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Henry Rodriguez, La Jolla Indian elder, goes back up Palomar Mountain.

And fights for Luiseno rights to San Luis Rey River water

"Maybe your grandmother sat on this rock to grind acorns."
  • "Maybe your grandmother sat on this rock to grind acorns."
  • Image by Robert Burroughs

Nearly sixty years ago, when Henry Rodriguez was just a boy, he liked to walk from his home on the La Jolla Indian Reservation to the top of Palomar Mountain. Following the old Bailey Trail, which was the route his ancestors had used for hundreds of years, he could climb to the top of Paauw in just a couple of hours.

Henry Rodriguez. Sometimes, if the sick man had a lot to confess, Henry says the celexis could go on for two or three days.

Henry Rodriguez. Sometimes, if the sick man had a lot to confess, Henry says the celexis could go on for two or three days.

One evening Henry came home after spending a day on the mountain, and his mother asked him, “Did you hunt today?”

“No, Mom,“ he said. “I just slept under a pine tree.”

“Oh, that’s good,” his mother said. “Did you thank the pine tree?”

“No,” Henry said, a little embarrassed. ‘‘I don’t talk to pine trees.”

Driving up Highway 76 toward Palomar Mountain, Henry begins pointing out the boundaries of the La Jolla reservation. “It ends here by this fence, and it begins again here by this telephone pole.”

Driving up Highway 76 toward Palomar Mountain, Henry begins pointing out the boundaries of the La Jolla reservation. “It ends here by this fence, and it begins again here by this telephone pole.”

“Well, when you do, be sure to thank the pine tree’s little brother, too, or he’ll get jealous.”

“Mom," Henry sighed, knowing it was impossible to argue with her, “people will think I’m crazy if I talk to trees.”

“You just try it someday,” his mother said.

For the next few weeks, every time Henry went up on the mountain, his mother would ask him, “Did you thank the pine tree, today?” And the answer was always, “No, Mom.”

Finally, one day Henry’s mother asked him if he thanked the pine tree, and Henry said, “Yes, Mom, I thanked the pine tree today.”

And did you thank his little brother, too?”

“Yes, Mom, I went over and thanked his little brother, too.”

“That’s good,” she said. “Now I’m gonna tell you why you should thank the pine tree. You told me when you went up on the mountain, it was so beautiful, the pine trees smelled so good, the breeze was blowing and the pine tree’s branches were waving to you in the wind. The pine needles were all over the ground and you played on them. You saw the gray squirrels and the quail and the deer. You went to the stream and drank water, then you went back and slept under the pine tree, and you had good dreams.”

“Yes,” Henry said, “I did.”

“Well, that tree also provides us with the pitch we use to seal our baskets and to make our paint. You can eat the tips of the pine needles — they’re a little bitter, but they’re nourishing. The pine nuts are always there for you. If you get caught in a storm, look for where the deer sleep under the pine tree — it’s always the warmest spot. And if it’s snowing, look for some pine bark to make a lean-to; it will protect you.... So that’s why you should thank the pine tree. It will cradle you in its arms, give you love, affection, food, protection, and it will make you very happy, too.”

Now that he’s sixty-eight years old. Henry Rodriguez still talks to the pine trees every day. He doesn’t care anymore if people think he’s crazy. He talks to the sun. the wind, and the river, too, thanking them for all the things they've given him. But Henry has also learned to be a practical man. Henry talks now to senators, congressmen, bankers, college professors.... Henry will talk to just about anybody who can help his people and the causes he’s been fighting for most of his life.

Standing outside his home near Rincon Springs, about eight miles northeast of Valley Center, Henry is dressed from head to toe in powder blue, including a blue headband tying back his gray, shoulder-length hair. He’s a soft-spoken man, small and wiry, with a kind face and a confident presence.

He stares at the sky, trying to decide on the weather. After a hazy sunrise, the sky has begun to clear and Henry has decided to spend it on Palomar Mountain, just as he loved to do when he was a boy.

“I'm supposed to be taking life easy now,” he shrugs, explaining his attempt at retirement. It’s nine o’clock in the morning, and he’s already read the day’s stack of mail and made an appearance at the Plauma Tribal Center, where he serves as chairman of the San Luis Rey Indian Water Authority. Just the week before, he spent four days in Washington, D.C., wearing a business suit, representing the water authority. So for Henry, retirement has become something of a contradiction.

For a man who loves simplicity, Henry is full of contradictions. He’s a man of quiet dignity, known and respected on the reservations as someone who strives to practice the old Luiseño ways, yet he also sports around the countryside in a late-model Mustang with a white-straw cowboy hat in the rear window. He grieves over the loss of Indian culture and works to preserve as much of it as he can, yet his favorite night out is to drive into Oceanside and go clogging with a group of folk dancers. He scolds professors at San Diego State for an educational system that he says “stinks,” yet he advises young Indians to “get an education, at all costs.” He despises a legal system that has cheated and deprived his people for 200 years, yet he has learned in his lifetime to use and manipulate that system as craftily as any white attorney.

But Henry has learned to accept these contradictions as necessary for a modern-day Indian trying to juggle many conflicting roles. In some ways, his unique style has solved the Indian dilemma of how to retain their culture and still be part of the modem world. Henry Rodriguez has lived to become a tribal elder in the late Twentieth Century.

The home where Henry lives was built with his own hands. It’s a solid, handsome adobe structure, almost completely hidden in a lush forest of oaks at the end of a half-mile dirt road. The site for the home was once an Indian village. “My people called this place ‘Ahuya,’” he says. “It means ‘plenty.’ ”

After the secularization of the California missions in 1834, Henry explains, the Indians who had been converted to Christianity and forced by the Spanish to move to the Mission San Luis Rey were abandoned and told to return to their original villages. But the Indians who had never left the villages were aware that the mission Indians had been exposed to diseases, and they wouldn’t allow them to return without a period of quarantine. “They made them stay here at Ahuya for two or three weeks. The people would bring them food, and then when they were sure they were healthy, they’d let them return to the villages.”

Somewhere on the hillside above the house, a peacock shrieks. Henry shakes his head. “I don’t know what to do about those damn peacocks,” he grumbles. “I just bought a couple of them for my kids, and now there must be a hundred of them roosting all over the place, squawking and shrieking and raising hell.”

Driving up Highway 76 toward Palomar Mountain, Henry begins pointing out the boundaries of the La Jolla reservation. There are no boundary signs, but Henry knows the boundaries by heart: “It ends here by this fence," he says, then a little farther on, “and it begins again here by this telephone pole.” Most of the reservation land is brushy, steep, and rocky. It’s suitable for grazing a few animals, but not much good for growing crops.

A little farther up the road, Henry points out the place where he was born and raised, on a hillside overlooking a beautiful, grass-covered meadow directly below Palomar Mountain. His daughter lives there now. “See that rock over there?” he says, pointing to a white outcropping in the middle of the meadow. “When I was a kid, we used to put dry grass on there and use it for a slide. We’d just go zooming down! There was a cactus patch down below, and if you slid just right, you could go over it; but if you were chicken, you’d better bail out, ’cause you’d get a rear end full of cactus.”

Henry points across the meadow and says, “We used to have a sweat house back in there by that stream.”

The sweat house was used by nearly all native Americans, and for a number of purposes. It was a place for Indian men to gather with other men from the village and while away the winter days. It was also used before hunting deer (along with fasting) to cleanse the body of human scent. But in its highest purpose, the sweat ritual was used for meditation, spiritual purification, to bring knowledge and wisdom, and to prepare oneself for a difficult task. “A few people here still practice the sweat, but most of them don’t really know what it’s all about,” Henry says. “They just like the feel of it, like a steam bath. Sometimes a young longhair will ask me to teach him about the sweat, and I tell him when I use the sweat it takes me weeks to prepare myself for it. I’ll go up on the mountain to meditate and cleanse myself, physically, mentally, and emotionally. Then I’m ready.”

Alongside the road there’s a thick stand of white sage, a plant that played an important role in Luiseño initiation ceremonies. Most of those ceremonies had ceased by the time Henry was a boy, but Henry recognizes the plant’s importance, and he points it out. “My mother taught me how to collect the seeds from that plant. She told me, ‘You don’t have to starve, just a handful of these seeds is enough for a whole day.’ ”

Henry speaks with an unusual accent — a combination of the three languages he uses fluently: English, Spanish, and his native tongue, Luiseño. “All my grandmother talked was Indian, so we had to speak it at home,” he says. “Very few people today still speak it, though. A lot of the old people are gone, and the young people ... they just don’t seem to...His voice trails off in disappointment. “I don’t know, it’s terrible."

Luiseño is a member of the Uto-Aztecan language family, which includes the dialects of the Utes, Paiutes, and Shoshones. Of all the members of this large language family, the Luisenos are the only people whose territory extended as far as the Pacific Ocean. Their name for themselves, “Payamkuckhum,” means “westerners."

With fewer and fewer people who speak Luiseño, Henry finds it difficult to maintain his skill with the language. “Sometimes it takes me days to remember the right word for something. I start to forget. So once in a while I go up to the mountain and I talk to myself. I say, ‘This is a stone ... this is a trail.’ Just rattle on, mostly. To remember the words.”

From lack of use, the language has started to lose its vitality, which only makes its obsolescence even more likely. “So many of the things we have today aren’t in that old language at all. They didn’t have cars, so they didn’t have a name for that. They had names for the dirt, sky, wind, rocks, and trees.” Trying to give a name to an unknown item sometimes becomes very complicated and awkward. “ ‘Gasoline’ might be something like ‘the food that makes this thing go.’ The word for ‘cow’ was the same as the word for ‘meat.’” (Just thinking about this makes Henry laugh with delight — “When they looked at a cow, all they saw was meat!”)

As he drives by a cluster of reservation homes, Henry points out a curious sight: a 500-pound beast prancing through the gardens and driveways. “Somebody’s pig got out,” he says with a smile.

No conversation with Henry Rodriguez can go on for very long without returning to his favorite topic these days — his obsession, really: the San Luis Rey Indian Water Authority. In many ways, the story of the San Luis Rey Indian Water Authority is the story of the Luiseño Indians in the Twentieth Century. In the 1890s, the United States government created the five Luiseño Reservations — Pala, Pauma, La Jolla, Rincon, and San Pasqual — and relocated all the Luiseños onto those reservations. At that time, native Americans were considered to be wild, uncivilized people, and the U.S. government considered it their obligation to “civilize” them — in other words, to make Indians just like white Americans. At the turn of the century, the typical rural American was a poor dirt farmer, so the Luisenos had to become poor dirt farmers, too. That was why they were told to give up their old and highly developed skills as hunters and gatherers and relocate in the San Luis Rey Valley.

But almost as soon as the federal government had relocated the Luiseños, the government (in 18%) began entering into a series of contracts with the Escondido Mutual Water Company and the Vista Irrigation Company, selling them the water rights to the San Luis Rey River — the same water the Luisenos relied upon to irrigate their crops. Eventually, with the construction of the dam at Lake Henshaw and the pipeline to Escondido, the San Luis Rey River was left dry much of the year.

At that time, the Luiseños were fairly sophisticated in dealing with alien cultures, having been exposed to the Spanish as early as 1769; many of the people spoke English, Spanish, and Luiseño. Still, they didn’t understand the American legal system and, at any rate, had no faith in it. It didn’t occur to them that they had any choice but to stand by helplessly and watch the government steal their water. Little by little, what had once been a lush river valley, from the base of Palomar Mountain to the ocean, became dry brush land.

For the first fifty years of the century, the Luiseños languished in poverty. They had lost much of their land, much of their cultural identity, their means for supporting themselves, and, to some extent, their pride. Many of the young Indians left the reservations seeking a better life; many of those who remained were destroyed by alcoholism, poverty, and depression.

But in the 1960s, with the organization of the California Indian Legal Services — a federal program to provide legal counsel to Indians — the situation began to change. When the attorneys came and listened to the Luisenos, what they heard over and over was, “Our biggest problem here is that we no longer have a river." After the lawyers studied the old water contracts, it became apparent that the Luiseños had a good case, and in 1969 they went to court.

Twenty years later, the Luiseños are still in court. They have won more cases than they have lost, but it has become increasingly obvious the only way the matter of the water rights to the San Luis Rey River can be settled once and for all is by the intervention of Congress. A bill giving the San Luis Rey Indian Water Authority fifty percent of the water of the San Luis Rey River, as well as damages for the years they were deprived of the river, has now been approved by the Senate and is waiting approval by the House.

“What it amounts to,” Henry says, “is we’ve been getting screwed for so many years, this is our way of getting back what is owed to us.... That's what I mean when I tell young people today, ‘Use the system. If you don’t like what the federal government’s been doing to you, then sue them for breach of contract!’ ”

Henry Rodriguez has been instrumental in establishing the San Luis Rey Indian Water Authority, and he now serves as its chairman. His frequent trips to Washington to lobby for the water authority have been successful in attracting the support of Senator Alan Cranston, Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, and Congressman Ron Packard of Carlsbad.

If the bill is approved by Congress, the water authority will sell some of its water, which will bring in revenue of about two million dollars per year, to be divided among the Luiseno tribes. “The funds,” Henry says proudly, “can only be used for economic development – to bring jobs to the reservations. They can’t be blown by some tribal council who knows what.”

It’s no accident that Henry Rodriguez has arrived at the position of authority and respect he is in today. In some ways, he has spent his whole life preparing for it. He was born on the La Jolla Indian Reservation and went to high school in Fallbrook, where he graduated in 1938. After spending four years in the military service — from 1941 to 1945 — he came home and went to college at San Diego State. Though Henry didn’t find college to be an ideal experience for a young Indian, he continued his education until he was within six units of graduation. Henry then spent a few years working in construction, building adobe homes and learning the manual skills he still loves to practice. Besides the home he now lives in (and several other homes in the county), he used his expertise with adobe to help the people on the Pauma reservation build their tribal center from adobe bricks made at the construction site.

Then, in the early Sixties, after raising five children (and after the death of his wife), Henry was chosen by the government to go to Arizona State University to attend a program sponsored by the Office of Economic Opportunity to train native Americans to organize economic programs on Indian reservations all over the Southwest. After the completion of his training, Henry spent several years traveling to reservations in Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, and California. “In one or two months, I would hit every reservation in the state of California,” he recalls. “Sometimes I got escorted off the reservation because the people just didn't understand. Three or four years later, I’d be welcomed back with open arms and an apology.”

That job was a unique opportunity for Henry to learn firsthand about many different Indian cultures. He saw that the similarities between Indian cultures were greater than the differences. He also saw that the survival of these cultures was dependent upon economic opportunities. If the people hoped to remain on the reservations, where their cultures could thrive, they would need jobs, schools, and health programs. It was Henry’s responsibility to help the tribes establish an economic base to pay for these necessities.

“I loved working for those people,” Henry says of the Office of Economic Opportunity. “They were so dynamic. When I would ask my supervisor, ‘When do you want to see me again?’ he’d say, ‘When you’ve got some answers for me.’ ”

Eventually, Henry returned to the La Jolla reservation, where he served on the tribal council and became tribal chairman — both elected positions. It was through Henry’s persuasion that the La Jolla reservation built the campground and water slide below Palomar Mountain, on the San Luis Rey River. Those popular improvements now provide income for the reservation and employ up to seventy people on a seasonal basis. ‘‘The whole idea is to develop whatever resources we have that are feasible and economical and still keep the land the way it is.” Other improvements Henry sees in store for the future are horse trails and stables, a bottled water business, fruit orchards, and possibly a rodeo grounds.

One improvement Henry does not want to see on the reservation is more housing. “We look at what’s happening outside the reservation [in San Diego County]. There’s no space. The land is overloaded. There are too many people.... They talk about growth, and slow growth, but what I see is calculated ignorance. We don’t want that happening here.”

As the highway begins to climb into the pines and cedars, Henry seems to relax a bit, and he eases into a more philosophical mood. He stops at a long, beautiful meadow on the Mendenhall Ranch. “One time I brought some kids up here,” he recalls. “First we stopped down below and built a fire. I told them, ‘Smoke yourselves in front of the fire like the people did in the old days, so the mountain will accept you with a good clean soul.’ I told them how in the old days all the villages had their own acorn-picking grounds on the mountain. I took them up the hill and showed them the mortar holes. I said, ‘Maybe your grandmother sat on this rock to grind acorns.’ Before we left, each one of the kids wanted to sit on the rock, just the way their grandmother had. I showed them some of the games we used to play, and I told them some of the old stories. They just couldn't get enough that day.” Henry still makes frequent appearances at local elementary schools, where he’s a popular speaker and storyteller.

After thinking of the children, Henry begins recalling stories of his own childhood. “One day I was throwing rocks at a little bird, and my mom said to me, ‘Don’t do that!’

“I said, ‘Mom, if that bird is dumb enough to let me hit it —

“ ‘No!’ she said. ‘You don’t understand. You threw a rock at that bird and missed him. He stopped, and you raised your hand to throw again. But for that one brief moment, you hesitated. In that moment, that bird held your life. He could have destroyed you! He gave you that moment to decide if you really wanted to kill him. He gave you a chance to fall on the right side, or the wrong side — whichever way you were going to fall. If you were a smart boy, you would thank that bird for not destroying you and for giving you that one brief moment.’ ”

This simple but mysterious lesson given by Henry’s mother is related to the Luiseño belief in Chinigchinix — the avenger. Very little is known about the Chinigchinix tradition today. The so-called authoritative account of it was written by Father Geronimo Boscana, a Catholic missionary at San Juan Capistrano from 1812 to 1826. But Father Boscana, in his missionary zeal, disapproved of what he considered to be a competing religion, and he often scolded the Indians for practicing their traditional beliefs. So it’s no wonder the Indians confided very little about their beliefs to Father Boscana, or anyone else.

Henry explains, though, that the Luiseños believed there was a kind of justice in the world, that people were accountable for their actions, and if they did wrong, the avenger, Chinigchinix, would punish them through the actions of other people, animals, spirits, or even inanimate objects.

“A long time ago, there used to be a little restaurant at Rincon Springs,”

Henry says. “I was sitting there eating my lunch one day, when I saw this little old man coming down the trail. I knew who he was, and I asked him to sit down and explain to me about Chinigchinix.

“‘Well,’ he said, ‘it’s kind of hard, but I’ll try.... You saw me coming down that trail when I was wa-a-y up there. You knew who it was, you know my horse. I also saw you sitting down here eating your lunch, and we did not have to worry about each other. But suppose when I came down that trail, I said to myself, “There’s that jugheaded Rodriguez. He thinks he’s so —“ I was thinking bad things about you. Maybe my horse would have stumbled. Then you would have said, “Ah, that old man must have been thinking bad about me.”

“‘Then, suppose when you’d seen me coming down the trail, you were thinking, “Here comes that old bastard - You were thinking bad about me. Then maybe you would have choked on your lunch, or something else might have happened to you, and I would have known you were thinking bad about me.... Well, that’s Chinigchinix, the avenger, reminding us in a mild way to think good of each other.’ ”

At the state park, on the western slope of Palomar Mountain, Henry gets out of the car to take a walk along one of the trails to an old Indian campsite. As he meets strangers along the trail, he greets each of them with a smile, a kind word, and sometimes even a pat on the shoulder. The strangers respond to this small, animated, gray-haired Indian with immediate affection.

“I love it up here,” Henry says, breathing the fresh air. “It makes me feel good just being here.”

On a clear day, the view from Palomar Mountain encompasses Point Loma to the south, San Clemente Island to the west, and Dana Point to the north. Today the view is a bit hazy, though Henry, who at sixty-eight doesn't wear glasses, has no trouble picking out the landmarks on the La Jolla reservation, four miles below.

When he arrives at the old village site, located on the edge of the ridge and under a canopy of oak trees, Henry begins pointing out the acorn-grinding holes in the rocks. “Look at them!” he says, his face lighting up with excitement. “They’re everywhere! Can’t you just imagine all those people sitting around here all day long, gossiping, gossiping.”

Henry collects a few of the fat acorns, splits them open, and nibbles at them. Some of the acorns are sweet enough to eat, but most of them are bitter. The leaching process for making the acorns edible was a long and tedious one. Like so many of the Luiseños’ customs, it has fallen out of use and is on the way to being forgotten.

Walking around the old village site sets Henry to thinking about the many Luiseño customs and ceremonies that are no longer practiced: the initiation ceremonies (one for young men, and one for young women), the funeral ceremony, the clothes-burning ceremony, the eagle ceremony. Henry is quickly becoming one of the last Luisenos to have witnessed some of these ceremonies. He says he doesn't recall enough of the songs necessary to perform them himself. “It’s all gone,” he sighs. “The young people never learned them. It's over.”

One of the most interesting Luiseño ceremonies was the celixis (pronounced “chela-heesh”), a kind of public confession. Henry believes the last one was practiced about 1928, and he remembers it like this:

An old man at Rincon had been sick for a long time. He just couldn't seem to get going again. So he went to the village head man and said, “There's no reason for my illness. Physically, I'm all right. I just can't function like I used to. Maybe it’s in the mind, I don’t know. Maybe there’s something I’ve done that’s caused me to be this way.’’

So the head man let it be known that on a certain day the celixis would be performed for this man. Everyone in the village had to make an appearance at the ceremony — if anyone was absent, that person might be suspected of causing the man’s illness.

On the day of the ceremony, when all the people were assembled, the head man said, “All of you know this man. You know he’s been sick. He doesn’t know what’s causing his illness, but perhaps it’s something he’s done to hurt somebody. If so, he doesn’t want it to be that way.”

Then the sick man looked to one person in the crowd and said, “I don’t know why I'm sick, but maybe it’s because one day I stole some corn out of your field. You didn’t know about it then, but I want you to know I was the one who did it.”

“Thank you for telling me,” the man replied. “I knew somebody was taking my corn, but I didn’t know it was you. If you needed that corn for food, it’s okay. But whatever the reason, I forgive you for it now.”

The sick man said, “Thank you. I feel better for having told you.”

Sometimes, if the sick man had a lot to confess, Henry says the ceremony could go on for two or three days. Besides petty thefts, there might have been marital infidelities, witchcraft, or simply thinking ill of a neighbor. Whatever the confession, the person who had been wronged was forbidden to seek revenge. The person giving his confession might allow himself to be whipped or verbally abused during the ceremony, but if anybody tried to seek revenge on him after the ceremony was over, the whole tribe would turn against him to the extent that he would be better off leaving the village.

This ceremony was so useful in reducing tension and suspicion in the community that the obvious question is. Why isn’t it practiced on the reservations today?

“I think most people have forgotten how it went,” Henry says. “Also, I don’t think the peer pressure is here anymore to counteract the revenge. As soon as the sick man made his confession, the wronged man would be thinking, ‘So you’re the sonofabitch who took my com.’ The next time he had a chance, he’d do him under, nobody would punish him for taking revenge, and the law might even protect him.”

Henry considers it a tragedy that so much of his culture has been lost, but in his typical optimistic way, he believes that by maintaining his closeness to the land and to the place where he has lived all his life, he, or anybody else, can still acquire the knowledge and wisdom of the past. “Sometimes I would ask my mother to explain to me things I didn’t understand. She would never tell me much, it won’t do any good to tell you now,’ she would say. You won’t know how to use it.’

“She spoke in such simple words, but I couldn't understand them in those days. I would say, ‘But Mom, you’ll be gone someday, and I won’t know these things.’

“And she would say in her own Indian way, it doesn’t matter if I’m here or not. Wisdom and knowledge is here for everybody to use. If you want the knowledge, it’s gonna come to you, because it’s been here for hundreds and thousands of years.’

“I believe that today, and I try to live that way,” Henry says, “so the knowledge will come to me. I’ll be driving along somewhere, and all of a sudden I’ll understand — that’s what my mother meant!’’

Being on Palomar Mountain somehow puts Henry Rodriguez in touch with his past and with his future at the same time. In one breath he speaks about his mother and the wisdom she tried to pass on to him, and in the next breath he speaks about school children and the tribes’ plans for their future. There’s something very Indian about that. Even with all the changes Henry has seen in the Twentieth Century, he still has a feel for the old Indian way of looking at the world.

“When my mother left us, she was very old,’’ Henry says. “Some of us started crying, and she said, ’Isn’t being born beautiful? You plant a seed, and you see it grow. It blossoms, then dies.

People been dying for millions of years, who are you to think you can change it? That’s wasted energy, worrying about death. Just accept it!’

“That’s how the old people taught you,” Henry says. “A lot of them were like that. They taught you that the person you have been all your life — people will know you for that.

“Now I’m sixty-eight years old, but I enjoy life more than I ever have. I can taste it, I can feel it. It has meaning. It feels good.”

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