Asante and Fante culture, geography, language, and dynamics. While in class, I watched as we all guessed at pronunciations, sticking with what felt right. Afterwards, I was able to do some individual research on the topic but still felt like the initial class experience was a disservice to the author and the novel, which put so much weight on language and naming. As such, going into our next book Junk, I hope that this post provides some cultural context for the story we are about to explore.

First, about the author, Tommy Pico. He is an acclaimed poet, podcast host, TV writer, editor and author. He grew up on the Viejas Reservation (of the Kumeyaay nation) outside of San Diego. In his childhood, his father resided as the reservation chairman while he spent his time writing comics and poetry. Pico then studied pre-med at Sarah Lawrence College in New York with the intent to come back to the reservation as a doctor. But, he ultimately left school to become a poet in New York City and later Los Angeles. 

Much of his work is rooted in his childhood on the Viejas Reservation. His basis for writing multiple book-length poems are indigenous song cycles, called “bird songs,” which contain stories central to the culture that are sung at gatherings. There are over 300 of these pieces, passed down through many generations. Interestingly, Pico’s own Kumeyaay name (Ashaa Takook) translates into “bird song.” Pico himself has created a collective of literature called Bird Song in part because of his name, but also because it signals a new morning and a rebirth. This thread of ancestral history being reborn is prominent in Pico’s own writing, and is one of the main forms of spirituality he believes in.

His book Junk can be considered a “a book-length break-up poem that explores the experience of loss and erasure, both personal and cultural,” as described by Tin House magazine. The loss that Pico describes may, in part, develop from the collective loss (and battle to keep) culture that the Kumeyaay nation has and continues to experience. As the first group to meet the Spanish after they arrived in San Diego bay, Kumeyaay history is embroiled with colonization. The Kumeyaay nation mostly passed history down through oral tradition, which was threatened after the forced attendance of reservation schools up until 1939. As a result, much of what is known about their lives beforehand comes from colonizers’ writings, archaeology, the few stories and memories left by Kumeyaay nation’s members, and artifacts.  

The Kumeyaay were organized into lineage-based bands, with their own territory and leader called a Kwaaypaay (pronounced “kweye pie”) who was responsible for activities but had no final say over group decisions. Each also had an assistant, a council of shamans, and two villages. One village was designated for winter while the other was for summer and fall, situated near a water source. The Kumeyaay language has many dialects, including Ipai (lipay) and Tipai, which contain sub dialects. Easternmost Kumeyaay were called Kamia by neighboring groups, who use the Tipai language. The Kumeyaay may also be referred to as the Diegueño, which was the name of their mission group. This name is more contentious because it was given by colonizers, and not all Kumeyaay ancestors went to the missions.

The Kumeyaay nation made great developments in pottery, basketry, language, environmental management, and games. The most common games are shinny, hoop and pole, shooting arrows, throwing games, Peon, and stick dice, which Pico may be familiar with. In the case of the aforementioned bird songs, men sing and shake gourd rattles filled with palm seeds while women accompany the song through dance. Many Kumeyaay today maintain their traditions and songs within their community. As we move through our next reading, try to see how Kumeyaay traditions, like the bird song, and the culture’s strong connection with their ancestors appears within Pico’s writings.

Hopefully this blog post has provided a brief overview of Kumeyaay culture and Tommy Pico. If you’re still interested, here are some links for further reading:

Interview – Meet Tommy Pico, the Native American, Beyonce-loving poet

Tin House – Junk

Tommy Pico – About

The Creative Independent – Tommy Pico on Not Wasting Any Time

Mission Trails Regional Park – A Teacher’s Guide to Historical and Contemporary Kumeyaay Culture

Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians

Kumeyaay Bird Song Video

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