Yumans Without Borders for AAM

Our Mexico-based partners for the American Association of Museum’s Museums and Communities without Borders grant pulled out at the last minute citing a conflict with their mission. I put a considerable amount of time into building this program at the request of the Community and I really took the project and its goals to heart.


It is very difficult to accept that our brilliant $105,000 project, which was accepted into the second round and had a really good shot at winning, was crushed at the last minute by environmental politics. I understand the other institution’s position in theory, but this project is about living people. I’ve never encountered someone willing to trade plants for people. In fact, I don’t believe the board member who lead the opposition knew what the project was about. I believe they objected on principle. I don’t mind the objection, but I wish they would have let us submit the project so we would have had the opportunity to find a new partner. In fact, this weekend at the Anza-Borrego Archeology Weekend we connected with a great contact from the El Museo Comunitario de Tecate who would have been a much better match for this grant.


I wrote a letter, a long email, to Radio Lab, hoping to at least accomplish one goal of the project, even if it can’t be funded this year. The point of Yumans Without Borders was to engage communities in meaningful dialogue of border issues beyond the well-recognized issues of drug trafficking and immigration. Even if nothing comes of the email, I feel like I’ve made an effort to accomplish that goal. At the very least (though it is little consolation) we can honestly say we did our best to fulfill the Community’s request and it didn’t fail on our end.


Yumans Without Borders

Executive Summary

The project Yumans Without Borders: Stabilizing indigenous culture along a de-stable US-Mexico border stimulates dialogue between border communities besieged by escalating violence and depreciating cultural identity. Indigenous youth, aged 14-18, will spend an intensive six-month period studying Yuman culture and language with the intention they will pass on that information and eventually become tribal leaders with a deep understanding of tribal culture.


The Yuman people of the southwest US and Baja California, Mexico, are a single Native American community divided by an artificial border. The traditional Yuman cultures that stride the border between California and Mexico are deteriorating under the violence associated with the drug trade, issues associated with illegal immigration, destruction of cultural lands for renewable energy, and the strengthening of border enforcement. Connections across the US-Mexican border were fluid until the last generation when the living situation for Mexican Yumans became dangerously caught up in local drug politics. The US State Department issued a travel warning on April 22, 2011 that included the text, “Much of the country’s narcotics-related violence has occurred in the border region.” Under these circumstances, developing a strong cultural identity with Yumans across the border provides a source of strength; a reminder that they are part of a larger community with shared similarities.


This project centers upon two cultural exchange points: the physical exchange of living traditions across the US-Mexican border and the long-distance cultural exchange of youth interacting over digital media and social networks. Youth on both sides of the border will receive iPads to interact in a cultural exchange surrounding the theme Living Kumeyaay. There is a perception that Native American culture only exists in the past. Youth will address this perception by discussing their views and experiences. Do they partake in cultural traditions? Are they proud of their heritage? Do they promote it to others? Over weekly Skype conferences and shared videos, pictures, stories, and artwork, the youth will comment on each other’s posts. Developing lifelong relationships with their counterparts across the border will build common ground and stimulate their interest in a shared language. Meanwhile, project instructors will alternate travel to the youths’ locations. Instructors may include elders, artisans, or one of the 36 remaining native speakers of Kumeyaay, the Yuman language. Youth will beinstructed in traditional craft production and taught the language associated with the processes. Through this situational fluency method, the youths’ oral language skills will develop as they physically interact with the Yuman vocabulary. The public will be invited to share in this exchange through social media, public receptions, and public hands-on craft sessions.


The escalation of tension along the US-Mexican border has restricted cultural diffusion. Yumans Without Borders will engage indigenous border communities in meaningful dialogue through youth-based cultural exchanges aimed at creating cultural fluency. The project will bring celebration, stabilization, and preservation to local communities besieged by complex border issues, strengthening the understanding and appreciation of traditional cultural crafts and language, and will result in the strengthening of shared cultural values and shared identity.

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