Kumeyaay Elder Jane Dumas Keeps Language & Plant Lore Alive
American Indian Heritage Month 2013 Honoree
On a bright and clear weekend morning in early October, there’s a flutter of activity at San Diego’s Tecolote Nature Center as staff get ready for an annual family activity, “Baskets and Botany.” The one-day event, which has been held there since the mid-'90s, is a day for families to share the environmental and cultural connections of Tecolote Canyon.
It is also an opportunity to get a glimpse into the ways of the Kumeyaay people, by discovering which plants are used for food, medicine, and for everyday life of the Kumeyaay people, who once made their home on the land the park now inhabits. And the nature center has Jane Dumas to thank for sparking the idea.
Dumas, a tribal elder honored as a 2013 American Indian Heritage Month Local Hero, is a member of the Jamul Band of Kumeyaay Indians in East County. She has spent a lifetime teaching, leading and advocating for the American Indian community of San Diego, always emphasizing the value and importance of traditional language and history in today's urban and American Indian societies. She’s made it her lifelong mission to teach the language of the Kumeyaay people to American Indians and non-Indians alike, and to share the healing powers of native plants.
Approaching 90, her memory isn’t what it used to be, but the work she’s done over the years continues to benefit our community and enhance the tapestry that is our history. In 1981, Dumas helped create the San Diego American Indian Health Center, working there as a traditional medicine specialist.
In 2002, she was inducted into the San Diego County Women’s Hall of Fame by the Women’s Museum of California, which noted that Dumas is an "anchor, leader, peacemaker, and bridge between Indian and non-Indians in the areas of medicine and education and believes that we can become healthier as both individuals and as a community by incorporating traditional knowledge and spirituality.’"
The week before the Baskets and Botany event, Dumas took part in San Diego’s 50th Annual Cabrillo Festival, a commemoration that features a reenactment of the 16th century explorer’s arrival, as he first stepped ashore on Ballast Point, land once belonging to the Kumeyaay. Dumas attended the event bringing with her white sage leaves to add to the wreathes that were on display in honor of the occasion. White sage is considered sacred by the Kumeyaay people, and is often used in ceremonies as a method of purification.
Eloise Battle, Chair Emerita of the Tecolote Canyon Citizen Advisory Committee, remembers how the concept for Baskets and Botany came about. When the Tecolote Nature Center first opened in the nineties, Dumas had reached out and asked if the nature center would be interested in partnering with her, and possibly combining its environmental programs with the Kumeyaay cultural connection to the canyon.
The center responded enthusiastically, according to Battle who adds, “Jane had been turned down by at least one of the other open-space parks in San Diego, but we thought it was a splendid idea.”
That very first meeting proved to be the beginning of an alliance that has enriched the nature center and the natural history of our region ever since.
“Sunset Magazine decided to do an article about our activities,” explains Battle. “They titled their article, ‘Baskets and Botany.’ We liked the name so we highjacked it. Jane came up with the fry bread and some of the bird singers, and we were off! Over the years, our circle of tribal friends has grown."
Today marks the 15th opening ceremony of Baskets & Botany, and Battle is expecting Dumas to arrive shortly. She fondly remembers an early encounter with Dumas and how Dumas ended up helping her with a personal health issue.
“We were walking in the native plant garden and she didn’t know me at all,” explains Battle. “But she was telling me about plants, when she took hold of a sage bush. She looked at me and said, ‘If you take a tip of the branch and make tea, it’ll take care of your chest problems.’ Well, I hadn’t even told her I had asthma. I thought that was pretty special, and it really helped.”
When Dumas arrives, it is clear how much she is revered by the park staff and others in attendance. They all seem to know Dumas and immediately become attentive toward her. Someone brings her coffee. Another positions her wheelchair close to a table so that she can rest her coffee cup there. Dumas appears humble and demure as she smiles sweetly at each person who stops by her wheelchair to greet her.
“I don’t know anybody who knows Jane that doesn’t have great respect for her,” observes Battle. “I’ve always felt privileged to be her friend.”
Judy Alvarez, another longtime friend, considers Dumas a mentor. She explains how learning the Kumeyaay language from Dumas and about the connection to “Mother Earth” has helped her immensely in her volunteer work at Mission Trails Regional Park. When she speaks of her friend, Alvarez refers to her as “Aunt Jane.” It is a sign of deep respect for this tribal elder.
“Jane has participated in all our Baskets and Botany events,” notes Battle. “She blessed our buildings with the white sage ceremony at the first one. I feared last year was going to be her last appearance, but she surprised us. Only the good Lord knows what next year will bring, however if Jane is not there in the flesh, her spirit will surely be with us. It is our intention to continue to hold the Baskets and Botany event annually for the foreseeable future.”
When it comes time for her remarks at the opening ceremony, which is held out in front of the nature center, Dumas speaks first in Kumeyaay, then in English.
“When I first came here and met Eloise,” says Dumas, holding the microphone, “This was nothing to me but a junkyard. Now, lo and behold, this beautiful lady [Battle] volunteered many years and today this center is unbelievable. The beauty and the love we have for Tecolote we give to our children. There’s nothing we can do that’s better than to pray for our land and to make it look beautiful. Eloise has worked hard for over 20 years. I don’t know how she does it but bless her heart. I hope we keep on going.”
After her presentation, Dumas is led back inside the Center. The day of activities has officially begun. It will include performances by the Nyemii Wildcat Singers and Native American storytelling with Stan Rodriguez, a Kumeyaay bird singer and student of Dumas’ who, thanks to her, carries on the Kumeyaay language.
Dumas will stay a little while longer. As she watches the faces of the children as they work on their Native American crafts, one imagines she must take some pride in the contributions she has made in bridging cultures through her extensive knowledge of plants and the Kumayaay language. Perhaps Battle sums it up best.
“Jane has brought an invaluable dimension to our programs and our perception of San Diego's natural places,” she asserts. “She has connected us to our ‘Mother Earth’ who has cared for us and urged us to us to care for Her, as we should.”
Richard Bugbee, Chairman for the Advocates for Indigenous California Language Survival, who nominated Dumas for the Local Hero Award, has spent many years working and teaching with her.
He says, “The Kumayaay language is not so much in danger any more because of Jane’s efforts.”