This year marks the fifth anniversary of a quiet event at Point Loma that nonetheless spoke volumes about San Diego’s American Indians. The Kumeyaay-Diegueño Nation raised its national flag alongside those of four European American nations that had conquered and controlled the lands where the native peoples had lived for millennia.

Before the actual flag-raising, bird singers and dancers performed in a stiff cold breeze that swept across the peninsula. Jane Dumas, a Jamulian octogenarian who had inspired the flag, joined them wearing a traditional juncus cap and leaning lightly on her cane. A Native Pride windbreaker kept her warm.

I did not know as I watched the scene and the ceremony that this event would provide the introduction to a book I was then writing and would be a metaphor for the larger theme. When the Kumeyaay- Diegueño people raised their banner, they symbolized the extraordinary power of repatriation that has swept across Indian country.

Most Americans associate repatriation with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. The act mandates that museums and other institutions return ancestral remains and cultural patrimony taken from Indian sites to tribes that apply for their return. In 1999, Harvard’s Peabody Museum returned 2,000 bodies and funerary items to the Pecos and Jemez Pueblos of New Mexico. It was the largest repatriation in American history, and the Pueblos had worked for nearly a decade — even before NAGPRA — to achieve it.

A Kumeyaay national flag at Point Loma showed that repatriation went well beyond the return of remains and artifacts. Indeed, repatriation has become a potent metaphor for political sovereignty and cultural revival, as W. Richard West, the founding director of the National Museum of the American Indian, explained.

Through literal and figurative repatriation, as American Indians collect their lost ancestors, they also gather their stories, culture and savage nightmares out of the past into the present and use them to move into the future. Repatriation strengthens communities.

At Point Loma, the process started with Jane Dumas. Out of affection and respect, she is known as Aunt Jane. Growing up in an Anglo town near Jamul, Aunt Jane had witnessed what white America could heap on the “savage” Indians. Her family had cut salt blocks for pennies, and she had had a quota of menial jobs like waiting tables. But what she had learned from her mother — a kuseyaay or healer and herbalist — eventually brought her into the white medical world and the San Diego Indian Health Center.

The center had a small outreach program, including some participation in the annual Cabrillo Festival that had continued in some form since the 1870s. That’s when San Diego, like Los Angeles, learned to use its Hispanic heritage to boost tourism. By the last decade, speeches by consular officials and raising the conquerors’ flags constituted the annual event.

Aunt Jane had mentioned to other Indian participants that the festival had no lasting evidence of the historic or contemporary presence of their people. Then on an evening in 2000, she visited Cabrillo National Monument. There, she spotted some hummingbirds. “I’m from the hummingbird clan, and I thought, ‘These must be people,’” she recalled. Aunt Jane brought her observations to Kumeyaay-Dieguño Unity, a group of the bands’ leaders and proposed that they find a way to “fly up there with them.” Someone suggested a flag. Aunt Jane demurs at the notion that she is a Kumeyaay Betsy Ross. “I turned it loose,” she said.

Louis Guassac of the Mesa Grande band took up the task of making the flag a reality. He worked with leaders who came up with the design. The Sycuans paid for its manufacture.

Aunt Jane credits the disposition of the flag to Terry DiMattio, then the monument’s superintendent. He asked her where to place the flag. She answered, “We work together. Why can’t we fly together?”

The Cabrillo Festival’s flag ceremony in 2006 was a triumph for the Kumeyaays. It restored — returned — them to a place where they had been for thousands of years and illustrated the multiplier effect of the repatriation process.

But a small drama that played out at the flag-raising told a different story. Before the speeches that day, a mixed group of Indians and a few whites quietly watched the Kumeyaay singers and dancers. But on the other side of the dancers, non-Indian VIPs stood and talked among themselves, some with their backs to the participants, as if waiting for the “real” ceremony to begin. I could not break out of my journalistic mold to ask them to show some courtesy.

DiMattio told me some time later that someone else at the ceremony had asked him to quiet the group. He explained that the dance element was a first for the annual flag-raising. The officials didn’t know that it was ceremonial, and no one had explained the etiquette to them.

Whites and Indians, he said, are still trying “to come to an understanding of how to behave in each other’s presence.” Aunt Jane, too, commented on the incident. “Whites don’t accept the fact that we were left out. We were the first nations here. They discovered us but don’t recognize us.”

Repatriation reconstitutes missing pieces of time and place for Indians. The Kumeyaay, like all native peoples, were our first artists, scientists, historians, political and social organizers. Through repatriation, Indians — people like Aunt Jane — sweep up the times, places and knowledge out of the past into today. Repatriation impels people to hoist a flag in San Diego; transmit ages-old knowledge to American Indian medical students; save the bison across the plains; and mount an exhibit of contemporary art in New York.

If whites turn away, they miss the benefits of memory. Aunt Jane explained, “We’re here on earth, we do what we can. I do what I think should be done without thinking. Being Indian was not very easy. Trying to survive was my main goal. Books say, ‘Indians used to. . .’ What do you mean? We still do it.”

Cathy Robbins is the author of “All Indians Do Not Live in Teepees (or Casinos).” She will speak about and sign her book in San Diego on Wednesday, Nov. 16, 6 pm, San Diego Public Library (Central), 820 E Street, and on Saturday, Nov. 19, 1:30 pm, San Diego Independent Scholars, UCSD, Chancellor’s Complex, Room 111-A.

Scott Lewis

Scott Lewis oversees Voice of San Diego’s operations, website and daily functions as Editor in Chief. He also writes about local politics, where he frequently...

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