Indian language and culture kept alive at Kumeyaay Community College

There are many schools that offer specialized programs and unusual courses.

And then there’s the Kumeyaay Community College.

“I don’t know if you will learn this stuff at other colleges,” said the school’s general manager, Ral Christman. “I took California history classes, I took San Diego history classes, I took Native American classes in modern society classes. And in all of these classes, you won’t learn what you learn here.

The small college in the Sycuan reserve near El Cajon offers lessons in the history, culture and language of Kumeyaay. Its surroundings are tranquil and inspiring, with a golf course on one side, hills capped with manor houses on the other, and ancient grinding stones nearby.

The campus itself isn’t much, made up of a series of modular buildings that stand atop old tennis courts, their green paint and white stripes still visible. The modest setting doesn’t detract from the pride of the school, however, and students can purchase two versions of Kumeyaay Community College t-shirts in their classrooms.

Among the county’s community colleges, Kumeyaay is easy to miss. An Internet search for community colleges in San Diego County names eight schools, but not Kumeyaay. The school’s Wikipedia page consists of two sentences.

Kumeyaay Community College consists of modular buildings located atop former tennis courts in the Sycuan Reserve.

(KC Alfred)

But the school is a gem to seek out for those interested in learning more about the local history beyond the Old Town and Alonzo Horton.

“It’s for people who live in San Diego and want to know more about where they live,” Christman said. “People want to take an American history class, and a lot of them want to learn more about the city they live in. They are learning the real ancient history of San Diego.”

Christman said the college had around 145 students this semester. Many are members of the Kumeyaay Nation who wish to learn their own language or history, he said, and some are factory outlet and reservation hotel workers who are increasingly interested. to culture.

A partnership with Cuyamaca College in El Cajon allows students from both schools to share course credits that can be applied towards an Associate of Arts degree in Kumeyaay Studies.

Jacob Dioli, 20, a student at Cuyamaca College, is not a Native American, but is taking Christman’s Wednesday Night Class at Kumeyaay College to complete a history requirement at his school.

“I’m just interested in what high school and college haven’t really taught us,” he said.

Dioli said he heard about Kumeyaay College from his grandmother, who works in Sycuan. Cuyamaca College also promotes Kumeyaay College courses on its campus, said Dioli, who plans to continue his education and work in environmental restoration.

Credit courses at Kumeyaay College have grown over the years and include ethnobotany and ethnoecology, the study of the landscape and plants of the region, as well as history, language, arts and culture.

The school also offers uncredited cultural classes on Kumeyaay foods, basketry, pottery, and tools.

Like other community colleges, the school has a board of directors, with its eight members representing the reserves of Sycuan, Mesa Grande, Santa Ysabel, Viejas, Jamul, Campo, San Pasqual and Barona.

Kumeyaay College has been operating under its current name since 2005. Previously, it operated as a satellite of DQ University, a two-year tribal college in Yolo County which opened in 1971 and lost its accreditation in 2005 .

A few faculty members at Kumeyaay College have been teaching since the school became part of the DQ, which only offers language and history classes.

Student Joseph Durbin, 36, is a member of the Santa Ysabel Band and remembers taking old school classes in the 1990s. After a break in his studies, he returned to school to learn more about his career. culture and its history.

Joseph Durbin listens to a lecture by Ral Christman at Kumeyaay Community College. He said he was taking the course to learn more about the culture of his people.

(KC Alfred)

“My name is Kumeyaay and I don’t know much about myself,” he said. “I know bits and pieces of what my relatives, uncles, aunts and cousins ​​have told me. But I need a deeper understanding of what’s going on.

Durbin said he wanted to know more to pass the lessons on to his son, 11, and daughter, 14, and he feared some traditions would be forgotten if people didn’t study them now.

In addition to Christman’s History Course, Durbin also takes an Introductory Kumeyaay Language Course, which is taught over three semesters.

“I grew up hearing it intermittently, but it usually came from my elders, not my immediate family,” he said. “No one really taught me that.”

Durbin said it was fun confusing people by greeting them with “howka”, the Kumeyaay word for “hello”.

There is no written Kumeyaay language, and Durbin said he saw the written greeting in three different ways, including “auka” and “haaka”.

Christman said the lack of a written tradition can be a challenge for teaching the history of the people, which has been passed down orally.

“The reality is, it’s easy to think of Indigenous history as just a storytelling,” he said in his Wednesday night history class. “It’s not ‘telling’. This is our story. The whole story is really that. A story. A story from the past.

Efforts are underway to preserve the history in writing, he said. During his class, Christman handed out a few examples including a Kumeyaay creation story.

Christman said some college students come from reservations and have been away from school for years, and the local campus is a comfortable place for them.

Kat Havlu, 36, is from the San Pasqual Band but has lived on the reserve for five years. With renewed interest in her heritage, she said she wanted to know more about the Kumeyaay people to pass on to her sons, ages 13 and 15.

“I’m learning my culture,” she says. “There are a lot that I don’t know.”

This is her first semester at Kumeyaay College, but she has already earned credit from the courses she took at Palomar College which may earn her an AA degree. Havlu said she plans to take all available courses at Kumeyaay College to earn her degree in Kumeyaay Studies.

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