The Flight of Bearfoot Manuella Cibimoat

If we cannot live here, we want to go into those mountains and die. We do not want any other home.

~ Cupeño Captain Cecilio Blacktooth
(as translated by Celsa Apapas)

The original name is Cupa. With the arrival of Spanish explorers in 1795 it became Agua Caliente. The first American to claim it in 1844 called it Warner Springs. Bearfoot Manuella Cibimoat called the village home until May 12, 1903, when her people were evicted after a lengthy legal battle. To her credit, the ninety-one-year-old Cupeño woman did not go peacefully.

The night before the removal, women in long dresses chanted dirges around the fires. Nobody slept. In the morning, wagons showed up to haul the Cupeño and their belongings to the reservation at Pala. Bearfoot was having no part of it. When the teamsters threw her household goods into a wagon she shouted at them, “Here I will stay, even if I die, even if the coyotes eat me.”

She yelled defiantly at journalist Grant Wallace, shaking a package of hardtack at his camera. Her long hair flew in a rage. She turned and walked away, past the hot springs and the granite boulders pockmarked with her people’s grinding holes. She climbed toward the sacred peaks that guarded the village — and disappeared.

When a reporter asked why the old woman would flee, Isabella Owlinguish said that when she and Bearfoot were young they were held prisoners at the Pala Mission. Isabella “threw off her shawl and shouted ‘see!’ and showed great calloused marks on her thin shoulders. ‘These we had to keep fresh our memories of Pala mission! What we suffered there … Bearfoot could not forget. She would not look again upon that place … Does the white man think it strange that we did not want to come?’”

A few weeks after the Cupeño reached the reservation at Pala, two of the leaders went into the mountains to talk to Bearfoot. They convinced her to join her exiled people at Pala where she eventually died and was buried. So ends her recorded story.

But I can’t get her picture (from Out West magazine, July, 1903), out of my mind. It’s the only historic photograph I’ve seen where a native woman is visibly angry about what is happening to her people. She’s fighting back. She’s pissed off and not afraid to show it. She’s resisting! Bearfoot may have come to the reservation in body — but not in spirit.

Grant Wallace concluded his article in Out West magazine with the observation, “There would seem to be no reason why these Indians should not soon be happier and more self-reliant at Pala that (sic) at Warner’s Ranch.”

One look at Bearfoot’s face makes it plain he hadn’t heard a word the Cupeño people said.


One day, when I was a little girl, my family traveled backwards. We piled into our car with my grandparents and drove into the mountains northeast of San Diego. We were going to visit old friends of my grandmother’s who lived on a ranch in the backcountry. Eventually, my dad turned off the narrow highway onto a dusty drive. It lead to an old building that looked more like a Western movie set than a real house.

A gray-haired couple came out onto the covered porch and welcomed us. We were herded into their generous kitchen where we ate sandwiches around a big table. As the grown-ups settled in for a long visit, they encouraged my brother and me to go outside and poke around.

Wagon wheels and rusting pieces of equipment lay about the farm yard. Battered corrals and fencing stitched together a ragged chain of barns and outbuildings. Down a faint dirt track, we discovered dozens of stone pestles and mortars covering the ground — manos y metates. Some of the manos were so long and heavy we couldn’t lift them. We looked up into the scrubby trees. Were they for grinding acorns?

When the adults met up with us, our hosts explained that generations of Indian* families had lived and worked at the ranch until recently. After they were gone, the couple collected all the manos y metates they came across and brought them back to the house.

It looked as if an entire village had vanished and these tools were all that remained. As the other folks wandered off, my mother stayed with us. She knelt down and began to touch the stones one by one. The way she did it — quietly and reverently — nestled deep inside me.

Whenever I think of that place, all I remember clearly are the manos y metates. I’ve tried several times to find the ranch, but my memory lacks details and the adults are long gone. Was it south of Agua Caliente, or north? Was it near the highway or set back a ways? The specifics elude me. I’m beginning to wonder if that ranch still exists as a physical place. Maybe it only survives in my mind’s eye.

*They were probably Kumeyaay or Cupeño people whose descendants are among the Pala Band of Mission Indians.