Cahuilla Religious Life

The most important ceremony of the Cahuilla always has been and still is the annual tribal mourning gathering, known as Nukil, or Hemmukuwin. This ceremony is held because Mukat told the people they should have one each year in memory of their dead. It was the first ceremony they ever held the first time it was held was after the death of Mukat. Mukat had told them just how many nights to have it and what to do each night. It is very sacred to them.

Each clan has a hereditary chief called a Net, whose chief duties are in connection with the mourning ceremonies. The chief has two ceremonial assistants, Paha and Takwa.

The Net has complete charge of the fiesta. The Paha has charge of the singing and of leading the ceremonies: he starts everything. Takwa superintends the gathering and distribution of food. He lets each member of the clan know how much food he is expected to furnish and sees that it is actually provided. At the fiesta at Agua Caliente, old Orenes was Takwa. He and his helpers skinned hundreds of rabbits which the young men had killed. The first three mornings of the fiesta week, the young men hunt rabbits. While I was there, the skins were being saved for an old woman who was going to weave blankets from them.

The fiesta is always held in the fall or winter when the people have plenty of leisure.

Several months beforehand, the Net gathers the old men of the clan together and they decide what people they will “call” to participate in the fiesta. After this is decided, the Net appoints one man to inform these people that they have been called. In return, this man is given some article or money, which means that the invitation is accepted. This is then given to the Net. The next year, when the Net is invited to a fiesta at that place, he returns the gift.

The fiesta is held in the kishumnawat, which is the ceremonial house. At the present time it is made of arrow-weed and palm leaves plastered together, with a thin covering of adobe. It is a circular house the roof is very high in the center and slopes down at the sides to within about four feet of the ground. There is a small smoke hole in the top. Upright forked posts support the roof beams inside. This kishumnawat is about fifty feet in diameter. At the back of this house a door opens into a very small room in which are kept the ceremonial objects. This is also where the food for the fiesta is stored several days before it is to be used.

The way in which the Cahuilla used to greet their guests is no longer followed. They knew about what time in the afternoon to expect those who had been invited. A runner was appointed to watch down the road for them. Here he would wait until he saw them approaching. He wore no clothes, only a breech clout. As soon as he saw them, he would run to the village where his people had gathered and would cry, “Wake up, they come.” They would then all run down the road to meet the approaching guests. Certain ones who had been appointed would shoot their arrows up into the air and all would shout. Often the guests brought gifts with them. The gifts were returned to them later.

Aside from this greeting, the fiesta of today is practically the same as it has been for many years.

When the guests arrive, they go to the homes in which they are to stay for the week and from there proceed to the kishumnawat. Here the Paha shows each one where to seat himself on the benches around the wall. Many guests come, but only certain ones have been called to take part in the ceremonies.

As soon as they are seated, the Net goes to each one who has been called,” kneels in front of him, tells him he is welcome, talks for a minute in a low voice, then gives him a package of tobacco, and each of them rolls a cigarette. The guest gives him something tied up in a handkerchief in return. Sometimes it is shell money or even real money.

After each one has been welcomed in this way, the Paha tells all of them to come and eat. No matter what time of day it is, they sit down at a long table and eat. The table is there in the kishumnawat. The food is usually bread, coffee, and a rabbit stew. It is prepared in one corner of the house by the old women, over a fire built on the ground. Very little talking goes on at this time. It seems to be quite a serious affair with them.

The fiesta begins on Monday night and continues for six nights. The first three nights, the old people gather around the fire in the kishumnawat. A tobacco can is passed around constantly and both men and women smoke all night. The Paha starts the songs. During these nights, the Creation story is sung in a queer minor chanting tone. They stop every few minutes the Paha utters a queer grunting sound, throws his head back and blows up in the air. The others do the same thing after him. After two or three minutes they continue singing. Occasionally, during these three nights, the medicine men dance.

I attended two fiestas, one at the Torres reservation, the first week in January, the other at Agua Caliente in Palm Springs Valley 1 in February. At the fiesta at Torres, the medicine men performed several wonderful tricks. The natives still consider them to have supernatural power, and all have the greatest faith in them. The one I saw perform was Casimiro. He got up and tied a band around his head. In this, he stuck three bunches of owl feathers and held one bunch in his hand. He then began to jump up and down and shuffle around the fire, constantly singing his song and occasionally stopping to grunt and blow up in the air three times, motioning upwards with his hands at the same time. When he did this, the others all imitated him. After singing for a certain length of time, he began to shake so hard that he could scarcely stand. It was a sort of even trembling all over. The bunch of owl feathers which he held in his hand was fastened to a stick about eight inches long and half an inch in diameter. This he stuck down his throat three times. The third time, he brought out of his throat a small black-looking object and held it down by the fire so that we might all see it. I could not see it well enough to tell what it was. When I inquired later, I was told that it was something taken from his heart, probably a lizard. The shaking always occurs before they take things out of their “heart”: it is caused by the desire of this object in the heart to get out. As soon as it is removed, the shaking ceases. This object is called a takwia. One takwia does not always look like another, for different medicine men have different objects in their hearts.

After Casimiro took the dark object from his heart, he reached into the fire with his foot and kicked out a few coals. One of these he picked up it was about the size of a dollar. He immediately put it into his mouth. I was only a few feet away and one of the sparks from his mouth, as he blew, fell on my hand, so I can testify that they were hot. The glow from the coal could be seen on the roof of his mouth. He swallowed it in about a minute. He swallowed three coals in this way. I saw two other men do the same thing.

The medicine men claim they get the power to do such things from a special guardian spirit. They have first to sing a song which is a sort of prayer to that spirit. They assert that they are never burned.

During these three nights, young men often dance for the first time. They put the feathers in their hair in the same way and sing.

One night, while I was watching them, an old man by the name of Ormega got up to dance. He danced and sang for a while, then stopped, said a few words to the Paha, and sat down, to the surprise, apparently, of every one present. My interpreter explained to me that Ormega had intended to eat fire, but that his song had not gone right he had forgotten part of it, no doubt due to some disturbing influence among those watching, or perhaps because of some spirit preventing his success. Since his song did not go right, he could do nothing. He was a man who usually did great things.

The next three nights are given over to the guests to sing their own songs. They sing all night long. A great many go to sleep before morning, but there are always a few who sing the night through. The women and children lie around on the floor asleep, behind the men who are singing.

On the last night, just before sunrise, the dance of the effigies is held. During the week, effigies of the people who have died during the past year and for whom the fiesta is being held, are made. The immediate families of the deceased make the images. They are made just the size of the dead persons whom they represent. They are made out of matting or cloth, stuffed with grass, and dressed. But tons or coins are used to represent eyes; nose and ears are made of cloth and sewed on. A human hair wig is made and placed on each effigy. They are dressed in considerable finery. I saw one with earrings and a hat and veil. These images are kept hidden until the time for the dance.

The ceremony begins before sunrise in the kishumnawat (big house). It is started by giving presents to the guests. When I was a witness, the women wore large aprons, and four pans of mesquite meal were turned into each woman’s apron.

The effigies are then brought out, each one carried by a female relative. They form a procession led by the Net, The women carrying the effigies follow him, two by two, the other people following closely. This procession goes around the interior of the big house and back then out into the enclosure that surrounds it. During this part of the ceremony, a low chant is sung, with an occasional wail here and there. While walking in this procession, they come down more firmly on one foot than the other, keeping time with the music.

When they stop marching, the women holding the effigies gather in a circle just outside the big house. Here they dance and sing amid great wailing on all sides. The dance consists in stooping over, drawing themselves up on their toes, and coming down on their heels rather hard, while they are singing. After they have done this for a few minutes, the other members of the clan throw money and calico on the images. This is done as a sign of respect to the dead. No member of the clan may pick up the money or calico, but outsiders are not slow in doing so. Many yards of calico are thrown away at this time. I saw one small white boy go right in among them and pick up money as fast as it was thrown. After it was over, he had eleven dollars in small change. There was a great deal more than that thrown, for many others were picking up the money, too. As fast as it was thrown, people grabbed for it.

They dance a while longer, then the women with the effigies march out in single file to the graveyard and there burn them. No one is allowed to witness this, so I do not know what is done there.

After the women have gone to the graveyard, the Net goes to each one who has been called to the fiesta and presents him with a long string of shell money. These shells are small round disks. They say that these strings have been handed down for many generations and are considered very valuable. The ones who receive the strings of shells thank the Net. They then depart. The fiesta is over.

The next year, these shell strings are returned in the same way in which they were received. In this way the shells pass from one village to another. Often cooking utensils are given to the women when they leave. The givers may have received these same utensils the year before from the same ones to whom they are now returning them.

During fiesta week, the ceremonies have been carried on and attended to by the old people only. While they are singing and dancing in the kishumnawat, the younger people play tepanish or peon, as the native gambling game is known in Spanish. This has become part of the fiesta, and appears to have a religious significance. Peon has been previously described.6 They play it all night and a great deal of money is put up. It is an intensely interesting game, even to the spectator.

During these six nights, lunch counters are run by the Indians. They sell tamales, pie, and coffee. On the cold winter nights the coffee serves to keep one not only warm but awake.Citations:

  1. This Agua Caliente must not be confused with the old Cupeño settlement of Agua Caliente on Warner’s Ranch in San Diego County.[]

Cahuilla, Religion,

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

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