On Friday, San Diego Unified raised a Kumeyaay-Diegueño Nation flag emblazoned with the 12 bands of the Kumeyaay tribe above the district’s University Heights headquarters. It was the first time the district had flown the flag and was meant to coincide with Native American Heritage Month.
The significance wasn’t lost on the Native community, who showed up en masse. Accompanied by gourd rattles, Kumeyaay bird singers sang traditional songs and children performed a variety of pow wow style dances.
The flag the district raised was donated by Bobby Wallace, a longtime activist and member of the Barona Band of Mission Indians, and its ascent up the pole was actually one of the shorter journeys it’s embarked on.
Wallace has traveled with the flag from Maine to San Diego on a prayer run to preserve water. It’s gone with him to the border with Mexico to protest construction of a segment of border wall that endangered ancestral Kumeyaay land. It’s been to the Salton Sea and to GONA’s, or Gatherings of Native Americans, and to the Lummi Nation’s Gathering of Eagles in the northwestern corner of Washington state.
For Wallace, the flag, which was given to him by his cousin Julie LaBrake of the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation, has been something of a security blanket. “It’s sad to see it go, but I’m going to be happy when they raise it too – for everybody that’s been here before us and everybody that’s coming,” Wallace said.
Raising the flag is an “honor for his ancestors,” he said, especially because of his own past experiences. When he grew up in Lakeside, he experienced prejudice. That’s just the way things were, he said. So, to see the flag fly over an educational institution situated on land his people used to walk on, and on a hill that overlooks their ancestral villages and the beaches where they used to collect shells and set off in their boats, represents a significant change.
‘We Have to Keep Fighting’
But despite his pride at the flag raising, Wallace and many of the other attendees, expect to see the district continue its efforts to further ingrain indigenous communities into its teachings. Like land acknowledgments, which have in recent years been called “moral exhibitionism” or “conscience-clearing rites,“ by some, clear action must follow even significant symbolic victories. San Diego Unified board member Cody Petterson acknowledged that tension during his own unusually blunt land acknowledgment before the flag’s raising.
Typically, Petterson said, “someone like me takes to the podium or the zoom screen and says, we acknowledge that we stand on unceded Kumeyaay territory. Let me start by being more explicit: my people took the land we are standing on from your people.”
Every entity, Petterson continued, has the responsibility to not just acknowledge these realities, but to do what is in their power to fix the harm done. “We are committed to doing what is in our power to convert our acknowledgement into action. With regard to our native children and youth, we will continue to reverse the historical inequities that have characterized our education system,” Petterson said.
The district has already made some changes. While California just last year made ethnic studies a graduation requirement for high schoolers, San Diego Unified has been teaching ethnic studies courses for a decade and a half that include content about the region’s native peoples. Petterson himself described watching his son build a traditional Kumeyaay home for a school project rather than the mission he built when he attended district schools.
Connie GreyBull, who is Hunkpapa Lakota from Standing Rock, North Dakota and Shoshone-Bannock from Fort Hall, Idaho is the program director of San Diego Unified’s Indian Education Program. She said the flag raising was a victory, and one that took years of concerted effort by herself, members of the Parent Advisory Committee and others. But even though the district’s made progress over the years toward embracing its indigenous students, particularly in integrating native voices into curriculum, she echoed the sentiment that more work was needed.
“We have very unique educational and cultural needs for our students. They live in two worlds, so we have to do both cultural and academic work with them because we want them to succeed,” Greybull said. “So, there’s a lot of work to do … We have to continue fighting for our culture and to be recognized. We make up .3 percent of our school population, we’re the minority, and we keep just keep being pushed back to the side,” she said.
Wallace describes himself as just a nut or a bolt in the big picture, but he feels the flag raising and a recent board resolution recognizing November as Native American Heritage Month could help open the door for a more progressive and inclusive approach to the indigenous community. At the core of that new approach, he said, should be truth.
“Not harsh truths that kids can’t relate to but truths that will explain a little bit about history and what actually went on and how we lived and how we were out there in our boats when that guy (Juan Rodriguez) Cabrillo came cruising by,” Wallace said.
“Could it start with just a little flag going up? Of course. Is California ready? Is San Diego ready? Yes, of course.”