BUILDING A FUTURE BY HONORING THE PAST: DOCUMENTARY REVEALS POIGNANT HISTORY OF THE KUMEYAAY NATION

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To hear our exclusive interview with Sycuan Chairman Daniel Tucker, click here

By Miriam Raftery

November 14, 2013 (El Cajon ) – History books in California schools teach a view of our past that focuses on Spanish missionaries , conquistadors and other Europeans while omitting the Kumeyaay Native American people who  had lived here for thousands of generations before the first settlers came.  A new documentary produced by the Sycuan band of the Kumeyaay nation aims to change that.

Our People, Our Culture, Our History  premiered this week and will be distributed to local schools.  The film reveals a side of San Diego history that most area residents have never been taught—the exploitation and near extermination of the Kumeyaay people.  This powerful film also documents a triumph of the human spirit, detailing the Sycuan band’s struggle to survive and thrive as a new generation rediscovers a heritage nearly lost.

"We want the people of San Diego and this country to know who we are as a people," Chairman Tucker told East County Magazine. 

San Diego is home to 18 Native American tribes –more than any other county in America.  Most are part of the Kumeyaay nation. The Kumeyaay trace their history back 12,000 years  to prehistoric times.  That’s 10,000 years before Christ and thousands of years before the cultures of the ancient Assyrians and Romans.

Sophisticated tools found here date back to the beginning of that time – such as a gleaming, clear quartz arrowhead recently unearthed locally.  The ancient Kumeyaay had a sophisticated civilization. They studied astronomy and predicted eclipses.  They lived in huts made of willow branches, built villages and hunted with spears, darts, bows and arrows. They had villages including coastal communities and migrated from the desert to the sea each year.  They had a system of laws , living freely and independently—until the Spaniards arrived.

In 1769, when the first Spanish missionaries arrived in San Diego, an estimated 30,000 Kumeyaay Indians lived here. 

By 1890, only 900 were still alive. 

The film dispels myths perpetuated by Euro-centric history books.  One is the myth that San Diego’s Native Americans welcomed the missions. In truth, the Spaniards enslaved the Kumeyaay people, forcing them to make adobe bricks and  do the back-breaking labor of building the mission.  The death rate among these enslaved workers was staggeringly high ; the average lifespan once an Indian was forced into the mission system was just six years.

The Kumeyaay fought back.  In 1775, Indians burned down the mission and killed the priest.  When the Indians refused to go to the mission, the Spanish attacked their village. Ultimately, the Kumeyaay were forced to abandon their village near what is now Presidio Park near Old Town, moving inland to safer grounds—a move that later led to reservations being carved out years later in San Diego’s inland areas, excluding the rich coastal areas where the Indians had once fished and lived. 

Today, the Sycuan reservation is a mere one square mile – a fraction of the lands where the tribe once roamed.

Lands were divided up and granted to Mexican people, leading to uprisings and raids against the ranchos across East County.  Following war with Mexico, America took control of the region.  Then came gold discoveries, bringing  a new wave of immigrants eager for riches and land.

A great tragedy that most Americans have never heard about is the shameful deception of California’s Native Americans by our government.  Treaties with California tribes were drawn up and Native Americans were promised 7.5 million acres.

But those treaties were never ratified—and nobody told the Indians that the treaties were invalid.  Trusting in the process,  some Kumeyaay Indians built ranches, only to have white settlers file for homesteading and seize the lands for themselves.  Bereft of lands, Indians were arrested as vagrants.

Not only were their lands stolen, but California also sought to erase the Indians’ culture and even their lives.  Bounties were set by the state for killing Indians.   Indian children were forced into slave labor; women and children were taken to brothels.  Indian children were sent to schools, where they were forced to dress and speak like whites.

In the film, Hank Murphy, a Sycuan elder, recalls attending a one-room schoolhouse in Dehesa, where the teacher referred to Indians as “savages.”  Of the great Depression that impoverished many Americans, Murphy’s aunt remarked that she had lived in a Depression all of her life

The late 1800s and early 1900s saw an absence of hope for many Kumeyaay people.  There were few options to support a family;  some became firefighters, a proud tradition that continues to this day as many Kumeyaay tribes  now provide fire protection for neighboring communities.

The system imposed on the Kumeyaay destroyed self-esteem and broke the tradition of passing down history through bird songs. 

Leroy Elliott from the Manzanita tribe recalls going behind a ramada and listening to tribal elders singing the ancient bird songs.  His memories and those of others have helped to revive many of the bird songs for a new generation, though song have been lost for eternity.  “It feels good at heart because I’m carrying on,” he says. 

Women have played an important role in leading the Sycuan tribe out of poverty and into prosperity.  Anna Sandoval  had a vision of a better life for her people; she was the driving force behind Sycuan opening its bingo hall.  Before then,  Hank Murphy recalls a time when the tribal balance was just $846.

Chairman Daniel Tucker helped lead efforts to change California's constitution to allow tribal gaming and enable tribes to diversify. Sycuan was the first San Diego tribe to build a casino. Today, the Sycuan band of the Kumeyaay nation has diversified, owning the U.S. Grant Hotel in downtown San Diego, the Sycuan Resort (formerly known as  theSinging Hills golf course) and other business ventures. 

Casinos have lifted many local Native Americans out of abject poverty.  Many local Indians lived on reservations without electricity or running water until only a generation or two ago.  Casino funds have enabled Sycuan to build new homes for its people and helped many Indian young people to go to college, enabling them to provide for their own families in the future.

“Like my mother and her mother, I just want something better for my kids,” Pilar Pettiford,  a Kumeyaay woman, says in the film. 

Tucker wants the world to know that Sycuan is not just a casino.  “Most San Diegans do not undersetand at a deeper level that we are a government first and foremost…part of a larger group, the Kumeyaay nation.”  He said most San Diegans know more about the Plains Indians than the Kumeyaay.  “We hope to change that,” he said of the documentary, which took over a year to create.

Cody Martinez, who spear-headed the documentary project, called the film “very significant” because it is one of the very few documentaries produced from a Native American point of view.   Prominent historians and anthropologists,  as well as museum curators, were also involved in the project.

Despite all that the Kumeyaay people  have endured, they do not want to be thought of as victims, nor to react with bitterness to their mistreatment in the past.  Instead,  Kumeyaay tribes have given generously to help others in our community—building fire stations,  donating funds to local schools, to Rady Children’s Hospital, and much more.

“We live in San Diego. We’re part of our community. We’ve always been taught by our elders, give something back,” Chairman Tucker told East County Magazine in an interview. “We’re doing the right thing. We are giving back to our community.”

The tribe has a tradition of feeding those who are hungry.  That includes undocumented immigrants who have crossed  the border where a fence now divides the Kumeyaay nation, which has many members of its own in what is now Mexico.  “Those people are hungry, too, so we feed them. We don’t anybody to starve. We don’t want anybody to be harmed,” Tucker said.

The Kumeyaay believe in giving to others and being respectful of both the land and the people. In the Kumeyaay language, the words for body and land are the same.   

The film carries a powerful message: “We are of this land.”  The Kumeyaay have long been respectful stewards of the land, a tradition that non-Native Americans could learn from and indeed, last year the Sycuan tribe sponsored a conference to educate others on the impacts of large energy and mining projects on indigenous people, including Kumeyaay tribal members.

The documentary premier , held in the theater at the Sycuan Casino in El Cajon, was attended by dignitaries including California Senate Majority Leader Toni Atkins, District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis, Sheriff Bill Gore, representatives of Congressional and local state legislative members, and representatives from other tribes.   Afterwards, a display of artifacts and artwork was displayed, including many items found during a recent roadwork project on the reservation.   

Today, some things have come full circle.  According to the last census, the Kumeyaay population in San Diego is now fully restored to over 30,000 people – the same level as in 1769, before the Spaniards came.

Moving forward, the Sycuan people aspire to both honor their past and build their future, “never forgetting who we are, where we are, and where we came from. But they have to protect our sovereign rights as a government and a nation,” Chairman Tucker concludes.

Sycuan's Chairman says that as a leader, his aim is to “be fair and work with the people, because the people are our bosses." As an elected tribal Chairman, he believes it's important to "do the right thing for our people- not just one individual, but everybody.”

For more information on Sycuan, see www.sycuantribe.org and www.Sycuan.com.

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Anna Sandoval