Owas Hilmawa (Rosa Lopez
By: Jenifer Stone, Assistant Curator
This March the annual Congress of History Conference was cancelled due to the ongoing corona virus pandemic. The theme of the conference was to be “Remarkable Women.”
I was scheduled to talk about a remarkable indigenous woman from the Manzanita Reservation – Owas Hilmawa (Rosa Lopez). Owas was born in 1871 to Ka-Smoke and Passhano Chappo. Very little is known about her early life, but it is known that she lived
during a very difficult and challenging time time for California Natives. Until 1875 there were no reservations in San Diego county, that meant that there was no legally designated land for Native people. The Manzanita Reservation, where Owas and her family would be registered, was not established until 1893. The people were often forced to survive in remote areas of the county without the ability to move through their territory seasonally, as they did traditionally. The early years of California statehood also ushered in a period of genocide and enslavement for Native Peoples.
Owas married José Santos Lopez around 1900 at the age of 29. Santos (as he was called) was also from the Manzanita Reservation. In the late 1800s and early 1900s there were many people practicing “salvage ethnography.”
Scientists and amateur scholars mistakenly believed that
Native Peoples were at the edge of extinction, so there was a race to document everything. Santos and Owas
became friends and guides to many of these early ethnographers in San Diego county including Constance Goddard DuBois, Edward H. Davis, Malcolm Rogers and Melicent and Leslie Lee. Through these relationships we get a glimpse into the lives of Owas
and Santos. Santos had registered for a homestead in 1907 and was actively working to establish residency of the land against an Anglo settler who was trying to trespass on his claim. Santos corresponded with Constance DuBois regarding the matter, who was helping him with the legal paperwork required by the Land Office and lending him some money to purchase hives for beekeeping. Santos often mentioned Owas and that she sent her “kindest wishes” to DuBois. From correspondence between DuBois and other San Diego county residents, we also learn that Owas and Santos would work seasonally for the railroad, were improving their homestead land (officially signed by Woodrow Wilson in 1916), that Owas’ family kept the “finest garden,” and that they sold 28 cases of honey at $4.50 each!
Owas and Santos were also befriended by Melicent and Leslie Lee. Melicent is known as the author of Indians of the Oaks and her husband Leslie was an artist. Leslie painted a beautiful portrait of Owas in oil that is in the collection of the San Diego Museum of Man. It shows Owas sitting in front of a stone mortar grinding acorns into flour. This piece was on display at Barona Museum for many years as part of our A Visit from Old Friends exhibition.
In 1928, anthropologist Malcolm Rogers (a curator at the San Deigo Museum of Man from 1930-1945) was doing fieldwork on Yuman pottery. His main informant on Southern Diegueño/Kumeyaay pottery was Owas. In July of that year he visited her at the
Manzanita Reservation where he observed, photographed and documented her pottery making process. Owas practiced traditional methods which included an ingenious technique of increasing plasticity to her clay by mixing her dry components with Yerba Santa-infused water. Rogers noted that this was “remarkable” and mirrored a process in modern ceramics that was not discovered until the 20th century.
Owas made beautifully shaped and crafted pottery. The majority of Kumeyaay/Diegueño pottery is not decorated, however, Owas is known for her distinctive pottery with red ochre painting. Her ochre was harvested from a ledge in Carrizo Canyon, near Jacumba. Owas would prepare her paint with water that had a piece of desert agave soaking in it for 24 hours. Agave deserti acts as a fixative and sets the pigment during firing.
Barona Museum is honored to be the steward of 13 pieces of pottery made by Owas in the 1920s. These pieces were part of Barona Museum’s founding collection – The Speer Collection. The vessels were commissioned by a local San Diego resident who had great interest in Kumeyaay/Diegueño culture. According to an inventory there were originally 32 pieces made – Barona has 13 and the rest are probably in the hands of private collectors. This quote comes from the inventory:
This pottery was made by Rosa Lopez on the Manzanita Reservation . . . to demonstrate . . . the old methods and models made by her family for generations. It is marked with the name designation “WASP” which is the translation of her Indian name.
"WASP” was a misinterpretation of the original collector of Owas’ name. He marked each piece of pottery with WASP and numbered them 1–32.
Many of Owas’ pieces have been on display at Barona Museum and the Sage Restaurant inside Barona Casino over the years. We are pleased to now announce that all of Owas’ pottery can be viewed on our Online Catalog of objects from the Speer Collection.
Each piece is described and accompanied by measurements and photographs. We hope that you will enjoy seeing these amazing pieces.
Most Native American art pieces have been separated from their makers, they are “artist unknown.” What a gift to know who made these pieces and her unique process. As the stewards of this amazing collection it is our duty to care for them properly and share them with the Kumeyaay/Diegueño community and the public.