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The Kumeyaay celebration of winter solstice

Pictographs at Viejas Mountain, Cowles Mountain, La Rumorosa

The Christmas decorations came to Balboa Park the second week in November this year. Curious people couldn’t help but stop and stare at the strange sight of plastic reindeer dragging Santa’s sleigh toward the organ pavilion while people in shorts and T-shirts were lying on the grass, working on their suntans. Somehow the custom of Santa Claus, transplanted from snowy Europe, doesn’t come off so well here in semitropical San Diego. But then, neither does Christmas.

For many people, Christmas has somehow come to be the most feared and despised holiday. They groan when they hear the first Christmas song on the radio, and they cringe when they see the first colored lights on their block. Talk-show psychologists now talk routinely of the “holiday blues” and try to explain it as depression caused by unrealistic expectations — or simply wanting more than you can get.

But what exactly is it that we hate There’s the frenzied pace, and the hellish traffic. For most of us there are the financial pressures, the property taxes that are due, the endless social occasions, the office parties, the strained and often drunken efforts to appear merry — when all we really want to do is go home, put on some baggy clothes, and sit by the fire.

For many of us, the season is cluttered up with superstitions related to the birth of an almost-perfect man who started a now almost obsolete religion, halfway around the world, 2000 years ago — and who, at any rate, wasn’t even born on Christmas. We also have a nonsecular version of Christmas, which centers around the myth of a supernatural fat man, sort of the patron saint of the greedy, who, with his legion of slave dwarfs, fulfills everyone’s fantasies of wealth. Children love this version of Christmas — because we desperately want them to. If we didn’t have children to bribe with presents and sweets, there wouldn’t be anybody to ease our gloom.

But what really eats away at our guts at Christmastime is that we know, perhaps unconsciously, that the days are growing shorter and shorter, and colder and colder, the winter storms are becoming more frequent and more powerful, the nights are growing longer, and in some primitive comer of our brain we're afraid that that awful process will continue until the whole world is one cold, dark block of ice. In other words, we suffer from solstice anxiety.

Of course, science tells us that horrible death of the planet can’t happen, or at least that it hasn’t happened in a few billion years. But that same primitive comer of our brain warns us that science is the evil curse that gave us the atomic bomb, smog, DDT, and television. Science can’t be trusted.

What we lack at Christmastime, in this modem but still uncivilized world, is a way to know first-hand that winter — that dying of the Earth — has been brought to a halt. We need a ritual in which that primitive beast hiding in our cerebellum can see for himself that the winter solstice has arrived.

Aboriginal cultures all over the world knew what the answer was to this problem. The Kumeyaay, who lived in southern San Diego County and northern Baja, held a solstice celebration on the summit of Viejas Mountain. In 1914, Mary Elizabeth Johnson wrote an account of a Kumeyaay ritual on that mountain, and though the account doesn’t specifically say so, the ritual is thought to have been their winter solstice celebration:

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 pan in the ceremonies. Then, in that mystic hour which is neither light 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 buds over the course. When all had reached the summit, the ritualistic ceremonies began. With song and dance ... they watched for In’ya [Sun] ... flaming banners of crimson 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.

Today it only takes about an hour to climb to the top of Viejas Mountain. There is no maintained trail, but a good path has been beaten through the manzanita and chamise, and the route is well marked with coyote scat. From the top of Viejas on a clear day (that is, a rare day), there is a fine view of the ocean to the west and the Laguna Mountains to the east. Interstate 8 is also visible to the north, and Alpine lies just west. The summit itself looks directly down onto the Viejas Indian reservation, which was the site of the village Elizabeth Johnson wrote about.

In 1977, after reading Johnson’s somewhat romantic account of the Kumeyaay ceremony, Ken Hedges, the chief curator of the Museum of Man in San Diego, hiked to the top of Viejas Mountain to try to locate the old dance circle. What he found was both a disappointment and an exciting discovery. "The top of the mountain had been cleared in the recent past and totally stripped of rock,” he says in his calm, even voice. "Somebody had gathered up all the loose rocks on the summit and used them to build rock-lined footpaths and wind shelters. But going down the ridge, we found this rock-cross alignment." The cross was T-shaped and about three meters in length, and the rocks apparently had been in that position for some time. “Out of curiosity, we took the compass reading [of the direction the cross pointed], and we later discovered the compass reading was within one degree of pointing to the spot on the horizon where the sun rises on the morning of the winter solstice."

That spot on the horizon happened to be directly behind Buckman Peak, an easily recognizable pyramid shape in the distance. Apparently the Kumeyaay had selected a site on Viejas Mountain where their rock cross, the tip of Buckman Peak, and the sun would all be in alignment on sunrise of the winter solstice. Unfortunately, that rock cross has also been destroyed now by thoughtless hikers, but careful observers can still find the site where it once lay.

A second solstice site used by the Kumeyaay was located on Cowles Mountain. That site consisted of a rock circle bisected by a straight line of rocks. A compass reading, taken there by Hedges in 1978, showed that the straight line was also within one degree of pointing to the winter solstice sunrise.

The solstice indicator used by the Kumeyaay on Cowles Mountain might have been even more precise than the one on Viejas Mountain. “On Cowles Mountain, the sun comes up behind a natural rock spike on the horizon," Hedges says. “The spike is narrow enough to bisect the sun, possibly making the site accurate enough to identify even one day before or after the solstice ... but the site needs more observation. Somebody should go watch it for a week or more, before and after the solstice."

At the time the Cowles site was being identified, the Mission Trails Regional Park, which now includes Cowles Mountain, was being developed. Hedges warned the consultant hired by the county of the archaeological significance of the site, but the county determined in its report that “the site is felt to have little potential for public, special social, or governmental values."

Native Americans consider these sites sacred, even today. To put the county’s statement in terms of today’s culture, it would be like saying a Catholic church is of no importance to anybody. Not surprisingly, the ancient rock alignment on Cowles Mountain was completely destroyed, as Hedges has written, “... by a City of San Diego maintenance crew [that] cleared the nearly level top of the spur, creating trails, an open rest area, and vegetation islands which are now bordered by rocks which once formed the alignment."

Additional prehistoric sites for winter solstice observation are now being identified by archaeologists working for Anza-Borrego State Park, and Hedges believes we can assume that any Indian village of any size had a place where the people observed the winter solstice. “It’s important to remember," he says, “that they didn’t necessarily have to have ground markings, as long as they knew where to stand and they knew where to look on the horizon." As an example, he points out that in 1923, anthropologist Leslie Spier wrote of a Kumeyaay living near Campo: “My informant knows at which points on the mesa east of his house the sun will appear to rise at the solstices."

Because the position of the sun in the sky doesn’t change as rapidly during the solstices as it does during the equinoxes, there were several days — perhaps seven days — that were considered part of the solstice period. “A term that is accurate in California, and in aboriginal cultures all over the Southwest, is ‘the sun is in its home' — meaning they recognized that around the solstice time the sun came up in the same place for several days." In our own solstice celebration, the week-long holiday period between Christmas and New Year’s could be thought of as a vestige of the ancient way of celebrating the entire solstice period.

Some anthropologists have speculated that the precision of our modem calendars wasn’t necessary, or even useful, to aboriginal cultures, though we know they could have had very precise calendars if they had wanted them. "We don’t really know how much precision the Kumeyaay needed," Hedges says. “But if in years past they had observed that the sun was ‘in its house’ for seven days, then it would be a simple matter for them to determine that the precise solstice was on the middle day, say, the fourth day.”

Like other scientists, Hedges is cautious in making speculations about his work and the work of other professionals studying native cultures. He is a deliberate, gray-bearded man who spends his days working in the basement of the museum, in a large room that looks exactly like what a museum curator’s work space should look like: shelves of musty old books, clutters of papers and journals shoved back to make room for stacks of baskets and arrowhead collections.

But in spite of his professional restraint, Hedges doesn’t see any risk in speculating that the solstice ceremonies observed by aboriginal cultures served an important social function that we are lacking today. "The solstices are fairly obvious astronomical events that were observed by people all over the world as turning points in the year. The summer solstice not so much, but the winter solstice is always a signal of coming back from the cold and lifelessness of winter." When people went out together and witnessed with their own eyes that the sun had completed its journey to the south and that the slow death of the sun and Earth was now being reversed, that ritual helped ease tension and stress. Even though they knew there were still several more weeks of winter, the people knew for certain that the situation was getting better, not worse, and that release of tension made it easier for people to get along with each other during the most difficult time of the year. “It is the unequivocal demonstration that the sun has turned and is coming back. You can see it for yourself. That's the practical idea behind a solstice ceremony. It’s a renewal time.”

Our own uncivilized, nerve-frazzling new-year celebration Hedges describes as “very strange.... The purpose of the solstice celebration has been masked and lost, but then, there a lot of things we don’t have that aboriginal cultures had. Here in San Diego we see some seasons change, but it’s not like living out on the land where you can watch the trees change and the animals’ patterns change. You can no longer see the stars. We are very separated from the natural world."

In Baja California, about halfway between the towns of Tecate and Mexicali, and on the western flank of the rugged Sierra Juárez, is a broad, rolling upland covered with chaparral and pinyon pines. Before the intrusion of Spanish soldiers and missionaries in the 18th Century, the area was inhabited by Kumeyaay Indians, who lived on nuts from the forests of pinyon pines and on deer, which are still very abundant there. Today, the only town of any size is the quiet village of La Rumorosa.

In the 1930s, the hills surrounding La Rumorosa were surveyed extensively by archaeologists from the Museum of Man, but somehow they missed one very important site in a small valley several miles from town. That site wasn’t discovered by archaeologists until the 1960s, but it has now become one of the most important sites for the study of Indian rock art in the Califomias.

For many years, the meaning of the thousands of pictographs and petroglyphs left by native Americans across the Southwest has remained mostly a mystery. But at La Rumorosa, Ken Hedges, from the San Diego Museum of Man, and other archaeologists have been able to identify certain clues about the pictographs there that connect them to the ritual observance of the winter solstice. And that discovery has led to a re-evaluation of rock art all over the Southwest.

The pictograph site is located in a pinyon pine forest where there are perhaps 35 caves, or rock shelters, among a jumble of granite boulders. The largest of the rock caves sits in the center of a flat plaza and is nearly as large as a house. At first sight, the central cave, the plaza, and the surrounding forest and rock formations are startling in their stark beauty and mystery. It’s easy to see why Indians considered the place magical. Native Americans were keenly aware of the intangible and aesthetic qualities that make some places special — impressive rock formations, hot springs, lava flows, water found in an otherwise forbidding desert, unusual or very old trees. The rock caves at La Rumorosa have those powerful yet indefinable qualities the Indians were looking for.

There are many curious pictographs found at the site: strange half-human, half-animal figures with carefully painted fingers and toes; figures with three huge, bulging eyes; sun circles with rays of light emanating from them; ladders; circles with lines bisecting them. But what has become the most significant drawing of all is a manlike figure, painted in red, with human hands and toes, black eyes, and spiraling horns like those used by shamans to signify magical powers. Hedges has named it the sunwatcher of La Rumorosa.

“I can’t really say what it was about that figure that attracted my attention," Hedges says. “It is a unique figure — the precision it’s painted with, and the fact that it has those two little black eyes."

Later, people more superstitious than Hedges told him a “mysterious power” had directed him to the figure. He laughs at that notion but then says seriously, “Native Americans believe that if you went somewhere and found something, you were meant to. Who knows? I don’t make any mystical claims, however."

On a more scientific plane, what was happening in Hedges’s mind was the recollection of archaeological studies from all over the world that show an ancient fascination with sunlight and astronomical observations. He notes the studies at Stonehenge, in England, where stone pillars were erected to mark the movement of the sun throughout the year, and of an ancient tomb at Newgrange, Ireland, where there’s an opening over the door that allows sunlight to enter the chamber only on the winter solstice. Also, the pre-Columbian cultures in Mexico oriented their pyramids in relation to the sun, as did the Egyptians. Hedges explains: "When the archaeologists in Egypt moved the monuments that would have been flooded by the Nile, when the Aswan Dam was built, they were very careful to maintain the alignments to the sun, because on a certain feast day sunlight shined through the doorway and illuminated a statue of the pharaoh in the back chamber."

In 1975 Hedges and others observed that the orientation of the rock shelter at La Rumorosa would allow winter sunlight to enter the cave. On a hunch, they decided to return on a winter solstice to see what might happen.

In December of 1976, Hedges and a few companions camped at La Rumorosa for an entire week, beginning a few days before winter solstice and continuing until Christmas Eve. Every morning at sunrise, they got up to watch the play of the sunlight on the cave wall. The first two mornings, the sunrise was obscured by clouds. But on the morning of December 21, the sky was clear. The first light to enter the cave that day struck a bisected circle drawing; a second, spike-shaped ray of light traveled across the wall, pierced the face and eyes of the manlike figure, then grew to encompass his entire body; later, as the light receded from the room, a small patch of light filled the center of another bisected circle. This sequence of events took place only for a few days around the time of the winter solstice, then didn’t happen again for the entire year.

After Hedges reported his discovery, professional and amateur archaeologists began visiting rock an sites all over the Southwest to observe the play of sunlight during solstice periods. The evidence is now conclusive: many rock an sites were used by native Americans for observation of the summer or winter solstices.

It’s important to note that these "indirect observation sites," such as the one at La Rumorosa, are completely different from the “direct observation sites," like those on Viejas Mountain and Cowles Mountain. Direct observation sites were used for accurately determining when the solstice had arrived. The indirect observation sites, however, like the one at La Rumorosa, were used for ritual interaction, probably by a shaman, during the solstice period.

In 1986 an amateur archaeologist from Pico Rivera, John Rafter, made winter and summer solstice observations of a pictograph site in Riverside County known as Split Rock. The area surrounding that site was once inhabited by Luisefios, whose territory also included northern San Diego County. Like their Kumeyaay neighbors, the Luiseños routinely made observations of the night sky to help them decide the proper time for hunting and gathering of certain foods and the time for seasonal migrations. But the most accurate timekeeping, used for determining the time for ritual celebrations, was probably reserved for specialists, or shamans.

One of the most important events on the Luiseños calendar was the winter solstice celebration. We know this from an account written by a Franciscan priest, Geronimo Boscana, in 1822: “They [the Luiseños] observed with greater attention and celebrated with more pomp the sun’s arrival at the Tropic of Capricorn than they did his reaching the Tropic of Cancer for the reason that, as they were situated ten degrees from the latter, they were pleased at the sun’s approach towards them. Its return meant much to them, for it ripened their fruits and seeds, gave warmth to the atmosphere, and enlivened again the fields with beauty and productivity."

But we know from John Rafter’s observations at Split Rock that the Luiseños were concerned with the summer solstice as well. The center of Rafter’s attention was a circle drawing with 45 or 46 hash marks drawn on the perimeter. Inside the circle was another asterisk-like drawing. During the winter solstice, Rafter observed the light patterns in the cave make curious patterns near the circular drawing, but they did not touch it. On the summer solstice, however, he witnessed a dagger of light cross the circular drawing then fade to a single dot of light in the very center of the asterisk.

Since the Luiseños used an eight-month calendar, Rafter concluded that the 45 or 46 hash marks corresponded to the days of the month and that the Split Rock site was probably used by a shaman as a kind of timekeeper.

It has been speculated that perhaps the shaman went to the site before the winter solstice, observed a pattern of light that he recognized from previous years as being a pre-solstice indicator, and then was able to go back to his people and announce that the solstice celebration would be in 14 days, 7 days, or whatever.

Archaeologists and anthropologists are now studying the old ethnographic reports that were recorded by anthropologists 50 to 75 years ago and are trying to find parallels there with the rock art sites. John Rafter, for example, sees a connection between one ropelike drawing at the Split Rock site and a rope of hair or fiber that was used by the Luiseños in a boys’ puberty ceremony to “tie" the boy to the sky.

Of course, being able to demonstrate a connection between rock art sites and solstice or astronomical phenomena isn’t the same thing as knowing precisely what the rock art means. There are many curious elements to puzzle over. Ken Hedges has pointed out that the sunwatcher at La Rumorosa shows signs of ritual scuffing, as if the original observers were trying to harm the figure. What could this mean? Does the sunwatcher represent an evil power — or possibly winter itself — that the sun’s rays were being called upon to fight? Nobody knows.

Hedges believes, though, that if we want to understand rock art, or anything about aboriginal cultures, we’re going to have to leave our own cultural preconceptions behind. For example, archaeologists who first made interpretations of the astronomical sites in meso-America concluded that the people there had been doing scientific research, as if the ancient Americans were all working on their Ph.D. theses, just like the grad students studying the sites. “But we know now they weren’t doing scientific research,” Hedges says. “Their purpose was ritual interaction with nature.

"What people overlook is that in native American culture, the important thing is the power that is inherent in the place. Supernatural power can be used for good purposes — healing, for example — and that power will reveal itself to the individual in certain places. Rather than create the place of power, you discover the place of power — for example, the place where there are interesting light patterns on the winter solstice. And then you add your own ritual interaction, through paintings or carvings, or whatever, to try to obtain some of that power for yourself."

The result is the original, and perhaps only pure, art form. While today art has become an extension of the artist’s ego and has become a vehicle for acquiring fame and riches, the rock artist didn’t presume to create anything by himself. Rather, he interacted with the sun, the Earth, light, rock, and shadows to reveal the magic and beauty that was already there.

It’s probably inevitable that curious people today will want to find these intriguing rock art sites left by the ancient Americans, and that is sometimes a troubling thought, not only for archaeologists like Ken Hedges, but to native Americans as well. Many of the sites are still considered sacred, and in some cases there are still rituals taking place there. People on the Viejas reservation have talked about re-establishing the solstice site on Viejas Mountain for the purpose of a new-year ceremony. In central California, Yokuts and Paiute people have warned visitors to stay away from their rock art sites, or, if visitors wish to see sites on the reservations, they must ask for a guide to accompany them.

In many cases, though, the local Indians have lost or forgotten their connection to the rock art sites. In other cases, as Hedges points out, “It isn’t that they would object to people visiting the sites, it’s that they would object to any harm or depredations people might do there."

Some visitors to rock art sites have taken to leaving ritual gifts, such as tobacco, for the ancient ones. This is not a form of superstition, it is a way of showing respect for the culture and tradition, just as a non-Christian would remove his hat when entering a Christian church. This ritual act of leaving a gift helps establish the proper ethic for visiting rock art sites.

But there have been many more examples of looting and desecration. Some pictographs have been used for target practice by ignorant plinkers. The site at La Rumorosa has been pillaged by pot hunters, and the Mexican government is now considering placing a caretaker there to protect the site. After a petroglyph site in the Coyote Mountains, east of San Diego, was reported in an archaeological journal and then in a hiking guide, the place was almost immediately stripped of anything that could be carried away.

Looters of these sites usually don’t find much of monetary worth, but they destroy valuable archaeological evidence, and from the native American point of view, the desecrations are no different than the recent attack by skinhead punks on a synagogue in San Diego.

San Diego County, unfortunately, is the home of many looters and grave robbers who travel to Baja to “collect” artifacts — sometimes with the help of Mexican citizens — and smuggle the items back across the border. Often the looters don’t even know the significance of what they have, and their curios go from the living room mantle, to the back room, to the garage, before finally getting booted out with the trash.

Pictographs, which are painted onto the rock surface, probably don’t last more than 500 years. But petroglyphs, which are etched into the rocks, could last for thousands of years if they were properly protected. Probably the most effective step that could be taken to protect rock art sites would be the establishment of roadless areas on federal lands, and in state parks, like those suggested in Senator Cranston's desert wilderness bill.

Hedges believes that the vast majority of the people who visit rock art sites cause no harm — they’re just curious. Nearly every rock an site has a compelling beauty, and people are naturally attracted to it. To witness the strange power of the drawings is, in a way, getting some of that power for yourself.

Anyone who has seen a native American solstice site becomes more interested in observing the solstices for themselves, to know, as the Kumeyaay did, where the winter solstice sun rose on the horizon. Some artists and sculptors around the country, borrowing ideas from aboriginal artists, have experimented with creating sites for the observation of the solstices and other celestial phenomena. But anybody can do the same thing at home. Those people who feel the calling may be inspired to make sun drawings on their walls or floors to mark the light and shadows of the solstice sunlight and then watch throughout the year as the sun leaves and returns to its home.

Two hundred years ago, the Spanish priests who nearly wiped out the native culture in this area would have called this kind of behavior pagan witchcraft. There are Christian fundamentalists who might call it that today. But as our own Christmas celebrations become more and more bastardized, corrupt, and empty, it becomes more and more obvious that the celebrations of the Kumeyaay, and aboriginal cultures all over the world, were more connected to the Earth, were more relevant to the place where the people lived, and more beneficial to people’s emotional well being.

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