Cahuilla Boys Initiation

It has been fifty or sixty years since these ceremonies have been performed among the Cahuilla, and it is therefore difficult to get an accurate account of them. Hardly any two versions agree.

The ceremony of initiating boys was known as Hemvachlowin. Several weeks before the time set for the ceremony, the old people met together and decided which boys were to be initiated. The boys chosen were between the ages of ten and eighteen.

About a week beforehand, certain old men went out to gather the plant commonly known as “jimsonweed” (Datura stramonium). They also were given charge of the preparation of the liquid to be made from it. They placed parts of it in jars and cooked it for a long time.

When the men went out to gather the jimsonweed, the candidates for initiation were taken to a brush enclosure outside the ceremonial house, made especially for this purpose. Here they were kept for five days and not allowed to see anyone except those who brought them their food. They were fed twice a day. The food could not contain any salt or grease.

During the last three nights of the confinement of the initiates, the old people danced all night. On the fourth night, the boys were brought out. The decoction made from the jimsonweed was then given to them by some old man who knew exactly how much they could stand, according to their age. The Spanish word for this drink is toloache; the Cahuilla word is rehasawel or kiksawal. The other old people sang while this drink was being administered. As soon as the boys had taken it they would begin to dance, but would shortly become very dizzy. They were then all put in a dark corner. It is asserted that drinking this decoction made the blood and mind clearer. The old people continued dancing around the fire. They encircled it three times and then sat down. At a signal from the leader, they made a queer grunting sound three times, then motioned upwards with the head arid hands three times, expelling the breath each time. Right after that, the medicine men among them jumped up and ran into the fire, trying to stamp it out with their bare feet. They say this did not burn them.

By the next night, the bad effects of the narcotic had worn off and the boys usually felt about normal. During the succeeding five nights they were shown how to dance and how to use the gourd rattle as an accompaniment. At this time, they were also taught the enemy songs which had a very important part in the life of the people of that time. Each clan had its own enemy songs which it sang at special times. These songs had been handed down for many generations, as a rule, and while there may not have been any real enmity felt toward the people about whom the songs were composed, it was a sacred duty to sing them because their fathers had done so. Francisco Numbri of Martinez reservation, says they had to commit a great many enemy songs to memory, but that the songs were always short. For ten or fifteen days they spat on their legs instead of on the ground to remind themselves that they must remember the enemy songs.

During these nights of initiation, the boys were instructed by the old men, concerning the right conduct in life. For one month they could not eat meat or anything containing salt, and could drink only cold water.

All this time, they had arrow-weed twined around their waists and feathers stuck in their hair.

The parents of the boys being initiated did a great deal of weeping at this time. It was supposed to make them feel very sad to see these ceremonies.

Juan Lugo of Agua Caliente reservation, who gave me the account of the initiation as I have written it here, prefaced his story by stating that what he was about to tell me was absolutely true, for he had gone through this ceremony himself about sixty years ago.

He stated that several men had died as a result of drinking too much toloache or of eating the wrong thing afterwards.


Hooper, Lucile. The Cahuilla Indians. Berkeley, California: University Of California Press. 1920.

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