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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


January 26, 2002 - Issue 54


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Tribal Elder a Living Link

credits: Dr. Michael Trujillo, M.D. M.P.H.
IHS Director and Elder Jane Dumas
Dr. Michael Trujillo, M.D. M.P.H.  and Elder Jane DumasShe stands barely 5 feet tall, but Kumeyaay elder Jane Dumas towers like a giant in San Diego's American Indian community.

Don't be fooled by the red hair and blue eyes of her father's mixed bloodline: This 77-year-old matron is Kumeyaay to the core. She grew up in a dirt-floored hut, hauling water by the bucket. She spoke Kumeyaay and Spanish before English.

A member of East County's Jamul Indian band, Dumas is often called to schools, parks or other forums to explain Kumeyaay history, language and traditions. Other Indians seek "Auntie Jane's" advice on ceremonial protocol: who should sit where, speak first, say which prayer.

Two things set Dumas apart. She is one of very few elders from a reservation to make a mark in San Diego's so-called urban Indian community -- people of Navajo, Lakota or other tribal descent.

And she is revered for her vast knowledge of plants, herbs and ancient remedies. Bushes, grasses, even tiny weeds that most people don't even notice hold incredible power and spiritual value to her.

"Even when I travel, I take the time to look at what's in the ground," she said. "It all has a good, warm feeling. It's almost like a human feeling they pass on to you, the plants.

"Some of them aren't so friendly, just like people."

Dumas worked for 20 years at San Diego's urban Indian clinic, first as a home-health aide and then as a "traditional medicine specialist." Since 1986 she also has been a board member for the Indian Human Resource Center, a hub for regional urban Indian programs and services.

"She's influenced everybody, urban and reservation," said Richard Bugbee, an urban Luiseño. "She's kind of kept the traditions alive."

She learned about plants from her mother, Isabel Thing, a renowned Kumeyaay healer who treated maladies from headaches to malaria and gangrene.

At one of her mother's favorite gathering spots, by the Sweetwater River near state Route 94 in Rancho San Diego, Dumas points at this and that with her cane, rattling off plant names in English or Kumeyaay. Everything around her, it seems, has some use.

This berry makes a tea. This seed is crushed into a poultice for poisonous bites. This leaf can be smoked like tobacco, or used as foot pads in shoes.

She took many such walks with Tom Lidot, an Alaskan Tlingit who used to work at the clinic.

"When I first started working there, I was full of hellfire and vinegar," he said. "She just told me to pick her up and take her to the mountains."

It was the beginning of a long journey of lessons.

"She helped me understand how everything was connected," Lidot said. "From communicating to the land and to the plants before you took them, to actually looking at the plants. Looking at their water source. Being able to tell which one was healthier not by how big it was, but by how bright it was."

At the San Diego clinic where Dumas worked until 2000, she recommended herbal remedies but also encouraged Indian patients to trust modern medicine. She describes both as gifts from the Creator.

"I felt I was not a counselor, but people would talk to me and I would listen," she said. "If they asked me, I'd say, 'This is what I would do.' "

That subdued style is a hallmark of Dumas' influence in Indian country, Bugbee says.

"People seem to come to her, and she directs them," he said. "If there's any kind of squabble, she settles it. She's not real forceful about it. I don't even know if she knows she's doing it."

Bugbee said if Dumas were asked to do an opening invocation, she would say no. "But if you asked her to do a welcoming, she'd say, 'Fine.' "

Dumas has been a soft voice of reason on the resource center's board, said executive director Juan Castellanos.

"The word I'm thinking of is introspection," he said. "Instead of diving into stuff, think things through. Think of what's in the best interest of the community, as opposed to individual agendas.

"For me, she's an icon. For the community at large, she's kind of like an anchor, an anchor to the way of the indigenous people that have always been here. She's a bridge."

Former Viejas Chairman Anthony Pico, one of California's most high-profile Indian leaders throughout the 1990s, called Dumas "a major force" in promoting awareness of Kumeyaay culture to tribal youths as well as the public.

"She's a true warrior," he said, "and someone who's very, very valuable in the Kumeyaay community."

Dumas has spent most of the past two years recovering from breast cancer. She was diagnosed in April 2000 and had a mastectomy the following month. Only recently has she emerged from her Lemon Grove home and begun resuming her former activities.

She likes to spend Thursdays with her daughter in Old Town at a small cooperative store for Kumeyaay baskets and pottery. Dumas came up with the name, Shumup Ko Hup, which means "dream come true."

When the weather is warm, Dumas shells acorns and chats with tourists on a shaded porch outside the store. She wants to grow some sage and other plants there, so people can learn about them.

Dumas doesn't consider herself a healer or a great leader, just someone who knows the old ways and hopes they won't be forgotten.

Could she be called a teacher?

"That's what they say," she said. "I call it sharing."

Kumeyaay Nation


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