by Albert Simonson
Many cultures have observed with ceremony the winter solstice on December 21, and local Indians were no exception. As migratory food gatherers, they needed to know when it was time to migrate to distant places to harvest each resource. It was a matter of life or death.
Stone alignments and a dance circle on Viejas Mountain and Cowles Mountain show that the local Kumeyaay people observed the winter solstice. This is the turning of the sun which is probably the origin of diverse festivals of light which have accumulated into the winter holiday season as we know it.
For a local indigenous festival of light, we now reprint an account given by noted Kumeyaay elder Maria Alto in 1914 (see note, below). This is a timeless tale of beauty and wonder. It is not imported from anywhere else.
Long before Kwut’ah Lu’ e-ah (Song-Dance, or Viejas, east of El Cajon) mountain fell into the hands of See-i (Evil One), the Indians made a pilgrimage once a year to its very top to watch In’ya (Sun) come out of En-yak’ (East), and praise and honor him with song and dance. For In’ya (Sun) was the great Ruler of All Things. He governed the universe; he commanded the earth, nothing grew unless he caused it; he even dominated the bodies of men, some of whom he made energetic and strong, others weak and lazy. When he disappeared at night he cast a drowsiness o’er the world, so that everything slept until it was time for him to come again in the morning. Such a great ruler as he, received due reverence and worship.
For many preceding moons the young Braves prepared themselves for the race which began the celebration of Kwut’-ah Lu’ e-ah (Song-Dance). They ate no meat while in training for this event, and daily they bathed and rubbed their bodies with Cha-hoor’ (Clear Rock). This crystal made them light on their feet like animals, so they could jump over high boulders and run with the swiftness of deer.
When the time came, everything was in readiness. The big circle on top of the mountain had been freshly prepared and cleared for the dancers and singers. The aged and feeble, with the small children of the village, had been carefully carried up there the previous afternoon, that they might be on hand to take part in the ceremonies.
Then, in that mystic hour which is neither night nor day, the able-bodied ones made the ascent. Last of all, after the others had reached the top, the runners came; swiftly they vied with each other over the steep trails – some so fleet they seemed to fly like birds over the course.
When all had reached the summit, the ritualistic ceremonies began. With song and dance in the blushing dawn, they watched for In’ya (Sun), Ruler of All. Opalescent streamers of golden radiance and flaming banners of crimson flaunting across the pearly tints of the receding night, heralded his arrival; while the people chanted songs of praise in honor of his wonderful light, and made obeisance in the dance in homage of his great power over all things.
Year after year this celebration took place till See’i (Evil One) grew envious, and cast a spell over the mountain; then the Indians feared to make the ascent any more.
One or two foolhardy ones made the attempt, but they found the trails tedious and wearisome. The springs of water by the pathway were poisonous, and frightful noises like the hissing and rattle of snakes pursued their footsteps, and they gave up in despair.
So, though the old trails are faintly discernible and traces of the ring where they danced and sang still remain, no more does the red man swiftly ascend Kwut’ah Lu’e-ah (Song-Dance) mountain to watch In’-ya (Sun) come out of En-yak’ (East) in all his glory.
Note: The December 25, 1913 Daily Transcript supports the story by Maria Alto: “The Conejo Indians began a four-day fiesta at their reservation eight miles from Alpine today. All of the old Indian customs will be observed and many people will witness the strange ceremonies.”