John C. Krieg is a retired landscape architect and land planner who formerly practiced in Arizona, California, and Nevada. He is also retired as an International Society of Arboriculture (ISA) certified arborist and currently holds seven active categories of California state contracting licenses, including the highest category of Class A General Engineering. He has written a college textbook entitled Desert Landscape Architecture (1999, CRC Press).
Qawish was born in Palm Canyon to the Atcitem lineage of the Cahuilla Indian Nation on a cool late winter morning in the year of our Lord 1359. The Atcitem of the Coyote moiety were hunters-gatherers who primarily lived a peaceful existence providing their territory in Palm Canyon and extending into the side canyons of Andreas and latter-day Murray Canyon was not compromised. Game was plentiful throughout the early formative years of his life. Snow melt from the western flank of Weal um Mo and the northeastern face of Aiakaic kept the streams running from early spring until mid-summer. When they faltered, fresh water could be easily garnered from the numerous springs found on the canyon walls, which were created from the slipping and sliding of underground tectonic plates so plentiful in earthquake country.
Qawish’s father was Takwa to their clan and enjoyed the favor of the Net. The Net was chief due to inheritance and the all-powerful leader over the proceedings of the annual mourning festival known as the Nukil, which was six weeks off. This, the most important religious ceremony among all the Cahuilla Bands, was held in winter after food stuffs were stored in huge basket granaries and the rhythm of life that hummed, buzzed, procreated, and reared its young wound down and moved slower while the earth breathed easier.
The Net was assisted during the Nukil by the Paha and the Takwa. The Paha would lead the various ceremonies, start the people in song, and carry out the wishes of the Net. The Takwa was in charge of food gathering, and food distribution. Qawish, now in his fourteenth year, was expected to assist his father in procuring fresh meat for roasting and in so doing would bestow great honor upon himself and his family.
Big game, consisting of deer, bear, bighorn sheep, and prong-horned antelope were all available within a ten-mile radius. Qawish and his father discussed what would be needed for the fiesta. Black bears were revered while grizzly bears, roughly four times larger than their cousins, were feared. The band and all the surrounding bands were in relatively good health and there was no imminent danger of starvation, so bears were ruled out as a part of the upcoming extended hunt. For this Qawish was mostly glad as a 1,200 pound male grizzly had chased him up a tree the previous fall when he was on the high plateau at the upper reaches of Palm Canyon harvesting abundant and tasty pinion nuts. The bear had come upon him quickly and became enraged for no apparent reason as grizzly’s are apt to do. Qawish ran through the thicket of pine trees looking for one high-limbed enough to discourage the bear from attempting to climb, which they almost never did. Qawish didn’t want to be the first in his band to change grizzly behavior, and when he spotted a tree whose first scaffold limbs were roughly twelve feet high he scampered up the pitch laden trunk and into the protective needle canopy. The huge bear stood on its hind legs pawing skyward with its forelegs. Four black claws scraped the lower branches causing the tree to tremble almost as badly as Qawish was. The animal shook its enormous head, slobber flying in all directions; eyes aglow like the coals of a campfire. It let out a thunderous roar and Qawish looked down into its fearsome mouth with flashing white teeth. Perhaps today would be his last day upon the earth. If the bear were to eat well or merely assuage its anger with a kill, Qawish’s telewel, if he were fortunate, would be spirited off to the gates of Telmekish. There Qawish would have to plead with Montakwet, the man who never dies, to let him in. Almost instinctively, from the numerous teachings of the elders, from listening intently to stories told around the campfire, from knowing what course his life was supposed to shortly take he knew what Montakwet would tell him: “Qawish you have not received your Hemvachlowin. Without your invitation onto manhood you will not know how to behave in Telmekish. You have not taken a wife. Nor have you given your band any children. You have harmed no one in your young life but you have helped no one either. Mukat may decide not to crush your spirit between the two large hills that lie just beyond this gate but you will be banished to the wind, to the open desert. You may blow beyond our homeland and your name may not be whispered upon the lips of your people. You are unfortunate to die so young Qawish, unfortunate indeed.”
Qawish looked back down upon the bear now resting on all fours, growling low in bewilderment. He sang softly to the bear in mournful tones, interspersed with guttural grunts. He asked the bear for forgiveness, for what he had no idea, but the bear must have known or surely, without such, he wouldn’t have been so upset. He asked the bear for strength so that he could bring his incessantly shaking limbs under control. He asked the great bear for skill as a hunter for the bear had come upon him hardly snapping a twig.
Most of all he asked the bear for his life as a symbol of devotion to Mukat, the god of all life. Qawish’s song lowered to a hum, which seemed to persist for hours and then, wedged carefully between the tree’s branches, he drifted off into a deep restful sleep. It was nighttime when Qawish first awoke. He was hungry in a way where the front of his stomach seemed to touch the back of his spine. He decided not to leave the safety of the tree until sunrise and then he remembered that he was in a pinion. He pried open the cones and shelled the nuts which he instantly popped into his mouth. An owl hooted off in the distance, a symbol of good luck on an impending hunt. His spirits so bolstered, Qawish laughed silently and hoped the owl wasn’t hooting for the benefit of the bear.
When he returned to his village, Qawish was teased for weeks by the other children for being the “bear boy.” He didn’t know whether or not to be ashamed, but that confusion was heavily outweighed by the sheer joy of being alive. Unbeknownst to him, Qawish’s father, the Net, and the Pul had taken an interest the story. Qawish had shown remarkable composure under extreme stress and thought clearly under difficult circumstances. Such behavior was respected among men who carved out an existence, even prospered, in such a hostile environment. Perhaps the bear had spared this boy at the behest of Mukat who intended greater things for him. Perhaps Moon had caressed his brow while he slept in the tree bringing him serenity and knowledge to be revealed at a later date. Whatever had happened out there on the high plateau was beyond the scope of normal occurrences, which meant that Qawish had traveled to another realm for an extended period of time. Who knew for a fact what it all meant? This Qawish could be somebody special, someone they would have to watch.
Qawish and Father decided to provide at least one antelope, one deer, and one sheep for the Nukil, which was only a month and a half away. The antelope would be chased, penned, and strangled. The deer would be stalked and shot with bow and arrow. The sheep would be ambushed and clubbed at a watering hole. All three endeavors would have to take place in the space of a week in order to provide meat fresh enough for the festival. This would require enormous fortitude and great physical strength. Qawish’s father was stout and well-muscled, the strongest man in the tribe. He was respected as a great hunter and spoken to slowly, softly, and only when someone had something important to say. The Net had gained his lofty position through inheritance, and to his credit, served his people reasonably well, which was good because, unlike the tribe’s medicine man, the Pul, if he became too powerful, he couldn’t be killed. But Qawish’s father had earned his position as Takwa through enormous effort and practiced skill. Qawish loved his father deeply although the expression of such was never overtly shown among Cahuilla men. He feared disappointing him more than he feared the wrath of the great bear. His father, knowing his son’s doubts, because he had once harbored them himself, spoke to hum firmly but with an underlying kindness which Qawish had heretofore never seen. “My son you are about to become a man for this hunt is not for boys. The Net and the Pul have spoken to me and we are in agreement. You and four others are to receive your Hemvachlowin in two days time when the sky is black before the coming of the new moon. Prepare yourself my son and know that I believe in your courage, in your generosity, in your loyalty to your family and our band.”
Although he always knew it would come, Qawish was stunned that the moment was upon him. He had seen the ceremony many times and knew what it meant, but there were aspects about it of which he was unsure to the point of terror. Certain elders responsible for the collection of jimsonweed would be sent out to gather the hallucinogen at the start of the Hemvachlowin while the initiates were interned for five days to a special enclosure outside the Kishumnawat or main ceremonial house. The medicine man would work with the old men to prepare jimsonweed after they returned with parts of the plant. The plant was slowly boiled for three days while the old men sang all night long in recognition of its powers. On the fourth night the boys were administered the concoction by the medicine man, the amount in accordance with their age and weight. The boys would then dance under its influence until they became dizzy at which time they were seated in a quiet spot where they had their visions, which were the rights of passage into manhood. Qawish was fine with all of this but there was an inherent danger in the ceremony. Last year his friend Sukit had died, apparently never waking up from his dream. No one within the band outwardly held the Pul accountable, but Qawish distrusted him, distrusted his motives, and feared for his life. The Pul held the power of life and death over these young boys. Perhaps he had made a mistake or perhaps he didn’t like Sukit or someone in his family. But Qawish’s father was the Takwa and the most feared man in the band.
Although Qawish feared for his young life, he had no doubt and was just as certain that the Pul had no doubt, that if he were to die that his life would be avenged.
When the beginning of the Hemvachlowin was upon them Qawish’s mother wept openly as he was led into the enclosure with the other young men. This was an accepted practice among Cahuilla mothers who, like their husbands, weren’t prone to hugging, kissing, and other open shows of affection towards their sons. They expressed emotion, either sorrow or joy, by crying usually after an absence or sometimes upon a departure. Qawish’s father watched with his own trepidations. Like all Cahuilla males who had made it to adulthood he had experienced the trance of Datura stramonium and had his own special vision which he kept privately to himself because of its foreboding. He worried not that his son would die, for that rarely happened, but that his son would have to live with the burden of sorting out a vision as awful as his own.
For three days and three nights Qawish and the others sat cross-legged in the enclosure. They never spoke to one another and no one spoke to them except whoever brought them their food twice a day. Qawish thought a lot about the impending hunt with his father. He tried to picture aspects of the chase, the stalk, the deception, and the kill in his mind’s eye.
Sometimes, late in the evening, he thought about a girl one year his senior that he was briefly introduced to at the Santa Rosa Village at their Nukil two years ago. Shy to a fault, he didn’t lean in close enough as she said her name and now wanted to kick himself for not knowing it. She was very beautiful, and the hardening in his crotch told him she was very desirable. Rumors, that were almost a form of currency in a Cahuilla village, had it that she would be at the Nukil. Qawish wondered if she would be there with her new husband if she had one. Had her parents arranged for her marriage yet? If not, how was he to convince his parents to arrange for their marriage? On the third night he awoke with a sticky moisture in his crotch that wasn’t urine and that’s when it struck him – the constant chanting of the old men. He knew that someday he, too, would be old, for if an Indian recognizes anything he recognizes the cycle of life. He loved and respected the elders and was appreciative of their efforts to hasten his journey into manhood. But, with the arrogance of youth, he chuckled as he peered out at them through the lashed reeds of the enclosure softly saying to himself, “Dance you old fools. Enjoy our sacred ritual. Chase away bad spirits and invite good ones to accompany you in song. Howl at the moon if you want to. Pray that I’ll become a man. Do what you will to help me, but from this moment forward, I will be my own man.”
The old men sang and danced and had a grand old time of it for two more nights. At the beginning of the fourth night the gate to the enclosure swept open and the initiates were led out to the large ceremonial campfire. One by one they stepped up to the medicine man to receive their drink of kikawal. Qawish was not so cocky now. He prayed to Mukat to forgive him if he had in any way insulted the elders or the honor of his band. Although he stood stoic and straight as an arrow, somehow his eyes met his father’s, and then he drank from the thin clay urn and swallowed deeply, not knowing whether or not this would be his last drink.
The young men started dancing about the fire as the chanting of the old men with the entire band in accompaniment grew to a deafening din. Qawish danced furiously and with purpose, for he was determined to be the last one to be led off to the quite spot where he would have his vision. The fire pulsated strange colors while sparks snapped with the menacing suddenness of a startled rattlesnake. The faces of the onlookers were at first distorted and then turned to masks of his ancestors, who he did not know, but were certain to become part of his life now. He grew dizzy and tired and still he danced. If he were to die, like Sukit, he would take his last breath on his feet. Qawish looked to the heavens, and the stars fell towards him in unison. A falling star meant that someone’s telewel has departed. If the medicine man were to see it, then he and he alone knew whose spirit it was. Qawish looked towards the Pul, but the bear stood in his place. It was not as ferocious as before, but timid, almost friendly, and from its eyes tears welled up and then flowed like the streams in the spring. Then Qawish fell to the ground and was carried off to the quiet spot.
When he regained consciousness, the bear had left the circle, and the band shimmered in the firelight like ghosts. He looked to the east and saw a dim sunrise. Suddenly strange four-legged beasts thundered onto the horizon with skeletons atop their backs. Their hats were golden, beset with curved red plumes. They howled like wolves and kicked at the sides of their mounts. Instantly Qawish realized they thirsted for the band’s blood. He turned to shout out a warning to his people but his voice betrayed him, frozen in fear. The Pul raced into the fire kicking the coals about. Sparks swarmed like bees about a hive while the hoof beats roared towards the village. Qawish somehow found his feet and with a blood-curdling shout charged at the approaching hoard. They kicked more furiously at their mounts and drew long shining sticks and pointed them directly at him. Qawish’s voice came back to him and he screamed at the top of his lungs, “Stop you monsters. Stop before Mukat’s people. You will not harm us for we are the Masters. We have been chosen. Disappear you monsters. Go before you face the wrath of Mukat, for he will give us the power to fight you. Go now! Be gone!”
In the red glow of sunrise the riders dissipated into a swirling cloud of dust. Then Qawish fell like a stone into his father’s waiting arms and he slept the sleep of his ancestors not sure if he would ever wake up.
Qawish awoke late in the day with his head pounding and his limbs feeling weak. He wandered back to the crowd of people still congregated around the area where the ceremonial campfire would be re-stoked and lit that evening. His mother led him back to their kish and fed him mesquite cakes and dried choke cherries with cold water. He would not be allowed meat of any kind for another month, and the tartness of the cherries, even though sweetened with honey, made him look forward to the impending hunt. Qawish wanted to take some more sleep before the upcoming evening’s ceremony which would continue for five more days. The old men would instruct the initiated young men in appropriate adult behavior, in dancing, in the use of gourd rattles, and in memorizing the enemy songs. Qawish was not certain of the merit of the enemy songs because the singing of such at certain ceremonies frequently led to arguments and fights among the women. When hostilities degenerated to hand-to-hand attacks the men usually separated their wives at the first sight of blood. Qawish’s mother was known to become quite agitated towards members of other sibs and prone to starting fights. This was a mystery to him because he usually found her quite levelheaded and extremely patient.
She was among the best basket makers in the entire tribe and frequently traded her wares for valuable or rare commodities. She was adept at weaving flat baskets, shallow bowls, deep storage baskets, and particularly women’s hats, which she generously gave to women and girls who assisted her in plant gathering forays, in particular, mesquite pods in June and acorns in late October. The men assisted in the heavier labor of gathering agave hearts in February and cutting fan palm spidices laden with raisin-like fruit in early fall. Entire families, even the men, usually assisted in group-collecting where large areas were swept over but never swept clean. From centuries of lessons the Cahuilla had learned not to over exploit their environment. Sometimes forty to fifty percent of any given crop was left on the plants to allow for the survival of other dependent species and for regeneration through seed propagation of the species itself. The Cahuilla, as with many other tribes of indigenous peoples, viewed themselves as being a part of the whole ecosystem, but never as a dominant species. The referred to themselves as “The Masters,” not of the land, but of other Indian peoples in their surrounding region. Qawish was fond of the sweet tunas that came from the prickly pear, chollea, the beavertail cactuses in mid-summer and the manzanita berry Jell-o-like mold in early fall. He would occasionally drink ocotillo tea or tutut derived from Mormon Tea with his mother just as sunrise peeked into the desert. Uncharacteristically, he accepted a full urn of it from his mother prior to joining that evening’s ceremonial campfire.
Qawish danced athletically and with an unbounded joy shaking an intricately patterned gourd rattle at various angles and with varying degrees of vigor taking notice in the assortment of sounds it would yield under different conditions. When he tired and rested at the edge of the fire, one of the elders gave him a flute made from an antelope’s leg bone. It was open at both ends and contained no holes on its body. Qawish was shown how to play the instrument and from it he emanated a sad mournful melody. He would own the instrument for the rest of his years, and it gave him great comfort in times of disillusionment and grief.
He was taught to memorize the enemy songs, about twenty in all. Mostly, he was taught to be generous to the elders, devoted to his eventual wife, and to stand strong against rival tribes. By the end of the five-day session he felt as if his brain was going to burst under the pressure of all the new information he had to assimilate. Then he was told to return to his parent’s home and ready himself for the incredible hunt to come at month’s end.
The month prior to the big hunt Qawish and his father scouted the selected game species to learn of their movements and to discuss how best to bag their prey. The antelope would be the most difficult as they ranged in small herds in open grassy areas with little cover behind which predators could hide. With the benefit of several sets of eyes, at least one animal was always watching ready to alert the others. They spotted and concentrated their effort on a herd of seven animals with two males, four does, and one kid born the previous spring. One of the males was decidedly older and walked stiff-legged. If they could corral both males they would take them, but Qawish’s father doubted that the young male or females would fall prey to their ruse. Their herd had a habit of traveling east to west along the northern face of the San Jacintos. This boded well for a morning hunt, as the wind would be in the hunter’s faces and the sun at their backs.
The deer flourished in herds at 3,500 feet in a bench area above the source of Andreas Canyon. It would be an easy thing to organize a drive and run them past brush blinds containing sharp shooting bow hunters, but Qawish’s father wanted to teach his son the thrill of the stalk where skill, patience, and physical endurance were required, as they would be in all things throughout his life. While they would enlist the aid of others to drive the pronghorns, the deer and the sheep they would hunt as a pair. The bighorn’s represented the biggest challenge, as they were the physically strongest of the three game animals. With legs honed to muscular perfection through a lifetime of rock hopping up and down stony, seemingly impenetrable canyons, a hoof strike delivered by a two hundred pound male would instantly snap human bones. The same male charging forward with curled horns up to three feet in length mounted on a head weighing thirty pounds could butt a man all the way to Telmekish before he ever knew what hit him. One or two arrows, or even four or five, could not be readily counted upon to drop a bighorn. And it was doubtful that either archer would get more than one shot off in the presence of such a stealthy animal. If one or both hunters missed all would be lost. Qawish’s father knew of a watering hole mid-way up Magnesia Spring Canyon that a pair of bighorns frequented every three to five days. There were tall cottonwoods draping over the water’s edge, and Qawish’s father felt he had a good plan.
The night of the antelope hunt Qawish found sleep difficult. He was not hunting rabbits with curved throwing sticks or pulling them from their burrows by impaling them and then twisting the pointed barbed spears until the animals could no longer attain a foothold. This was big game and Qawish knew that if he failed he would hear the teases of “bear boy” or perhaps “antelope boy” all over again. He pulled his warm rabbit fur blanket up over his shoulders and wandered out of the kish to an outcropping of rocks at the edge of the village. The Cahuilla marked time by the passing if thirteen moons, and here in the faint light provided by the crescent of the year’s second, Qawish saw his father sitting still and listening intently. Qawish’s father merely nodded acknowledgement of his presence as his son curled up at his feet. Then they both smiled with a knowing contentment as an owl hooted sadly somewhere out in the canyon.
When the orange red glow of sunrise faded to the pale eggshell blue sky of early morning Qawish was slowly walking toward the small herd of pronghorns. He stopped every time he saw the muscles in their forelegs tense and would start in again as soon as their heads bent downward to continue grazing. The animals knew that something was approaching; something that could possibly harm them, slowly they sauntered away from the impending danger keeping an ever respectful distance, never once allowing the implied gap to close. In this manner Qawish was able to slowly herd the animals two miles westward and in front of the mouth of Tacheyah Canyon. Then, with startling precision, five drivers sprung from the grasses clapping and whistling. The herd bolted into the canyon and ascended towards its upper reaches. The youngest male was running out in front at sixty miles an hour, the females and kid perhaps ten miles slower, with the old male making a valiant effort but falling to the rear. When he was clearly separated from the herd, other drivers burst forth from the rocks, now shouting and waving their arms to turn him into the small box canyon where the makeshift corral was located and death awaited. The gallant old male picked up speed briefly to free himself from his tormentors and then he braked hard as the sheer rock wall of the canyon’s end jumped up in front of him. He noticed the reed enclosure and then noticed the removable front gate approaching him in the fashion of a battering ram. Closer it drew as he stamped his feet nervously backing away with head turning and eyes darting desperately looking for an escape route. Although he was capable of doing so, it is not in a pronghorn’s nature to jump fences so the doomed creature shuffled backwards away from the ever-approaching brush wall. He tried kicking when it pushed against his chest, but it was too late, and he was pinned. A man arose from over the gate and swung a cord made from the fibers of Agave deserti over its neck. The cord was the strongest of all available materials and easily strong enough to resist the flailing of the 110-pound animal. Within minutes it succumbed as Qawish’s father prayed for its spirit and thanked the animal for exhibiting a good and noble death.
The antelope was strung up and the last of its blood was dripping from its slit throat when Qawish ran up to the corral. Although he had dressed many animals with his father and worked their hides with his mother, this was the first time he had picked one out from the wild, plotted its death, and been successful. He was visibly awed as he circled the carcass. The tri-colored coat of rust, white, and black, which made it so hard to spot as an entity out on the open range seemed simple, yet elegant, up close. Its jet black horns were 20 inches in length and would make a fine ceremonial headdress. There was enough available manpower to skin and butcher the animal on the spot. Carrying the load back to the village would not be a difficult task. Although the predominance of the meat would be eaten at the Nukil some of it would be passed around the campfire that night as stories of the hunt were told to listeners who would hang on every word.
Qawish and Father retired to their kish early and were carrying two deer heads with antlers and skins attached up towards the meadow above Andreas Canyon well before sunrise. They walked slowly, bow and arrows in hand, and seemed to be mirror images of one another although Qawish could not help but notice that the antlers of his buck’s head were comprised of mere twin spikes while his father’s sported a full eight points.
Life in the arid desert had taught them that the air was stillest in the early morning and built up velocity as the land warmed. Now was the best time of day to avoid the detection of the wily deer. Father’s bow was constructed from mesquite wood while his own was of willow. Both were fortified at the grip with the leg tendons of the recently killed pronghorn, which were lashed to the body of the bow. Qawish could hardly pull his sinew drawstring all the way back but father had told him that at the moment of truth adrenaline would take over and he would prevail. Qawish had his doubts.
They spotted a herd with a large ten-point buck 250 yards uphill and stopped at the base of a canyon live oak to don their deerskin camouflage. Qawish’s heart started pounding and his father tapped him on the shoulder showing him to draw air in deeply through his nostrils and expel it out through his mouth. After a half-dozen such breaths Qawish had regained his composure. Father plucked some dried grass from the ground and lightly tossed it upwards to see if there was any detectable breeze. He seemed pleased when it fell to the ground without shifting whatsoever. This was their first stroke of good fortune, as without the nuisance of a betraying wind they would have their choice of which direction to stalk the buck from. They looked up into the canopies of the neighboring oaks to see if any squirrels or birds were out to chatter a warning to their forest brethren. With everything clear they crept out from behind the trunk of the oak and the two deer men started their stalk.
A buck with such a large rack most likely weighed well over 200 pounds. Racks are not a true indicator of age but verification of an expansive and nutritious diet. Forage had been plentiful the previous fall which was a fact bore out the full-bodied gleaming antlers. He was pawing the ground intently searching for acorn mast as there were no edible green grasses to speak of on the mid-winter ground plane.
The remainder of the herd, six does and two yearlings were 100 yards off his furthest flank away from the hunters. Bucks of this stature were given their distance in a primeval show of respect. While the herd may be keeping a watchful eye for each other, they were not as likely to be concerned about the male. One of the downfalls of nature is the apparent belief that the strong can defend themselves. Qawish and his father chose a slightly depressed dry streambed as their path of travel. Although one slip on the loose cobble that lined the bed would spell out immediate detection, the advantage of having the majority of their lower bodies screened from view warranted the risk. This course would gain them 100 yards with 150 yards to go. They would strive to be within 50 feet of their quarry before letting fly with their arrows. The streambed was traversed within 20 minutes but that was of little consequence to Father for experience had taught him that they would have to use as much stealth and physical strength as they could muster to traverse the rest of the way, predominately over open ground.
They affixed their arrows into their drawstrings before reconvening, for to do it later may cause a sound that would alert the deer. Down on their haunches, their makeshift deer skin robes barely touching the ground they started their slow pursuit, which would take hours. The oaks were widely interspersed and about 25 yards separated each tree. Fire swept through the meadow almost twice a decade, the most recent being two years ago. Sagebrush dotted the ground and would have to provide what little cover they could employ. Slowly, slower than the desert tortoise, it seemed to Qawish, they crept and occasionally crawled towards the buck being careful to stay positioned behind his powerful white buttocks and out of his best line of vision. They stopped frequently to regain their silent breathing. The set of Father’s jaw took on a look of grim determination. Qawish’s lower back ached while the backs of his thighs were numb. The physical demands of the advance were exhausting. They had been at it for an hour and still they were just halfway. A deer’s biggest physical asset is its hearing, which can be extraordinary. Next comes its sense of smell. They have relatively poor eyesight, especially for stationary objects. They can detect the slightest motion, however. The deer men knew if they moved when the buck was looking in their direction the hunt would be over.
For a few moments the buck seemed skittish and they stopped altogether not moving a muscle. Qawish looked down at his ribbonwood arrow admiring his mother’s craftsmanship. The wood had been rubbed and rolled over rough stone and then ground smooth by passing it through a square of hide filled with rough sand gripped tightly around the shaft. His tip was fire hardened while Father’s had a chipped point of flint glued in place with pine pitch and lashed to the shaft with thin sinew. Both their arrows had two eagle’s feathers attached to the base of the shaft. Qawish’s band did not keep captive eagles and these feathers probably came by way of trade with the Colorado River tribes. The Mohave, the Halchidhoma, and the Yuma were all known to capture newborns and raise them in cages or tethered to perches. The Navajo and Hopii to the far east raised eagles as a basis of trade, and it was quite possible that the feathers that adorned Qawish’s arrow had traveled hundreds of miles and passed through numerous hands. All Qawish cared about, at the moment, was that arrows with eagle feathers flew the most true cutting the air with the same precision as the venerated bird.
Upon father’s signal they were on the move again now plodding forward slower than the tortoise, slower than the snail. So slow that they hardly seemed to move at all yet Qawish knew that somehow they were moving because the deer’s body grew closer. After another hour they were within range. Qawish’s father was not given to taking unnecessary chances especially in light of the effort he had just put forth, yet he knew that if his son were to be a man that his son would have to shoot the first arrow. Qawish was surprised at Father’s signal to shoot first but time was precious. No time to question, no time to think. Barely time to lift the bow and pull back the drawstring with every fiber of every muscle in his body straining to their fullest. Father was right that he would find his strength at the moment of truth. He couldn’t let Father down; he couldn’t disappoint his people who lived to tell these tales around the campfire. He had an obligation to the deer to take its life this day and not let it suffer wounded in the bush for weeks before dying. All these thoughts whirled through his head as, breathlessly, the nock of the arrow left the drawstring. He had aimed just below the left shoulder where the heart would be but the arrow landed in the rib cage. Father’s landed closer to the mark just as the animal stiffened from the initial hit. Rarely will a creature as noble and majestic as a 220-pound mule deer succumb to just two arrows. True to the code of the wild, it would fight for its life. It lurched forward on unsteady legs as father let fly with his second arrow which landed in the hindquarters. As if shot with adrenaline the buck picked up speed and headed up grade. Then, realizing the resistance of the rising ground to his rapidly dwindling strength, the buck turned downhill and raced down Andreas Canyon.
Qawish’s father was not too terribly upset by this development. He knew that he had driven his first arrow hard and it appeared that his son’s arrow was relatively well-placed. He didn’t relish the prospects of dragging a 220-pound load seven miles back to the village even with his strong young son’s help. There was little probability that the buck would reverse his course and travel back uphill unless they were fools and forced him to. Since the deer was moving in a favorable direction they would simply press their advantage and keep it moving towards home.
They separated and took opposite sides of the canyon following the fatally wounded deer downhill. It was just a matter of time before the animal would drop. Qawish thanked the deer for making his job easier and prayed to Mukat to give him strength to keep up with Father when the time came to drag the carcass back to the village. He lost sight of the deer’s gray-brown coat on several occasions but the telltale white rump would flash through the thickets of wild grape that lined the streambed at the bottom of the rapidly descending canyon. Father moved like the shadow of a hawk gliding over open ground. Qawish seemed to slip and stumble along, but he was keeping pace. Three miles from home the deer gave out. It tried to regain its feet three times before collapsing in a panting heap. Qawish sang softly to the deer as he had to the bear trying to comfort it in death. Father brought his full weight and all his strength to bear upon the deer’s midsection taking care not to be struck by flailing hooves. Qawish stepped on its windpipe ruefully and resolutely as the buck’s glassy brown eyes penetrated up at him, through him it seemed, to spirits beyond.
They gutted the deer and left his entrails as an offering to coyote the trickster. Then each, with a side of the animal’s magnificent rack in hand, proceeded to drag the buck back to the encampment.
They were spotted coming out of a palm grove at the base of the canyon as the last shafts of sunset wee fading behind San Jacinto peak. The children, as they always do, came on the dead run. Some men rushed up to help with the load but Qawish’s father waved then away. He and his son, of whom he was immeasurably proud, had come this far and they alone would release it to the village women at the center of camp.
There was joy in the village that evening. The fire rose higher, the people chattered louder with an electric current of excitement. At the edge of the firelight the women dressed the deer. Qawish’s mother took center stage directing the others. Although humility was an admired trait among the Cahuilla, she wasn’t about to let this moment go by without thoroughly basking in it. “My husband and my son have brought this fine deer to our village. And before the Nukil they will bring us a mighty ram. You will see. Just you wait and see.” Qawish and his father were fed the choice tenderloins as others received various cuts of meat. Again, the majority was set aside for the Nukil. The lower quality cuts not appropriate for the Nukil would be cut into thin strips and dried as jerky. The antlers would be honed to sharp awls while the leg bones would be worked into spear points. Other bones would make stirring utensils. The bones of the spinal column would be fashioned into necklaces. The hide would be transformed into loin cloths and leggings for her two men. As with all tribes of Native Americans, the deer’s gift of its life to the people was deeply respected and nothing was wasted.
The men of the village, one by one, draped on the deer costumes the hunters had worn and danced about the fire pointing the antlers at Qawish and laughing good-naturedly. The sparks cracked free of the flames and rose quickly in the cold night air. They rose towards the stars, towards the luminescence of the Milky Way, which the Cahuilla knew with unfaltering certainty was really just the dust kicked up as Isil and Tukat, coyote and wildcat, ran their eternal race.
There were now six days left before the start of the Nukil, which Qawish felt would be plenty of time to bag the ram. Father seemed worried and his wife knew that he wished that she hadn’t puffed out her chest. But Mother felt she had good reason to boast a little. She, after all, had worked night and day over the last month to weave the desert agave into strands and then cords, which were knotted together to form a large net. Two end corners had a length of cord attached that were long enough to act as attachments for a snare. This contraption, if all went right, would be the device that would entangle the ram long enough for the men to subdue him. In the morning the two men went to the lower reaches of Tahquitz Creek and cut four stiff, yet springy, main branches of the desert willow which they stripped clean. They took these branches along with other tools and materials with them on an 11-mile walk to Magnesia Spring Canyon. They picked a promising cottonwood that hung over the watering hole and lashed the butt ends of the desert willow branches to the main trunk. Next they buried the net in a gravelly beach area which was worn free of vegetation due to the sheep’s and other types of animal’s frequent visits, Then they attached one of the end cords to two of the end tips of the desert willow branches. All the cords were well-hidden and they swept the gravelly beach area clean with a leafy mesquite branch. They lashed a small cottonwood branch and tule mat platform into the canopy of the cottonwood. Block type trips were made to hold the bent desert willow branches in place against the constructed platform. The blocks would have to be kicked out of position to trip the snare cords and lift the entrapment net. Qawish would be responsible for two trips and Father would man the other two.
They filled two large clay pots with drinking water from the spring and took them up the tree to the platform. Two other empty clay pots would be utilized for urination and defecation. They had to keep their human scent off the ground and hope that the breeze would carry it away from the capture area.
They notched hand and footholds into the main trunk of the tree to facilitate getting to the ground quickly, and after practicing on these for a short while, they climbed up into the tree that they wouldn’t leave until the moment of truth.
Both men were wrapped in sewn rabbit skin blankets to ward off the cold. Neither could speak a word. Father had schooled Qawish in basic sign language weeks in advance so they could communicate rudimentary things, and fourteen feet up in a blind with nothing to do but wait for the sheep to arrive, there was no need for lengthy conservation.
Although the Cahuilla loved roasted sheep and the animal’s jerky was juicier and tastier than deer jerky, partaking in it only rarely happened. Throughout Father’s life of thirty-six years he has feasted on sheep less than a dozen times, and even at that, owing to his hunting prowess, he tasted it far more often than the majority of his clansmen. Bighorn would be heartily welcomed at the Nukil, and Qawish couldn’t help but think how impressed the parents of the object of his affection would be. But whenever this wonderful day dream crossed his mind it was tempered with the unwanted question of how impressed would her potential husband be?
Qawish knew that a fortunate set of circumstances would had to have occurred for a girl so beautiful not to be married. Girls were routinely wed at twelve years of age. Parents arranged marriages with the boy’s father initiating the request to the girl’s father. Qawish was sure that her father must have been approached many times if she wasn’t married by now. Only two things could have occurred for the girl to still be single. Either her father didn’t like what was being offered in exchange for his daughter’s hand or his daughter refused the offer herself. It was highly probable that a great deal would have been offered for such an attractive girl and unlikely that she would deny her parents repeated requests to marry, for respect for parental authority ran deep among the Cahuilla. If she was still unmarried her father was either picky or greedy or she was one hell-bent fire-breathing woman.
From the tracks they observed upon arriving at the watering hole they knew that it had been two days since the ram had last drank. Bighorn can go at least three days without water and up to five days in cooler weather. It was now early February and the days were cool and the nights cold so, conceivably, the ram might not appear for three more days which would put things precariously close to the start of the Nukil. This worried Qawish but not nearly so much as the realization that he didn’t know for a fact whether or not this was the sheep’s only watering hole. If it had others he may not show up for weeks.
Looking into Father’s eyes he could see a serene calmness, which he knew he must acquire if he were to win the favor of his people. Nothing in a Cahuilla’s life was for certain with the exception of death. The availability of plant and animal food stores from year to year was dubious at best. The vagaries of the weather, especially the time span between rain and draught, could never be predicted. The harshness of the terrain and the creatures that lived within it could turn for the worst at any moment. The Cahuilla were taught to expect hardships and not to be surprised nor complain when they came. Cooperation among families, bands, sibs, and the overall nation represented any given individual’s best chances for survival. Hot heads who wanted to fight with their hands rather than use them to work for the good of the group were not respected as tough men, but rather viewed as idiots and were quickly ostracized or even run off. When push came to shove, as it frequently did in the desert, you wanted to be sure that the man next to you would keep a cool head and do the right thing and not panic in a manner that could get you both killed. If you doubted a man’s ability to act positively to duress the last place you wanted to be with him was out in the desert or on the chaparral where your worst fears could easily turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Qawish looked over at his father and was certain that in the aspect of behaving as a responsible man that he had no peers.
They slept in shifts with Father determining the duration from the clock that he apparently kept in his head. Qawish was astonished that a mountain lion didn’t notice him perched overhead and felt confident that neither would the bighorn when and if he showed up. Bob cats were more numerous than he ever imagined. Rattlesnakes slithered up and slinked away. Raccoons playfully washed crayfish at the water’s edge. Rabbits and a host of other rodents appeared from out of nowhere and scurried off at the slightest rustle of leaves, a yip, a bark, or a growl. They cowered when the owl hooted, and then Qawish took hope. The owl had hooted.
They had been up there four nights. His limbs were stiff and the mesquite cakes had grown redundant. His ears prickled when he first heard the hoof beats of the ram. Father silently awoke at his urging and both drew in their breath as if their chests would explode if they received too much air. Five minutes went by before he appeared and nonchalantly ambled over to the pool of water. He seemed to jump straight up when he heard the trip blocks being kicked from their positions. Then he was entangled in something that tripped him every time he tried to get his legs steady underneath him.
Father was first down the tree and swung his heavy ribbonwood stump club into the animal’s massive chest. It was a solid whack met with the ram’s terrified bleating. The ferocity of the blow had knocked the ram from the net but the men blocked its escape. Father lifted his club again but before he could downswing the ram reared up on its hind legs and charged. The bighorn blasted directly into Father’s hunched chest with its enormous curved horns. There was such a wallop that Father flew back in the air striking his back against the cottonwood. The ram again reared up but before its front legs hit the ground, Qawish snapped one of its rear legs at the joint with a tremendous swipe of his club. The ram hit dirt and again tried to rise. Amidst a cloud of dust and cries to wake the dead of the entire Cahuilla Nation, Qawish swung savagely breaking the remaining three legs. The helpless ram cried out in anguish, its valiant spirit pleading with Mukat for salvation. Qawish rushed to father who warded off his compassion with his forearms. “Finish it my son! Do not let this noble beast suffer another moment!” Qawisg set upon the ram striking its skull several times. Stopping, exhausted from the assault he had just levied, he sunk to his knees aside the ram’s head and watched the last flicker of life leave its eyes. He crawled back to his father and surveyed the damage. Father’s chest was red and deeply bruised. Qawish felt about the breastplate and ribs breathing a sigh of relief that nothing was broken. His back was cut and bleeding from hitting the cottonwood but Father, as tough as he was, would live.
“Listen my son; I will gut this fine ram while you climb high enough in the canyon to send smoke signals. It will soon be daybreak and they’ll be seen for the whole village knows we are out here and they’ll be keeping a watchful eye. Send for carriers and send for the medicine man.”
Qawish didn’t want to leave father but he knew better than to ignore his instructions. It was his duty to do the logical thing no matter how much his heart ached. Within a quarter-hour Qawish was atop a rock outcropping high enough to be seen from the village. He built a fire and passed his rabbit skin blanket over it. Puffs of smoke rose in the sky and Qawish kept them coming. Three hours later he heard voices down in the canyon and knew that help had arrived. Qawish sprinted back down the canyon to Father. Five men were hoisting up the ram with its legs lashed to a cottonwood pole set atop their shoulders. Solemnly they greeted him and then walked away carrying the dangling ram back towards the village. The medicine man and another were attending to Father. The Pul shook a turtle shell rattle with a raven wing attached over Father’s body. The assistant was applying a poultice of powered creosote leaves and crushed eriodictyon leaves to Father’s chest. A salve containing the ashes from the burned stems of buckhorn cholla was applied to the cuts on father’s back and his blood had already coagulated. Qawish now felt differently about the Pul. Perhaps he had judged him far too soon and too harshly. The assistant stepped away allowing the medicine man to bend over to Father’s mouth and suck air into his own mouth drawing out bad spirits that may have been opportunistic enough to try to take advantage of the Takwa’s weakened condition. He expelled the spirits with three puffs of his breath sent skyward. He repeated this process three times and then pulled his patient to his feet. Qawish reached out to steady his father who stumbled slightly and then straightened his back. He smiled at his son and indicated that Qawish should lead the way back to the village.
They soon overtook the men toting the ram and Qawish slid into the rear of the formation and shouldered his share of the load. The men motioned him to the front for this was his proper station on this important day. Qawish’s father seemed to strengthen with each step and he looked forward at his son. The boy who was now a man stood as tall as he with shoulders nearly as broad. In time he would be even more of an imposing physical specimen. Father knew his boy’s mind. It was not that long ago that he himself was young and full of masculine energy that needed an outlet. Soon his son would marry and bring him the joy of grandchildren. He fell back a little and whispered to the medicine man, “Will you teach him? We both know he can’t be Net. Takwa and Paha are a waste of his talents, but Pul is a lofty position. Will you teach him?” The Pul nodded to his friend of many years. “Your son is headstrong, but bright with no lack of courage. He made short work of the ram at the moment of truth and he was able to get you help. He’s becoming a fine man, but Pul? It may take more patience than he has, but if he does have it he could well become the greatest medicine man the Masters have ever seen.” Qawish’s father was pleased with those words as they trod across the desert floor at mid-morning. The wind blew strong through the western passes and buffeted against his sun-weathered face. He cast a prayer to the wind to be sent to Mukat. He thanked their great leader for sparing his life, for the gift of the great ram, but most of all, for the gift of his son.
Qawish’s mother wept openly as the ensemble with Qawish leading the way paraded triumphantly through the village. Father, his rabbit skin blanket slung tightly across his shoulders, shielded his wounds from public view. He would ache for days and well into the Nukil but no one amongst the other bands would know it. The medicine man danced about charging at onlookers in the manner of the great ram while shaking his healing rattles ferociously and encouraging the other men by motions only they understood to do likewise. Soon the whole village was abuzz with rattles as a plaintive song wafted out across the desert and up into the canyons. The village was on the verge of celebrating the Nukil and such was their joy at the sight of the bighorn that Mukat could hardly blame them if they started a little early.
Again, the village women would dress and prepare the animal. Its horns, bones, and hide would be used in much the same manner as the deer. Qawish’s mother assumed command and was the first among them to run her fingertips over the growth rings comprising the outer sheath of the animal’s venerated horns. This ram had seen many years and undoubtedly escaped the travails of countless hunters, but not hunters as proficient as her husband was and her son was becoming. Her family would be esteemed at the Nukil and for many years to come. Her son must go to the vertical rocks higher up in Andreas Canyon and mark them with the events of this hunt for the entire world to see. Such a petroglyph would bring him great honor among his generation and many generations to come.
Qawish found sleep difficult during the two remaining days before the Nukil. On the morning of the event runners burst into the village announcing that the first of the visitors were on their way. Every able-bodied person in the village sprinted to greet them. Droves of arrows filled the sky in celebration as the people, in unison, let out a resounding shout. This would be reenacted throughout the day as other clans emerged from the canyons. Many were “called” to participate in the Nukil while many more came to observe the ceremonies and revel in the gaiety. In all, two hundred visitors swelled the boundaries of the village by nightfall. The Net had called only about thirty and they would soon sit with him in the circular fifty-foot diameter Kishumnawat and be the first to partake in the opening meal. Those who were called took their seats inside the Kishumnawat while the others found seats around its outer periphery. Inside the Net approached each, knelt before them, and with a hushed voice thanked them for coming. He gave them a bit of tobacco, which they would smoke before the meal. Each guest, in return, handed the Net some symbolic shell money that would be returned to them at the end of the Nukil. Then the Paha announced that is was time to partake in the feast. Inside, the chosen ones ate solemnly while, outside, the remainder of the visitors were immediately fed, for this is the first courtesy extended to a guest of an Indian home.
After the first meal all the people gathered at the center of the village and joined in song and started in with a massive circle dance. The old men would smoke tobacco and sing all night as the women and children, one by one, would retreat to the edges of the ceremonial bonfire and fall fast asleep. Young men, once their wives were asleep and would not see how much they gambled, engaged in games of peon with scores of interested cat-callers and well-wishers looking on. Some families would leave the fiesta much richer and some much poorer, yet they would play, because they had always played. It was their way and always would be.
The girl who Qawish wished to marry arrived with her parents late in the evening for such was the distance of the walk from Santa Rosa Village. They made their way to the center of the swaying throng and were greeted jovially by the Net. She came into Qawish’s full view with her jet black hair gleaming and her brown skin radiant by the firelight. Time stood still. The stars didn’t twinkle. The flames didn’t leap. Smoke didn’t rise. The music no longer played. And the dancers were motionless. All that existed was her face in the firelight. She stood alone beside no husband who surly would have been close to her side. Qawish looked up to Mukat and prayed that she would accept his hand in marriage. And then he remembered that he must get her name.
He just couldn’t just walk up to her and ask her, as that wasn’t their way. Father was busy as the Takwa always was at the Nukil. He must ask Mother if he could wedge in between her friends, or he would have to wait for a few days for the enemy songs after which she would have many. With much urgency he spirited her away to the entrance of their kish. “Mother you must help me.” “What is it my son? What is so important that you drag me away from my friends?” “See that girl over there by the door to the Kishumnawat? You must get her name!” “Why now son? This can wait until tomorrow.” “No it can’t Mother! You must get her name now!” “What is so important that you scream at your mother?” “I will marry that girl if she will have me.” “Well you better remember that your father and I have the biggest say in this. I’ll talk to him tomorrow, and we, not you my son, will decide if she’s good enough for you.” “What! Are you crazy! Look at her!” “ Oh yes, she’s pretty alright, but it takes more than that to make a good wife.” “Mother, I must know her name!” “Don’t raise your voice to me Qawish, or you’ll have your father to deal with.” “Mother, please!” “Oh alright, but you just remember that I’ll decide if she’s good enough for you.”
Her name was Suwet and to Qawish it was the most beautiful sound in any language. He repeated it over and over as he drifted off to sleep under the stars in his deerskin blanket. He would sleep outside the kish for the week of the Nukil as the guests were given first choice of beds in the kishes although there were hardly enough to go around this year. In truth, bodies were strewn about all over the village. One had to be careful not to step on someone and walk a good distance to relieve himself.
For two more nights the elders sang the creation story inside the ceremonial house as they passed about a basket of tobacco to constantly smoke. Around the larger fire outdoors the festivities were more loosely structured and the celebration was more of a party than a commemoration of the dead. By the third night Mother was up to her old tricks. Five choruses into the enemy songs, her fingers were wrapped around some poor woman’s neck. Father was inside in the midst of an important ritual so it was up to Qawish to restrain her. He pulled her away as the other woman’s husband lashed out at her. Qawish shoved him to the ground and the look in his eyes told all onlookers that worse would happen to anyone who dared touch her.
He laid her to rest on a palette of furs in their kish that was empty at that moment. “Mother, are you alright?” “Yes son. Don’t worry yourself about this. Any good woman is expected to defend the honor of her ancestors.” “And the other woman?” “Her ancestors are her business. Whose side are you on anyways?” “Your’s, Mother. I will stand by you always.” “Of course you will for you are a good son.” “Mother, have you talked to father? Has he talked with Suwet’s father?” “Yes son, I did as you asked. Your father has tried to barter with that man but he wants the sun and the moon and the stars. He wants over half of our gathering sites, many baskets and furs. He acts as if she’s the only watering hole in the desert.” “Maybe she is mother. What have you found out?” “She respects the elders. She listens to her parents, unlike some young people I know.” “Mother I just couldn’t wait – I had to know her name.” “I know Qawish, but her father wants more than we can give. Your father has another plan that he will speak to you about after the Nukil. That girl isn’t going to get married before then, and with what her father wants she might die a virgin.” “Oh, Mother, the way you talk.” “Son, will you bring me some sweet water?” “Of course Mother. Then you will sleep well?” “Yes son, I will sleep very well and I better not lay eyes on that old hag when I wake up in the morning.”
Qawish left the kish after his mother had fallen asleep. Mother was a real handful, thunder and lightning at times. Although he loved her with all his heart, he sincerely doubted if any man, except his father, could have stay married to her. He wanted a softer wife to lie beside and if Suwet were to become his wife he was certain he would lie beside her often.
The Nukil was soon to end and Qawish dreaded its closing ceremony, which was the dance of the effigies. All week long the woman had made life-size straw effigies of the people who had died during the previous year. These were dressed with the best skins and adorned with the most exclusive ornaments. Qawish had brought numerous shells and other artifacts to Sukit’s mother to use on his effigy. He knew that her heart was heavy because, so too, was his. He didn’t know how he would hold up during the ceremony or how he would feel towards the Pul who presided over it. He looked to the day with foreboding and the only positive thing he could see about it was that it would have to be completed before he could talk to Father about Suwet.
That night the Pul danced and strutted about the ceremonial fire. He plucked three hot coals from its center and swallowed them in quick succession. Then he started to shake uncontrollably until he at last stuck a stick about eight inches long with owl feathers attached down his throat and regurgitated his takwa. The object turned out to be a small lizard that jumped from his hand and scurried off through the stunned crowd. The medicine man then danced about the fire stopping dramatically and puffing loudly three times into the air while motioning upwards with his cupped hands at the same time. The onlookers instantly copied this behavior because they had the utmost faith in him. This procedure was repeated six more times and then the evening diffused into various groups performing various rituals or playing peon like it had all the previous evenings.
At the brink of sunrise, with the Net leading, all female relatives proceeded out of the Kishumnawat walking two-by-two with the effigies of the dead in hand. Gifts of mesquite meal were passed out to the guests. The procession stopped just short of the ceremonial house. The marchers proceeded to dance and sing and cry. Onlookers threw shell money and other valuable articles into the center of the circle and those who were not chosen began to immediately rush about and pick it up. They danced a while longer and then the women from the procession marched in single file to the outskirts of the village and burned the effigies in a recreation of how they were earlier cremated. The people stayed in the village knowing full well what the rising smoke symbolized. The Indian respects the dead as he expects others to respect him when he is dead. The smoke tells him his time is coming. Each, in their own way, questioned whether or not they were ready.
The Net milled about the crowd finding each of those that had been “called.” He handed each individual a string of shell money which they would return the next year. Thus many of the strings were very old being crafted by ancestors. The longer they stayed in the tribe’s possession the greater the respect they represented for the cycle of life. They thanked the Net and departed. The Nukil was over.
Qawish left Father alone for five days, as he had slept but a few hours during the Nukil and was exhausted. Furthermore, he, the Net, and the Paha had to wind down the event by returning possessions, distributing unused food, and directing a general cleanup. When it appeared that the proceedings of the Nukil were no longer on Father’s mind Qawish approached him and asked, “Do you know my heart about Suwet?” “Of course son. How could I not? That’s all your mother nags me about. I wish you could be married today just to get her off my back. We need to go fishing and discuss this and get out of earshot of her for she now wants grandchildren and won’t let up until she gets them. I pity you son, if you do get married, for she will jump from me to you with her impatience. You will not be able to have children soon enough. Yes. Yes, let’s leave for Santa Rosa Village today. Let her eat our dust as we depart.”
Qawish rarely heard such a tirade from his father and suspected the fatigue and the stress related to the Nukil fueled much of his fire. He also wanted to keep the flame burning as he ran to the kish to get their bows and blankets and a small scale seining net. “Where are you going my son?” Mother asked. “Father and I are going to net some trout in Tahquitz Creek and take them to Suwet’s father and he will try to arrange for my marriage.” “A marriage will be nice Qawish. It will bring me grandchildren. Hurry my son and bring me grandchildren!” “Mother you known it will take some time.” “Yes. Yes, I know son, but hurry and don’t waste any time. I want grandchildren Qawish, and I want them now!” Like all good Cahuilla mothers, she wept as he left on his journey.
Even though full from gorging themselves on a variety of dishes at the Nukil, Qawish’s Father knew they would be hungry before they reached Santa Rosa Village and brought adequate dried provisions. They shortcut across the desert floor to the mouth of Tahquitz Creek. They approached a badger sunning itself at the mouth of its den and decided to walk a wide swath around this tenacious fighter. It was a good nine miles to the upper reaches of Tahquitz Creek where Father knew of a fishing hole that he kept quiet about. It was late afternoon when they reached their destination. They would take trout in the morning for they couldn’t keep them fresh overnight, and to build a small holding pool would be useless with fisher, martin, foxes, otters, mink, raccoons, and even that trickster coyote sneaking about. Trout held in a shallow pool would be easy pickings for these creatures who would welcome an easy meal. They chewed on mesquite cakes and deer jerky and enjoyed the soothing sound of the gushing and trickling brook as it flowed past.
Father’s edge was gone now. Get him out in the wild and he was an immediately changed and invigorated man. They sat silent for a while each knowing that it was time to talk yet not knowing quite what to say. Father started, “Qawish, I know you have your heart set on marrying this girl but I don’t know if it will be possible. Her father is unreasonable and stubborn. He would find Mukat an unsuitable suitor. I cannot give up much of our land holdings to appease him. These were passed on to me by father and Father’s father since time began. They will feed you and your family – whoever you marry. We can be generous with baskets, blankets, and furs but there’s a limit to that also. Listen to me son, there is only one way that you may be able to impress this man enough to let go his stranglehold on his daughter.” He paused waiting for Qawish to ask the inevitable question, but his son held back not wanting to interject when his father was in a contemplative mood. An awkward silence was once again broken by Father. “Perhaps the wife of the chief is what he wants but all the Nets of the eastern bands are relatively young men. Their sons won’t take over for years. Paha and Takwa mean nothing to him, but Pul; Pul is important. He respects and fears the medicine man and he might let his daughter marry a Pul.” “Father you know I’m not a medicine man, and after what happened to Sukit, I would never want to be one.” “Wanting and getting are two different things in this world my son. If you want this girl you will have to impress her father, and what do you have to impress him with?” “Father, I’m a hunter like you. That’s what I want to be.” “Listen son, you could be both a medicine man and a hunter. It’s not forbidden.” “How could I be a Pul? I never thought about it.” “I’ve talked to the band’s Pul, and he will teach you, but you must be willing to learn.” “What would I learn?” “How to heal the sick, advise the uncertain, cast out evil spirits, and cast spells upon the treacherous rendering them harmless. How to ask Mukat to help us is time of drought or war. How to use all the plants. How to shape shift and eat fire. But most importantly son, you can speak directly to the ancestors and hear their hearts.” “Father, the people will kill a medicine man if he gets too powerful or performs badly. I thought about doing it when Sukit died.” Qawish’s father was taken aback by this admission and didn’t speak for nearly an hour. When he did finally speak he didn’t mince words. “You’ll never be Net. Do you want my life? The Paha and the Takwa they complain to. The Pul is respected but feared. No one ever complains to him. He is given the best without asking and most of the time the people just leave him alone. A husband is required to be good to his wife’s father and brother. This man wants wealth but may settle for power and there’s no man more powerful than a medicine man. Qawish it’s probably the only way you’ll ever marry Suwet.”
Now it was Qawish who sat silent for an hour listening to the brook and the wind and the beating of his own heart. Finally he asked, “And how would I become a Pul?” “I’ve spoken to him and he will teach you. They watch the children when they are young to see which ones could be like them. He has watched you since you were a boy. He thinks you’re hardheaded but otherwise worthy. He’s gone so far as to say that you could be the greatest medicine man our people have ever known.” “But he killed Sukit!” “No he didn’t Qawish.” “Then why is he dead?” “Because it was his time. Somewhere the fox barked, and it was his time.” “I’ll try to sleep on this Father because I can see that this is important to you.” “It’s not only important to me son, it’s the only way you’ll have the girl.”
Bear visited their camp that night and watched over Qawish. His footprints revealed that he straddled the boy and walked off at morning’s first light. If a grizzly wouldn’t kill him, then perhaps the people wouldn’t turn on him if he got too powerful. And besides, he reasoned, there’s a difference between being powerful and acting powerful. The Cahuilla were proud and didn’t like arrogance thrown in their faces. If he didn’t belittle them, perhaps he would be loved. There was a great deal to gain by being Pul, not the last of which could well be the hand of Suwet. He woke Father and told him that, despite his fears, of which there were many, he would do what he asked and the do the best that he could for his people.
With the contentment that a good decision brings they waited for the morning sun to warm the winter-chilled water enough to make the fish more active. Then they chummed the water with fresh grubs they collected from fallen trees along the moist stream bank. As the fish ate to a frenzy they pulled the seine across the stream capturing many as a testament to the hierarchy of the food pyramid. Once the brilliantly colored trout were gutted with flint scrappers and tied to a sinew stringer, the two men started out with their catch towards Santa Rosa Village seventeen miles away on the high desert plateau or on the blanketing dense chaparral, depending upon whose telling the story. Santa Rosa served as the mountain crossroads for the eastern half of the Cahuilla Nation. Set in a bowl on the southern flank of Weal um Mo it nestled 2,200 feet below Toro Peaks yet hovered 4,600 feet above the Anza Borrego Desert to the southwest and the Colorado Desert to the northeast. Palm Canyon and its side canyons sliced through the San Jacintos and vented at the doorstep of the village. Martinez and Coyote Canyons challenged the rugged southern escarpment to knock on its door. The Santa Rosa range itself rose like an emerald greed island up out of the desert. The village was the mountain jewel of the Cahuilla Nation and it was well-protected. News of the movements of Qawish and his father had spread like wildfire through the village long before they arrived there at sunset. They immediately visited the Net’s kish and Father was granted an audience with Suwet’s father while Qawish remained there.
At Suwet’s family kish Father negotiated his best deal. He delivered the gift of the trout and he gave up over a hundred acres of prime gathering sites, four deep baskets, one each of cougar, bighorn, and deer skins. A generous offer by anyone’s standards, but the man wouldn’t budge until father let it be known that his daughter would be marrying a medicine man in training, but a powerful medicine man of the future, no doubt.
Suwet would say her goodbyes and be brought to Qawish’s village in two weeks time. There her father would take his baskets and skins and announce that he now had rights to certain gathering sites that had stayed in Qawish’s family for hundreds of years. “And may the rattlesnakes strike at your heel and the black widows bite at your testicles for the rest of your years,” whispered Father as he left his in-laws-to-be’s kish.
They left two hours before sunset and traveled three miles into Palm Canyon before making camp. Father went to sleep early fully expecting that it would be his last full night of sleep in quite a while once Mother got wind of what he had to give up so that Qawish could get Suwet’s hand. Qawish stoked the small fire and stared out at the fullness of the season’s third full moon softly playing his flute. Somewhere out on the canyon’s west wall a mountain lion was caterwauling, which made him somewhat nervous, so he was glad when Bear appeared in the distance. Bear climbed out to the edge of a cantilevered rock formation, rose to his full height, and clawed at the moon. Qawish couldn’t say for certain but was reasonably sure that when he turned his head in the direction of the campfire – he was laughing.
Marriage was quite possibly the most anticlimactic event in the lives of the ritual rich Cahuilla. When Suwet’s father brought her to Qawish’s village there was no ceremony, no pomp, and no circumstance. She would live in the kish of Qawish’s parents for several years, and when the time was right, her husband would construct one of their own. Qawish was expected to talk at length with his parents and very little with his wife so that his parents would not be neglected. As time went by Suwet was to see the wisdom in this custom, as she didn’t have much to say to her crazy mother-in-law, anyway. Suwet lived in the kish with her shy husband for three weeks without sleeping with him as they slowly got acquainted. She was beginning to feel like the marriage might never be consummated when Mother announced that she and Father would have to go visit her parents at Torres Martinez Village. They finally had the kish to themselves and the young couple was not seen for days.
When Qawish finally emerged from his family’s kish he was a changed man. Now he understood how come Father put up with Mother and still left the campfire early some nights when there were perfectly good songs to sing and tobacco to smoke. Now he understood why it was so important to continue the cycle of life. He thanked Mukat for this newfound wisdom, thanked him for good health, and hopefully, a long life. But most of all he thanked him for his fine young wife.
Qawish first child, a girl, was born in the spring of the year of our Lord 1377. Three more were to follow in quick succession. The Pul spent so much time teaching him that it was hard to find time to go hunting. Eventually Qawish just brought him along and they became fast friends.
After the birth of his second child, a boy, Qawish convinced Father to help him build his own kish while Mother wept hysterically. They brought eight ten-foot long greasewood posts with wyes at their tops down from the hills. Six formed the corners and middle posts of the new kish while the remaining two supported the ramada. The ridgepole and two side beams were made of mesquite trunks that were laid horizontally between the upright crotches of the vertical posts. Crude rafters of smaller diameter mesquite crossed the roof skeleton while woven bull rushes and tules comprised the sides. When Qawish went up into Palm Canyon to get fan palm fronds for the roof he discovered that someone had torched the petticoats to improve the fruit harvest and clear out debris. He was forced to use the tules again to build the roof, but he swore to Suwet that he would cover it with palm leaves when they were available. Then he went up into the canyons himself every year to torch the petticoats and avoid the work. Such is the nature of fire at the hands of the Indian. He used it to make his life easier and to improve the productivity of the environment, which also made his life easier. Except in rare rainy weather, or when it was extremely cold, the family congregated under the ramada.
He found father out there one day instructing his first granddaughter in his version of their creation story. “Mukat and Tamaioit were twins who lived in the land of darkness. Eventually they tired of this and made light and created the earth to live on. After a while they decided they needed to make people, especially wives, because they were lonely. They formed their people out of clay. Mukat took his time and formed perfect people. Tamaioit wasted time and sloppily made imperfect people. They had parts in the wrong places and the eyes in their heads pointed the wrong way. Mukat’s people were dark while Tamaioit’s were light.” “How light, grandfather?” “I don’t know. I’ve never seen light people. Listen little one. After a while they got so busy creating plants and animals and all the good things of the earth that they forgot about Tamaioit’s sloppy light people. Mukat’s people populated the earth and he is out true creator.” “What happened to Tamaioit?” “He’s still around little one. When the earth shakes it’s him complaining that he doesn’t get enough credit and he wants the people to notice him more. Anyway, Mukat was generous towards Tamaioit on account of the fact that he got the short end of the stick. He let his brother have some of his good people as coyote people while he kept the rest as wildcat people. A mother and father must be one or the other.” “What’s Father?” “He’s a coyote because I’m a coyote. Children go to the father’s moiety.” “What’s Mother?” “She’s a wildcat because wildcat’s have to marry coyotes.” “And Grandmother?” “She’s a wolf and a badger, ruthless and mean.” Qawish’s father laughed and laughed and then looked up to his son and asked, “And where are you off to son?” “Los Coyotes. An initiation ceremony. I’ll be back by the new moon.” Mother, who had just come outside, caught the tail-end of their conversation and said, “My son, the big medicine man, doesn’t have time for his family anymore.” Father, acting deeply wounded said, “Our son has become a fine Pul and everyone wants to see his powerful medicine.” “I must be off. It’s a long journey. Look after Mother, and Suwet, and the children.” Father nodded in affirmation and said, “May Mukat speed you on your journey son.” Qawish looked to his mother who said nothing. She cried bitterly as soon as he stepped away.
Qawish was in high demand and performed at many Nukils. Father and Mother grew older and his wife wider around her hips, less beautiful in her face, but warmer with each passing winter.
His four children, two boys and two girls, brought him much joy and his life was filled with happiness until one night the fox barked and Father lay cold in the morning.
As was their way, Mother went back to live with her parents although her father was dead and her mother had one foot in the afterlife. Suwet could hardly hide her glee as she helped Mother pack and walked with her on the 31-mile journey to Torres Martinez. Mother cried every step of the way. As was their custom, it was up to Qawish to give Father a proper funeral and he burned his kish to the ground and another kish was never built on that piece of ground and the Cahuilla Nation mourned for a very long time.
He saw his sons marry and his daughters move to other villages. He cremated his wife in the year of our Lord 1419. Then the old medicine man went from village to village entertaining with his flute, casting out spirits, healing the sick, performing with hot coals. He knew more than anyone about how to use a great many plants. As proof of his big medicine he frequently shape-shifted into Bear, his old friend, as the people ran from the campfire. In the latter years of his life, among the Cahuilla, among the Luseno to the west, the Serrano to the north, the Diegueno and Kamia to the south, the Chemehuevi; and the Colorado River tribes to the east, Qawish was known for his powerful medicine and before he died, legend had it, that he was looked upon as the greatest medicine man of them all.
For that was the way that it was back then in the beginning. The vision that he had had as a boy haunted him throughout his years. The monsters always got closer but never too close, for Bear would always appear to protect him. Qawish died in the year of our Lord 1439. The horror of his vision was visited upon his grandchildren three hundred years removed. The Spaniards first rode past Palm Canyon Village in 1772 and Santa Rosa Village in 1774. They considered the land worthless and therefore concentrated on persecuting the coastal tribes to whom they taught Christianity at the tip of a whip. The Americans, my ancestors, arrived in the mid 1800’s and proved to be worst. The Cahuilla numbers were decimated by war and smallpox but they never succumbed. Historians say it was because of their physical isolation, but I say it was because of their hearts. In 1891, the United States government classified them as “Mission Indians” although they never accepted the mission system and its perpetual lies. Today they live on reservations that they begrudgingly accepted and were not forcibly corralled on to for they never would have stood still for that. Their ways are dying with each new generation though their numbers, in retaliation to continuing affliction, increase.
I often wish that Americans could somehow see how it was back then. The people lived on the land and respected it. Elders were held in esteem. Animals, in many ways, were equals. Indigenous plants provided food and medicine. They never took everything and when they did take something nothing was wasted. They coexisted with the natural world and never once thought to dominate it. Life was oftentimes hard in a harsh environment but it was also magical and wonderful, simple yet diverse, and always meaningful.
I can only hope that the spirit of Qawish and his people lives on, so not only the Cahuilla, but also all of us, can find our way back to the way that it was in the beginning.