Kumeyaay artifact in La Jolla park is blessed in tribal ceremony

Dewey and Tony Trujillo, Blue Eagle Vigil, Jamie LaBrake and Jesse Pinto Sr. sing bird songs.
Dewey and Tony Trujillo, Blue Eagle Vigil, Jamie LaBrake and Jesse Pinto Sr. sing bird songs as part of a blessing ceremony for a Kumeyaay bedrock mortar at Cuvier Park in La Jolla.
(Courtesy of Angela Sterling)

Two years after a Kumeyaay bedrock mortar was returned to Cuvier Park in La Jolla, members of various tribal councils conducted a blessing ceremony this month to commemorate the return and recognize the installation of a plaque at the site.

A bedrock mortar, sometimes referred to as a metate, is a stone milling feature historically used for grinding of grain, acorns or other food products, or herbs for medicine. This one was removed from the park five years ago to accommodate a sidewalk expansion project but was returned in 2019.

A plaque placed in front of the bedrock mortar in Cuvier Park.
A plaque placed in front of the bedrock mortar in Cuvier Park reads, “May the resiliency of the Kumeyaay forever be remembered.”
(Courtesy of Angela Sterling)

Tribal historic preservation officer Lisa Cumper said bird singers facilitated a blessing where speakers and others in attendance included San Diego Historical Resources Board member Courtney Coyle; tribal leaders including Sycuan Chairman Cody Martinez and Manzanita Chairwoman Angela Elliott Santos; tribal council and tribal members from the Jamul, Mesa Grande, San Pasqual, Sycuan and Viejas bands; and city of San Diego tribal liaison Myra Herrmann.

Cumper said the dedication was “so nice to have a place at the beach that recognizes the Kumeyaay are still here. Our ancestors were always there, we were everywhere, we weren’t just pushed to East County. We had a huge presence on the coast and throughout San Diego, and this just reminds people that we were there and are still there. We have a footprint on the coast.”

Tribal elder and educator Jesse Pinto said: “Our footprint is from the coast to the Colorado River, down to Mexico and up to Riverside. I see this as something that is ours and tells us we have been here and the ocean was part of us. It tells all of us, including the people that are here now, that the people were here and are still here. That rock being there tells the whole story for us and for the people that are still learning about us. It also allows us to give thanks to the Creator, as I call it. The Creator created this for us, so I see it as a spiritual feeling to have it recognized.”

Jamie LaBrake burns sage as part of the blessing ceremony for the bedrock mortar.
(Courtesy of Angela Sterling)

In 2017, the 3½-by-2-foot bedrock mortar — sitting out in the open in the park alongside Coast Boulevard without any indicators of its significance — was removed to accommodate sidewalk expansion. Because the sidewalk was installed where the rock once was, the bedrock mortar now sits about eight feet from its original spot.

Before its removal, the bedrock mortar was not inventoried as a formal historic artifact, and local tribal councils were not consulted when it was moved. It was taken to the city’s Rose Canyon Operations Yard and stored in a fenced area. In February 2019, the city acknowledged in a letter to tribal leaders that “there should have been more oversight” and “there wasn’t a clear line of communication.”

That led to much discussion of where the bedrock mortar should ultimately end up. While some advocated returning the rock to Cuvier Park, others supported giving it to a local tribe.

The decision was to return it to La Jolla. At the time, Coyle gave credit to the La Jolla Parks & Beaches group, which in spring 2019 signed off on a letter to the tribal councils offering an apology for its removal and its support for the return or relocation of the bedrock mortar. Parks & Beaches facilitated the sidewalk project that led to the rock’s removal.

The bedrock mortar was returned in October 2019.

City representatives said at the time that a plaque would be placed at the site to “honor the Kumeyaay tribes and educate the public about this important piece of cultural history.”

The new plaque reads, “May the resiliency of the Kumeyaay forever be remembered.”

The city also has agreed to record the bedrock mortar on the appropriate California Department of Parks and Recreation forms and submit them to the South Coastal Information Center at San Diego State University to be entered in the California Historical Resources Information System.

“It was a battle to get it back,” Pinto said. “When the day arrived that it was put back and honored, we got as many tribal people to be there as we could. ... It all fell into place for us and made us feel so good that we accomplished and worked hard to get that put back. ... I’m glad it’s there, and hopefully people will walk by and wonder what it means and learn more about us.” ◆