Student Journal: winter dispatches from the field Kumeyaay Reservation: Inspiring native students to consider college
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The Dispatches
The Authors
Van Truong: Winter Breaks program leader and a sophomore double-majoring in business and sociology

Sylvia Johnson: A former Campo Reservation resident and a sophomore focusing on Native American Studies

Matt Singer: Alternative Breaks' student director and a fourth-year pre-med student

Louise Hon: Senior majoring in sociology

Frieda Kreth: Junior majoring in history



Presentatiuon circle

Dennis Alto (back to camera), the outpatient coordinator at the Youth Regional Treatment Center, prepares for the center's weekly Talking Circle.

Sharing the different roads to college, dancing to the Bird Songs, learning about the Kumeyaay's health risks, and fitting in ...

Campo Reservation, California, Day Three —

Missed the first installment by the Kumeyaay volunteers? Read it here.
Van Truong: We went to Mountain Empire High School to present a workshop on going to college. We opened the workshop with alarming statistics, such as the percentage of students admitted to the nine University of California campuses who are American Indians (0.6 percent) and that fact that California spends more money on its prison systems than on public education (it's ranked No. 1 in prison spending and No. 43 in public education spending). We introduced ourselves with statements such as: "I am a first-generation college student." "I was born and raised in South Central Los Angeles" "I am one of my school's 3.8 percent group of African-American students."

The statistics and statements really got everyone’s attention. The workshop was very effective and allowed many students to participate and get their questions answered. It also showed me many things that I often take for granted. It was liberating and empowering for me because I was able to give my own testimony about the struggles I faced in order to get into college. Although it was extremely emotional to recall the trials of growing up in a disadvantaged, immigrant family, the workshop helped me gain a greater awareness of my own identity and reaffirmed my passion for promoting higher education to under-served students.

Excerpt from Frieda Kreth's spoken-word piece presented to the college workshop:

… Poverty, anyway pronounced means a lack
of something;
a deficit, a missing piece.
Poverty in the form of
classmates tracked to fail.
Teachers shifting their efforts and energies
for the three presumed college-bound students.
How 'bout the rest of us, man? We make up
85% of the school — we got knowledge and experiences to
share too. Don't take us as fools…

… How do you try to escape Poverty? It's in your blood,
your name, your stereotypes, your shoes, your shirt,
your sweat, your eyes, your skin color. Damn. This
sounds like a deadly game.

Louise Hon: Junior [Paul Cuero] had told us to share some of our personal accounts for our presentation at the Alternative High School. But Van, Sylvia, Frieda, Angelina and Lori Garrett did more than that. They shared their lives, emotions and knowledge all at once. I’ve been in these Native students’ classroom twice to tutor and they hardly paid any attention to the teacher. This time they were swallowing up every word. It just reminds me how much the same words can sound so different when they're coming from a different perspective.

The nicest thing after that presentation was probably hearing Mary, one of the Native students — and Sylvia's little sister — say that she hadn’t really thought of college until we came. And if the testimonies from Sylvia, Lori and Van and Angelina's and Frieda’s poetry did not inspire the students, they definitely reminded me of why I am in higher education, and why I continue to promote it to people of various backgrounds.

Van Truong: Later that day, we were able to visit the Kumeyaay Museum at the Barron Reservation and also visit the nearby Viejas Reservation where other Kumeyaay people live. We then attended a dinner banquet at the Golden Acorn Casino with Barbara Cuero, Vice Chairwoman of Campo Reservation, and Paul Cuero, treasurer and Barbara's son. Paul and the Bird Singers performed the traditional songs for this group as well — and this time we were able to dance along.

Matt Singer: This trip allowed me to see and hear firsthand some of the major obstacles young Native Americans encounter. I learned how difficult it is to be excited about school when there seems to be no direct benefit for people on the reservation. In addition to hearing about the hardships of life on the reservation, I gathered a wealth of knowledge about Kumeyaay history and culture. Being invited to play rhythms with the Bird Singers proved to be one of the defining moments of the trip. It was a tremendous honor for me to be included in this performance because I no longer felt like an outsider in their community. I was deeply touched.

Day 4

Matt Singer: We had a guest speaker, Amy Herb of the Southern Indian Health Clinic, come in to talk about health issues. I had no idea that Hepatitis C is one of the three major health concerns on the Kumeyaay reservation. Alcoholism and drug abuse, diabetes, and obesity also threaten the emotional and financial stability of families. This information allowed me to make the now-obvious connection between the intellectual vitality of a student and his family's health. It forces me to ask whether or not I would be where I am today if one or both of my parents had been ill during my childhood.

Volunteers give presentation
The Berkeley volunteers drew a "medicine circle," a diagram of the high school audience's wishes and needs

Van Truong: We put on our higher-education workshop for the students at the alternative high school, who also seemed moved and inspired by our testimonies. Some of the audience shed tears as we discussed our own struggles to get into UC Berkeley.

Louise Hon: The turnout was much larger than we had expected. One thing that surprised me even more was that several seventh graders showed up because they were so curious about these 13 strangers. As we were doing the medicine circle, a student asked me whether the "girl with the scarf is bald." Normally, I would be offended by comments such as these, but I saw in his eyes that he simply wanted to know. He did not have any intention to poke fun at anyone, so I simply said, "No, it’s part of her religion."

Van Truong: Afterward we headed off to the Youth Regional Treatment Center, a substance abuse rehabilitation facility, to make dreamcatchers with the youth there. Later we returned to the Education Center to play "peon," a traditional game where two teams try to guess which of the opposing team’s hands are hiding white bones or sticks, with the young people. To our surprise, a majority of the community, even members of the Manzanita tribe, came to dance and sing for us. Paul Cuero and the director of the Education Center, Debbie Cuero (no relation), also surprised all the Alternative Breaks volunteers by honoring us with Kumeyaay t-shirts before the community. It was a ceremonial closure for an exciting week.

Sylvia Johnson: All of the students blended in well with the community. There aren’t a whole lot of outsiders that come onto the reservation and actually work with the people as we did for the week. So, when outsiders do come, they kind of feel awkward, but the group of students that came seemed to feel at home and it made the community welcome them with open arms. The community proved that by letting them in on their cultural experience and just getting them what they needed. Truthfully, not just anyone gets to learn how to play traditional Kumeyaay hand games and Kumeyaay Bird Dances and Songs. This group was special and I hope that they know that.


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