Culture Keeper

Honoring and protecting the indigenous history of La Jolla.

Woman with long black hair and black shirt leans agains cement pillar with arms folded.

UC San Diego was built on the unceded territory of the Kumeyaay Nation. Prior to Spanish colonization, Southern California and Northern Baja was home to Kumeyaay people for over 10,000 years, and their contributions and culture continue to make an impact.

The university has had a complicated relationship with local tribes. However, a new chapter is beginning. UC San Diego alumna and Kumeyaay Native Eva Trujillo ’20 has become the university’s repatriation coordinator, campus guardian of tribal resources found on campus. With a background in anthropology and a passion for protecting indigenous history, Trujillo is guiding the campus in identifying and repatriating important Kumeyaay ancestral remains and cultural resources.

Can you tell us about yourself and your new role?

I am siny ‘Iipay-Kumeyaay (northern woman). I grew up both on and off my reservation of Mesa Grande, and I continue to reside, work, and thrive within my traditional ancestral territory. For over 20 years I have worked for the UC San Diego Medical Center—first as a clinical care partner, and later, a hospital unit service coordinator. When I decided to act in the service of my Ancestors, my career path shifted to repatriation efforts, and in July 2021 I became UC San Diego’s first repatriation coordinator.

In this role, I ensure that our campus is compliant with the Native American Graves Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), which involves protecting human remains and cultural resources that are discovered at the university. If found, all human remains, funerary objects and items of cultural patrimony must be returned to the indigenous community to which they belong.

As a Native person myself, I understand the indigenous perspective. It truly goes against the belief of many community members to unbury ancestors who have passed away. We respect them deeply and are concerned about what happens to them. My goal is to honor my Ancestors and their belongings.

How did you first get involved in this field?

My drive to make a difference was spurred when I began attending Kumeyaay Cultural Repatriation Committee meetings. It was apparent to me that there was more work to be done in protecting tribal remains, and I wanted to play an active role. At the time, I learned about a cultural resources manager position at the San Diego Museum of Man, now the Museum of Us. I had been doing this work for some time with my local Indigenous community, and this was a way to gain experience facilitating NAGPRA at an institution. When the opportunity arose to manage indigenous artifacts on campus, I knew it would be an ideal way to stay at UC San Diego while pursuing my passion for repatriation.

What happens when a tribal artifact is uncovered?

As a native person, I’m more inclined to report anything that is found because I know that’s the right thing to do and I’m abiding by the law. What I help repatriate is much broader than human remains. For instance, something as common as a shell may be eligible as a NAGPRA funerary object if it is traced back to an indigenous gravesite. Whatever comes my way, I create a detailed inventory list that is shared with the federal NAGPRA register. This involves evaluating each artifact, classifying it in collaboration with Indigenous communities, and sometimes photographing them though we never photograph human remains out of respect.

How did your experience at UC San Diego impact your career path?

As an indigenous student, I felt supported on campus because I had the Intertribal Resource Center, a place to go to study and socialize. It was nice knowing that my peers shared similar experiences. And that if I had questions or needed support for writing, I had a place to go.

I studied anthropology at UC San Diego to gain a greater understanding of cultural research practices. At the time, repatriation was not a primary topic of discussion in the field. I think anthropology as a whole is moving in the right direction, and there is opportunity to identify areas where further education is needed about what Native cultural resources are eligible for repatriation. I’m excited to contribute to change and build relationships, not just with my community, but all indigenous communities that are impacted by archeological work.