Cahuilla Spirits

The Cahuilla belief is that everyone has a telewel, a spirit or soul. This spirit is very elusive and may leave one almost any time. When they dream, this telewel has left them and is really going through the experiences of which they are dreaming. While the spirit is gone, they cannot wake up. But if someone comes and tries to waken a dreaming person, the telewel knows it and can return instantly. However, they are very careful not to waken a medicine man when he is sleeping, for he may be dreaming. His spirit has gone so far away and is so very busy that it cannot return immediately. In case a person wakes before his spirit returns, as occasionally happens, death results sooner or later.

The spirit leaves the body many months before death comes. The person to whom it belongs does not know this, however. These wandering spirits cause much trouble. They haunt the homes of close relatives. Innumerable instances of this are told. For example, August Lomas and his wife, of Martinez, a young couple of excellent education, told me of an experience they had about a year ago. They were in bed one night and knew that they had locked their doors, but they heard someone come in, walk all around the room, and then walk out again. That same night, Mrs. Lomas’s sister had the same thing happen in her home. A few months later their uncle died, so they knew then that it was his telewel that had been wandering around.

Sometimes, when the spirit leaves many months before death is to come, the person gets sick and poor and seems lifeless. Only a medicine man can cure him. Accordingly, the father of the sick man asks a shaman to help get the telewel back. All the people then gather in the kishumnawat. Usually the spirit is somewhere in the neighborhood of its owner. The medicine man puts feathers in his hair and dances, chanting all the while, and making motions with his hands. Soon he stops and puts feathers on the forehead of the sick man who is lying near the fire. He next begins to run around and make grabbing motions here and there, and may even run outside the house. He is the only one who can see the telewel, and apparently he has located it and is trying to catch it. When he gets it, it may be a lizard, a grasshopper, or almost any small object. I was told that he next explodes it, but I could not learn what that meant. After this, he places it among the feathers on the forehead of the sick man and then takes these feathers and brushes him all over. After a little more dancing, the process of restoring the spirit is complete. Of course, this takes place at night. The next morning, the cured man must take a dip in cold water.

The Indians have great fear of epidemics. Many years ago, a smallpox epidemic killed many. Not long ago, they had an epidemic of mumps. They live such unsanitary lives that when a contagious disease is brought among them, it spreads very rapidly. Whenever they hear of an epidemic of any kind in Los Angeles, Riverside, or San Bernardino, they hold a meeting. Here the shamans exert all their power to drive away any spirits of disease which may be among them, and to keep the spirits of the epidemic where they are. They sing and dance all night.

I was told that when people faint, their spirits have left them to commune with other spirits. “Whether the fainting is a cause or a result of this, I was not able to find out.

A falling star means that someone’s telewel has departed. If the medicine man sees the star fall, he, and he alone, knows whose spirit it is.

There are certain active spirits which steal a telewel whenever they can find one; often this is when a telewel has left the body in which it belongs, during a dream. These evil spirits watch for falling stars, they then know a telewel is out wandering, and unless a medicine man prevents them, they seize that telewel. These evil spirits are Takwich Hulim Tukaiel Tenaiaukel Tevlevel. Takwich is the most active and powerful of them.

I found only one bit of evidence to lead to the conclusion that the Cahuilla believe in living persons being possessed of evil spirits. This was a story told to Mrs. McCarroll, a white woman, who was for many years the government doctor for the Indians and had their confidence.

There was a half-witted Cahuilla girl, about sixteen years old, Mary Holmes by name, living with her parents on one of the reservations. She was of rather questionable character, so the schoolteacher had planned to send her away to boarding school. About this time an epidemic of grippe and pneumonia broke out and many of the Cahuilla died. Dr. McCarroll attended most of these cases. Finally, in the home of Mary Holmes, two were afflicted in this way. About this time, a Paiute medicine man came among the Cahuilla. He announced that there was someone among them who was possessed by an evil spirit which was causing the sickness, and that until it was driven out, the sickness would continue. For some reason, Mary, the half-witted girl, was blamed for the trouble. She was taken and made to dance all night to drive the evil spirit out. “When she would fall exhausted to the ground, she was beaten until she got up and danced some more. The next day she disappeared. Word came later that she had been taken to Mojave and burned at sunrise this custom was considered necessary in such a case. However, upon investigation by the civil authorities, she was found in San Bernardino. The Indians then explained that they could not burn her because of the white man s law, but that they should have done so. Albert Augustin told Dr. McCarroll that this was not a custom merely introduced by the Paiute medicine man, but that it was a belief among the Cahuilla in olden times that the only way to get rid of an evil spirit was to burn its owner at sunrise. I was not able to obtain any other evidence con firming this statement.

After death occurs, the ghost stays around its familiar abode for a little while. Basket Chihuahua of Torres relates how at one time he was sitting just outside his house, when he suddenly heard the sewing machine running inside, though there was no one there. The next day he heard that his sister had died at that very hour. This was held as conclusive evidence that her ghost had been running the machine.

One bit of information on the subject of spirits was volunteered by Francisco Potencio, of Agua Caliente. It was evolved, as he said, from his own thought on the subject. He believes that our breath is our spirit, for it leaves us when we die. Breath is just like wind, so the winds which we hear at night are the spirits of the dead.

Cahuilla, Religion,

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

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