Perceiving, Experiencing, and Expressing the Sacred:
An Indigenous Southern Californian View
Louise V. Jeffredo-Warden
As an indigenous southern Californian I have been asked to convey to you, in the next twenty minutes or so, something of my feelings for the sacred. What this means to me is that I will also be conveying to you something of my peoples' interactions with, and membership within, the natural world.
I would like to begin by discussing the actions of one of my antecedents, a young Shoshonean woman named Toypurina who on the evening of October 25, 1785, led a revolt against the priests and soldiers of Misión San Gabriel Arcángel.
Attest my elders: at that time, the mission was in a state of fluctuation and vulnerable to attack. Its oldest structures (established in 1771) were located at the outskirts of what is now Montebello. To some extent supervision of this site was maintained (structures of the mission were damaged or washed out by floodings along a segment of the San Gabriel River, but economic activities continued there) while its newest structures, located at the present-day site of the San Gabriel Mission, were still under construction (in 1774–75, the Spaniards moved their mission to what is now the city of San Gabriel, but construction on some of the principal structures there did not begin until 1790).
It would take much more time than I have here today to tell you what we know of Toypurina's life and this event. I will just summarize by saying that Toypurina, sister to a hereditary chief, was viewed by the Interior "Gabrielinos" as the wisest member of an elite stratum of persons known for their knowledge, power, and extraordinary intellectual and spiritual abilities. Though only twenty-four years of age at the time, Toypurina, with the assistance of ex-neophyte Nicolas José, organized an attack on Mission San Gabriel in which several lineages and villages of indigenous southern Californians participated. In so doing, Toypurina earned the distinction of
becoming the only Native American woman in the colonial records of Alta California said to have led a revolt against the Spanish mission system.
By all accounts, Toypurina's actions in this event have been described as unsuccessful because she and her associates did not succeed in overthrowing the mission; nor did she manage, even, to escape capture by the Spaniards (she and ten others were seized on the night of the attack).
Yet historical sources (both written and verbal) relate that Toypurina was an extremely intelligent and gifted individual—one surely capable of deducing the risks (cannons and muskets, for one) involved in attempting to overthrow the mission. Toypurina was also an individual with great personal power and social distinction. What this means to those of us with knowledge regarding particular roles and statuses in traditional Shoshonean societies is that Toypurina likely had social, moral, and religious obligations that far outweighed those of the common individual of her time—or of our time, for that matter.
Let me ask you, each one of you: Would you risk your life for an oak flat or river?
In January of 1786, Toypurina essentially stated during an interrogation for her supposed crimes that she had done as much, having fought for her traditional homeland. When asked, under the very real threat of torture, why she had organized a revolt against the Spaniards, Toypurina replied " . . . for I hate the padres and all of you, for living here on my native soil . . . for trespassing upon the land of my forefathers and despoiling our tribal domains."
Perhaps I should not attempt to envision Toypurina's beliefs surrounding the chances of her revolt succeeding, but I do—each and every time I visit the locales she sought to protect. And just as I was told, I tell my daughter: I do not think Toypurina actually believed she could win this battle, one of many waged against the mission since its establishment. Rather, I believe—as perhaps other Native Southern Californians with a knowledge of their traditional religions would—that Toypurina perceived this battle to be one for which she had an inescapable spiritual and moral responsibility to undertake. Indeed, even after her capture and interrogation Toypurina continued to fight to the best of her ability, enduring solitary confinement until she was baptized in 1787 and forever exiled by the Spanish from her homeland, probably in the year 1788.
I have summarized these features of Toypurina's story—long preserved through the folklore of indigenous and Spanish descendants alike—because I feel Toypurina's actions speak volumes regarding our views of the sacred, of the relationship, traditionally, that indigenous southern Californians had, and to some extent still have, with the natural environment. I have also related portions of Toypurina's story to emphasize the fact that for hundreds
of years now, Interior and Island "Gabrielino" peoples have been decrying and battling ecological destruction at the hands of invaders to our traditional homelands, on the offshore islands now called Santa Barbara, San Nicolas, Santa Catalina, and San Clemente, and in the regions presently contained in what are now called Los Angeles, Orange, and (parts of) San Bernardino and Riverside counties.
I spent the first eight years of my life in Montebello, being raised but a hop and a skip from the original site of the San Gabriel Mission, next door to an adobe that had once belonged to my great-great-grandfather, Don Juan Matias Sanchez. The former rancho where this adobe (now a museum) is located was called La Merced, and a good portion of the Río Hondo (a tributary of the Los Angeles River, the provider for life in the region) flowed through it.
I played in that river's wash—what was left of it—when I was a child. Sometimes, my father would try to tell me how much the river had changed since he was a child and had played there, too. But the pain engendered in my father by those discussions seemed so great that I understood, even then, when his voice trailed off and he dropped the subject altogether.
The subject of the River. The subject of the Sacred.
There is a seriousness and power in talking publicly about this subject, about our relationship with the natural world, that generally overwhelms me. How can I possibly explain to you something my own elders, my own father, could not explain to me?
When I was a child, I don't think a day passed that my father did not admonish me to feel, to become aware of, my nativeness. That blood in me, he would constantly remind, was special. Like many other indigenous persons, he believed that with it would come a certain sensitivity and sensibility, the very thing that, despite my lightness, would distinguish me from the majority; would empower me in ways I would grow to recognize. So many times was I to hear this that, one day impatient for this knowledge, I put my father to the test. "So explain to me what's so special about being Indian," I insisted. "Teach me, tell me, all the great things you've learned from your Indianness!"
I watched my father search himself. Seriously, and I think with a little sadness at my ignorance, he looked at me, just quietly looked at me. When he did decide to speak he said, "I can't explain it to you, Louise. It's not something anyone can explain. One day you'll feel it; one day you'll understand." Pointing to the southern California soil beneath our feet, he again reminded me, "It's just good to know this is home, and has been so for thousands of years."
By this time my immediate family had moved to a very rural area of north San Diego County, to the outskirts of Fallbrook (located within the traditional territory of some of my grandmother's ancestors, the "Luiseños"). I
had trouble acclimating myself to Fallbrook, so different was life there from my days in Montebello. But at the age of fourteen or so, I stopped to look out over a small ravine that forever changed me. It was a place that, over the years, I had passed practically every day.
When I was small—and against the wishes of my parents—I liked to play there, exploring the intricate coyote trails, looking to spy wood rats high in the trees rimming the creek's edge, listening carefully for snakes. There, while admiring the soft hues and pungent aromas of the pale summer brush, while playfully tracing Coyote's distant trails with my finger, I was suddenly stopped by the question: "Who, before me, also stood here to contemplate this place?"
That must have been the jackpot question, the one the First Ones found acceptable before revealing themselves to me, for that connectedness my father so often spoke of, that power in being and in being one home in one's homeland, suddenly rushed my senses. Now my grandmothers and grandfathers were all about me, I could feel them all about me—in the sand, in the brush, in the rocks among the brush. Now there was not only beauty, but sheer, overwhelming sense in that ravine—in all its components, both physical and spiritual. The ravine, as well as my place within it and within this world, I was beginning to understand. But the beginning to that understanding did not come without my first achieving a greater recognition of and appreciation for the subtleties in the every day, in the environment of my every day.
There is a Native Southern Californian story, which I think appropriate to tell here, about Coyote's flagrant immaturity and egoistic belief that he was the most superior of beings—just the handsomest, strongest, cleverest, fleetest of all:
Coyote liked to hound River for a race, so much so that River finally gave in one day. "Okay," she said, "We'll race." So Coyote took off and he ran, and he ran, and he ran, and he ran until he couldn't run any more, and he stumbled and he stopped and he fell. And when he turned to look at River, he saw that she was still running.
So you see, Coyote didn't understand his place in relation to everyone and everything else. He learned that, no matter how hard you run that race, you can't beat the natural order. There's just no getting around fundamental ecological principles.
Although this is a Gabrielino story in origin, I believe its sentiments are such that it could have originated among any one of the Native Southern Californian nations: Chumash, Island "Gabrielino," Juaneño, Luiseño, Cupeño, Diegueño, or Cahuilla, to name but a few.
Understanding one's place in relation to the physical and spiritual world
of which we are a part necessarily entails understanding the interconnectedness of all beings, of all life and matter, inanimate and animate. It entails nurturing a holistic way of thinking about and seeing this world, a way in which seemingly unrelated factors and relationships are effectively brought together in experience and thought.
This way of experiencing, thinking and seeing our world is, of course, well evidenced in indigenous southern Californian religious traditions. In particular, Luiseño songs contain metaphoric elements which have been referred to as "ceremonial couplings." A ceremonial coupling is a pair of words that, when spoken or sung together, evoke or reference particular reciprocal relationships, often ecological or co-evolutionary in nature. For example, the cyclic coupling Suukat[*]Kwii la—the Luiseño words for deer and Black Oak acorn—at once symbolizes our spiritual and material relationship to these First Ones (for both deer and acorn were favored, principal foods for us), as well as S uukat's relationship to Kwiila (for acorn is also a favored food of deer). Like the elements of any ecosystem, the words of a coupling are viewed as inseparably interconnected; they therefore cannot, appropriately, be sung apart. As the late Luiseño elder Villiana C. Hyde often explained to me, to separate a coupling means "you're not making sense. "
That underlying sense I believe our elders often refer to—and that I have briefly addressed beginning to discover in my own story about the ravine—is also evidenced in the everyday topics and organization of our discourse. I am thinking about how my elders generally refrain from telling about their lives in a linear or sequential fashion, and often relate incidents back to back that may not initially seem to share a relatedness. But I have learned to contemplate such story pairings in much the same way as I have the ceremonial couplings in our songs: as metaphoric avenues through which our elders articulate, teach, and reinforce the balance and cyclical interrelationship in power and being, in elements—aged and young, human and non-human, female and male, spiritual and material—of this world.
Each time I hear my elders' stories, I find new lessons in them. That is because the poetry of our elders, when taken to heart, when planted and nourished within, grows. In the myriad circumstances of our lives, new meanings and understandings continually branch and blossom. There are times when these branches are sharp, startling lessons, and there are times when these branches meander a while before making their point, or their connections to other branches, known to us.
Yet in the indigenous southern Californian community, we do not learn from our human antecedents alone. We learn, as well, from those who came before us all, from the First People: the insects, animals, mountains, hills, valleys, rocks, minerals, plants, trees, sands, soils, and waters. When our behavior is improper, greedy, or destructive, the First Ones teach us, ultimately,
by not assisting us in our efforts to meet our needs: by decreasing the shortand long-term resources available to us all.
Long before Europeans had a scientific inkling regarding the beginnings of human life on this earth, my ancestors knew we were not the first to inhabit this planet. Given that they often referred to mountains and other geological formations produced over thousands and thousands of years as their ancestors or elders, my ancestors probably also had an accurate feeling for the relatively short time, in comparison to many other entities, human beings have inhabited this earth.
Only in this century has the dominant Western world begun to investigate what our oral traditions attest my ancestors, thousands of years ago, had a complex understanding of: the ultimate relatedness of all life on earth, and the indissoluble energy continually creating, constituting, and flowing through the universe, all life, and all systems of life support.
More than two centuries have passed since Toypurina confronted the Spanish for torturing her relatives—the land and all of its inhabitants, including her people. I hope when you consider the life choices that she made, you will bear in mind that many of the species and ecosystems she fought to protect are either gone or gravely threatened today.
Although "California is home to more plant and animal species than any other state," writes Sally Smith, it is also "the epicenter of extinction in the continental United States, with more than twice the number of federally listed endangered species as any other western state." And as Tim Palmer has noted: "It seems that the plunder of almost everything in California's natural world is up in the 80 percent or 90 percent bracket: Pacific Flyway wetlands, 96 percent gone; native grasslands, 99 percent gone; wilderness, 80 percent gone; riparian woodlands, 89 percent gone; salmon and steelhead, 90 percent to 100 percent gone; valley oaks, 98 percent gone; and all major rivers but one dammed at least once."
You have asked me to speak about my feelings for the sacred. In return, I urge each one of you to consider these statistics, and to ask yourself: Will the majority of Americans continue to crazily run, as did Coyote against River, or will they heed the lessons of our elders, the lessons of the First Ones? Will they collectively catch their breath long enough to start making sense?