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



at the daycare center

Angelina Gonzales played with children during a stint at the reservation's day-care center.

Going home to the Rez, piling into two bedrooms, Sitting Bull vs. Custer, and learning the Bird Songs


Matt Singer: My name is Matt. I am a student at UC Berkeley. I eat well and exercise often. I come from an upper-middle-class family. My parents support me financially and emotionally. I have never had a serious health problem. I have never encountered a serious obstacle in my pursuit of a college degree. I come from a place of privilege. For these reasons, it has been exceedingly difficult for me to comprehend the struggles faced by young Native Americans as they pursue higher education and healthy lifestyles. My experience on the Kumeyaay reservation changed all of this.

Van Truong: I want to promote equal access to higher education for all students, and I came up with the idea of an Alternative Break in a Native American community because that group is tremendously underrepresented at the University of California. We were able to get involved with the Kumeyaay tribe through Sylvia Johnson, a Berkeley sophomore and a friend of mine. I knew she was from Campo Reservation and that she could be of great assistance. I discussed the idea with Sylvia, she agreed to help, and the rest is history.

Sylvia and Junior
Sylvia Johnson with Paul "Junior" Cuero, the reservation's treasurer and lead Bird Singer.

Sylvia Johnson: I am a Kumeyaay Indian from Campo Indian Reservation in Campo, California. I was born on the Rez, moved away when I was 2, and back when I was 14. Although I didn’t grow up entirely in Campo, I still spoke the language and participated in traditional events. I went to the alternative high school in Campo for a while, but I didn’t like it for a bunch of different reasons. I wasn’t challenged by my school work, so I thought I would benefit more if I went to a high school with more opportunities. My sophomore year I went to an all-Indian boarding school in Riverside, California, called Sherman Indian High School. Going to Sherman was probably the best thing that I could have done. I did well in school all three years that I was there and got a four-year scholarship to Cal.

When Van first approached me about taking an alternative break on an Indian Reservation, I was excited to help. Then I started to think about some of the problems with my people on the reservation and how my people deal with certain things different than other people might. I thought that maybe the people on the reservation might not take to this trip in a good way. But time went by and I heard good things about this group of Cal students.

Louise Hon: When I first heard of Alternative Breaks, I had doubts about the program. It was designed for students to provide "service" to a community within a week’s time. That seemed like an insurmountable task in the first place. After all, none of us are superheroes, and with breaks such as the Kumeyaay one, we hardly have enough knowledge about the issues to address the problems in the community.

I can’t speak for others, but I definitely did not feel ready when we hopped on the 15-passenger van that Sunday morning. After 10 hours of non-stop driving down to Campo, near San Diego, I felt as lost and disoriented as I could be.

Van Truong: Sylvia’s mother graciously opened up her home for us to stay. The 13 of us were a bit crowded in the house; however, we managed to sleep, cook meals, have meetings and discussions for the entire week in this cozy home. We occupied the living room, two bedrooms and shared one bathroom for the duration of the trip. It was like being in the dorms again, but much more fun and cozy.


Van Truong: We met at the Campo Education Center, which serves as an alternative high school and a community center, and divided into three teams. One group helped prepare lunch and facilitate the Diabetic Education Class, a monthly nutritional and diabetes-prevention class that teaches community members about healthier ways to eat and prepare meals; another group helped in the day-care facility, while the third tutored students at the Education Center’s alternative school.

Sylvia Johnson: I was nervous because I was working with my people but with a group of strangers from the outside. I felt kind of weird at first, but the group seemed to be comfortable in the situation, which made me comfortable as well. I found out a lot about myself, and about my community. There are some serious issues on the reservation that I had no prior knowledge of. A lot of the students are way behind in school. I worked with a few students that were in sixth or seventh grade and couldn’t read. I had no idea that the kids on the Rez were that far behind. I am glad that we got to work with the students with all the things that they struggle with.

Original Americans
A banner hanging in the Educational Center.

Louise Hon: It was toward the end of our first day of service, and I felt like I'd accomplished very little, aside from tutoring math problems for about 40 minutes in the morning with some of the students at the alternative high school. We were chatting with the few students that were around and one of them, Fred, had on a t-shirt whose front said "Our Heroes, Your Enemies" and listed prominent Native American figures such as Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse and Geronimo. On the back it said, "Our Enemies, Your Heroes" and listed Custer, Columbus, Jackson, etc.

We pulled an encyclopedia from the bookcase nearby and Frieda [Kreth, a volunteer] read the snippets on Crazy Horse and Custer. They were both described as young warriors and leaders, but Crazy Horse was also described as "menacing." So Frieda played devil’s advocate and asked the students why people like Crazy Horse were heroes and Custer wasn’t. Fred and Danika and Marcus, other Native American students, both knew their histories very well and defended the Natives' actions as self-defense as opposed to the intention of the white "heroes" to fulfill the idea of Manifest Destiny.

The thing that stayed in my mind is how many lies can be told in schools and through our textbooks, but the truth will not remain hidden forever. Frieda was reprimanded by several people for taking Custer’s side while she was on an Indian reservation, but I think she was smart and bold enough to challenge people’s ideas and continue to help students think things through. For the rest of the week, Fred called her "Custer."

The Bird Singers
Darren, Dennis, Devon and
Aaron Alto prepare to sing a traditional Kumeyaay song.

Van Truong: In the evening, we prepared a large dinner for all the youth and some of the community members. The boys and Paul Cuero, the reservation's treasurer — a.k.a. "Junior" — sang traditional Kumeyaay "Bird Songs" for us. It's hard to describe what they sounded like, but they were beautiful and made me want to cry, smile, laugh and shout for joy all at the same time. One of the girls, Danika, showed us how to dance to them. Paul also shared stories about the history and culture of the Kumeyaay Indian.


Van Truong: Again we met at the Campo Education Center and divided into three groups: to help at the daycare center, tutor at the alternative school at the center, and tutor another alternative high school a few miles away. Later that night we joined Dennis Alto, the outpatient coordinator at the Youth Regional Treatment Center, for the center's weekly Talking Circle. The circle is basically a roundtable discussion for youth and people struggling with substance abuse to talk about where they are in life, any problems or obstacles they were dealing with — drugs, alcohol, school, family or any other matter.

Louise Hon: Even at the treatment center, we were invited to share, to listen, and to learn — despite the fact that dependency on drugs or alcohol has a lot of stigma attached to it and is considered a private issue in our society. It gave me a chance to think about how one person’s problem affects everyone else and how the community is so vital to a person’s well-being.

substance center

Alternative Break volunteers and participants at the Youth Regional Treatment Center's Outreach Program listen attentively during the Talking Circle.


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