Honoring the Kumeyaay

Kumeyaay Garden’s new sign stands at the heart of the garden. Cyrus Lange/The USD Vista

On this year’s California Native American Day, the University of San Diego held a rededication of the Kumeyaay Garden to remind the community that  the campus sits on  territory of the Kumeyaay Nation.

Attendees of the event on Sept. 22 felt that being present was imperative to acknowledge the Native American tribe and promote diversity on campus.

Junior Sierra BeQuette, who is Shoshone and Northern Paiute, noted that the Native American diversity on campus is miniscule and emphasized the importance of recognizing the Kumeyaay.

“I heard they were doing this  and I don’t know about a lot of other Native American events on campus so I thought why not show up,” BeQuette said. “There is little diversity on campus in the form of Native Americans and I want to be here to support as much as I can.”

In fact, student support is one of the reasons that this garden dedication was made possible.

Vice President of Associated Students Shannan Conlon wrote the resolution to help recognize the Kumeyaay Nation and ensure they are given respect and dignity.

“My sophomore year I wrote a resolution for Associated Students,” Conlon said. “I went directly to President Harris and other administrative members calling for a change to recognize the past and present of the Kumeyaay people on this land.”

Bird singers, who customarily open Native American events, blessed the artwork that now stands in the middle of the Kumeyaay garden. Cyrus Lange/The USD Vista

Persephone Lewis, who is USD’s Tribal Liaison, recognized that this project was much more than the renaming of a garden.

“Being an indigenous person, I saw this as much more than a garden with indigenous plants or more than just a sign,” Lewis said. “I saw this as a decolonizing project. I saw this as a way to reclaim Kumeyaay space.”

USD alumnus Mark Montygierd was able to give a brief history of the origin of the garden starting back in 1999.

A group of students formed the Environmental Action Group and wanted to display the native plants to the USD community. The group was able to plant “seeds of peace” which became a way to pay respect to those who lost their lives during 9/11. The garden was then named the Tecolote Memorial Garden for that reason.

The garden has changed to honor the Kumeyaay people who used the plants in the garden as a means of survival.

Professor Michael Mayer was one of the faculty members involved in planting and preparing the garden. Mayer also helped with the planting of the original garden 16 years ago. He explained why the committee in charge of this garden wanted to change the name.

“We thought that, ‘Wouldn’t this be a great way to honor the indigenous people of the area by actually rededicating this garden in their name?’” Mayer said.

Artist Johnny “Bear” Contreras explained his artwork to the USD and Native American community. Cyrus Lange/The USD Vista

Mayer noted that he and the committee wanted to share the importance of the Kumeyaay history with the community.

“There was a thriving civilization for thousands of years prior to European colonization,” Mayer said. “Also, the knowledge developed by the native Kumeyaay people is very useful. There is a lot of useful knowledge that we would like to disperse again and honor those people who developed that information.”

The artwork that now resides in the Kumeyaay Garden was designed by Johnny “Bear” Contreras, a native of San Diego and a Native American artist. Bird singers, who usually sing at southwestern Native American ceremonies, chanted stories in the Kumeyaay language to bless the garden. Vice Chairman of the Campo Kumeyaay Nation, Paul Cuero Jr., led the bird singers in their performance.

The structure that Contreras made came from a process to make something that resembles a Native American traditional home.  Contreras made the sculpture an open structure in order to depict the constellations that are significant to the Kumeyaay culture.

Legislator-Ipaay Nation of Santa Ysabel, Stan Rodriguez, recognized the artwork done by Contreras and explained how it is the greatest way to give back to the Creator.

“When you make artwork, when you sing a song, when you dance, when you do all these things, that is the Creator coming out in you,” Rodriguez said. “That is the greatest gift that you can give back, is honoring the Creator and reaching your fullest potential.”

USD community members, tribal members, and San Diego residents watched the bird singers bless the garden. Cyrus Lange/The USD Vista

At the end of his speech while under the artwork built by Contreras, Rodriguez challenged everyone in the audience.

“Each and every one of you, I challenge you to come here and if you are troubled, to look up at this and to remember there are teachings all around us if you are willing to listen, to look, and to learn,” Rodriguez said.

At the end of the event, attendees were able to immerse themselves in Kumeyaay culture through various activities led by the the local Native American people.

Attendees played Kumeyaay games that incorporated the Kumeyaay language, drank smoothies made with completely indigenous plant ingredients, participated in garden tours, and made pine needle baskets and necklaces.

These activities allowed the community to see Kumeyaay culture, learn some of the language of the Kumeyaay, and appreciation the people who previously occupied this land previously.

Mayer stated he is excited that there is more diversity in people interested in the garden because of all it has to offer.

“I am excited that there is a range of people now interested in the garden for all the different reasons already mentioned,” Mayer said. “It is a wonderful place to be. You can learn about native culture, learn about native plants, you can relax, you can have a meeting, and it’s just a great place. Sometimes people have walked through the garden for years and didn’t know the significance of this garden and I’m happy we have more signage, a website, and pamphlets with a lot of information people can use now.”

The event was meant to be more than the renaming of the garden — it was also a way to give back to the Kumeyaay Nation.

Lilyana Espinoza | News Editor | The USD Vista