Kumeyaay Look to the Sky

Astronomy

The Kumeyaay cosmological landscape includes the earth, the ocean, and the skies above; in some ways there are no beginnings or ending to these worlds, they blend and flow together.  As Mike Mishkwish Connolly who contributed greatly to the following discussion has noted in his recent monograph Maay Uuyow: Kumeyaay Cosmology, it is impossible to separate Kumeyaay knowledge of the skies from their overall concept of their universe.  Constance DuBois noted in 1906 that “The Diegueño [Kumeyaay], living in a land of crystalline atmospheres were star-gazers perhaps beyond other Indians.”  Of course this is the case because the sky and the heavenly bodies were made by Tu-chai-pa.  He raised the sky from its previous resting point on the earth and formed an arc above the Kumeyaay people.  Then he made the Sun to light the way and to chase away darkness when it was time to do so.

Stars, Planets, and the Moon

For the Kumeyaay everyone could be an astronomer and while some men and women might know more about the skies, all Kumeyaay shared an understanding of the majesty of the outer world.  Within the sky world there are several important constellations and individual stars/planets that hold particular meaning for the Kumeyaay.  The sky itself is known as Emay or Umi.  The Sun is Inyah or Inyaha, which means white light or bright light.  The word for moon is Hellya but the full moon is Halya, and the new moon is Halyaxai as shown on an elaborate sand painting constructed by Maces and Waters in 19xxx.  For many clans the August Moon held special importance because it shone down on the fire dancers at that time.

ipai-ground-painting

IPAI GROUND PAINTING DEPICTING THE UNIVERSE

There are different glosses for the word “star” including Mesap and Kwenmessap.  Stars are in the heavens and in the sky above but sometimes they can come to earth or be brought to earth.  In the Chaup story the two brothers Cuyahomarr reach into the sky and pull stars from it to cover their bodies so that they would look like shining stars.  This allowed them to fly above and past some people they feared and go unmolested in search of their wives-to-be.  

Chaup is often associated with a fiery fireball crashing across the heavens.  As the elder son of Sin-yo-hauch, Chaup has his own song that can run as long as 100 verses.  He possesses great power and appeared so dramatically in August 1906 that the Los Angeles Times took note of his presence.  The anthropologist Constance DuBois saw first-hand the glory of Chaup in 1906 while she and her Kumeyaay consultants Ysidro and María were studying the night sky.  

In one Kumeyaay story Chaup early in time sat down to rest at a mountain behind Cuyamaca and took note of the sun striking its rocky hills first in the morning and last in the evening.  Chaup believed this to be a special place and named the mountain Well-ka-loo-chees. Besides resting in the Cuyamacas, Chaup also lives at times in a cave in San Pasqual Valley; sometimes at night, sometimes during the day.  This location several miles west of the San Pasqual Battlefield site is known as Shawp (Chaup) nyawa according to Harrington, meaning “Chaup his house.”  Harrington’s consultant, Isidro Nejo made it clear that the cave was a power spot; no Kumeyaay would stay in this cave not even for a night.

Kwellyap miwan or Venus is an important celestial marker for the Kumeyaay life cycle.  Kwellyap miwan has an eight year cycle as a morning and evening star and is one of the dominant lights in the sky.  The Kumeyaay word means lazy star and may refer to the slow cycle of the planet.  The Kumeyaay as well as the Aztecs and Mayan clearly understood the cycles and movements of Kwellyap miwan .

Constellations

Amu or ‘Emu (Mountain Sheep) are three bright stars within the western world’s Orion. Amu is an important indicator of both the winter solstice and the fall equinox.  On September 21st Amu is straight up and Leo rises before dawn. According to Mike Connolly Amu rises in a highly prominent position on the evening of the winter solstice and may have been a more accessible.

emu

Amu or ‘Emu (Mountain Sheep) Moves Across the Sky

marker of the movement of the earth given that sunrises in the latter part of December can be obscured by morning clouds associated with the marine layer and fog.

According to a story told by some Pai Pai women and also by Isidro Nejo in circa 1925, Amu rises first in the sky and pursues the beautiful young women in Hatca (Hutcha) otherwise known as the Pleiades.  Nejo told J. P. Harrington, “He must be in love with those girls” he chases them so.  The lovely girls in the sky Hatca (Hutcha) that so captivate Amu are known throughout many civilizations of the world as the six or seven sisters and in the western world as the Pleiades.  Connolly identifies them as the six laughing girls.  

Hat-tat-kurr, meaning back bone or spine, known to many as the Milky Way is splayed across the sky like a gossamer veil and played a role in the girls’ initiation ceremony.  A kwapaay would draw Hat-tat-kurr on the ground before the dancing ritual or it might also appear in a sand painting.  According to Cinon Methuir (Duro) who is pictured below, failure of a girl to execute the dances correctly could lead to a broken spine or back, a symbol of Hat-tat-kurr’s displeasure.

cinon-methuir  

CINON METHUIR (DURO)

Awi

Rattlesnake

5

Awi

Rattlesnake

4, 5

Etcekurlk

Wolf

6

Katckurlk

Wolf

15

Xatca

Pleiades

7

Hatca

Pleiades

17

Namul

Bear

8

     

Nyimatai

Panther

9

     
 

Cross Star

10

     

Sair

Buzzard Star

11

Sai-r

Buzzard Star

12

Xawitai

Grass or Blue garter snake

12

     

Xilkai-r

Red Racer Snake

13

     

Awiyuk

Gopher Snake

14

Awi-yuk

Gopher Snake

19

Watun

Shooting Constellation

15

     

Amu

Mountain Sheep 3 stars of Orion

16

Amu

Mountain Sheep

16

     

Xatatku-rl

Milky Way

6

 

Manuel LaChuso Santa Ysabel

 

Halyaxai

New Moon

8

     

Halya

Full Moon

9

     

Inyau

Sum

10

     

Hatapa

Coyote

11

       

Crow

13

     

Xatatku-rl

Black Spider

14

     

Awi-ni-l

Black Snake

18

           
       

Ant Maces & Jo Waters

 
       

Mesa Grande

 

 

COMPARISON OF THE CONSTELLATIONS DEPICTED IN TWO EARLY 1900s SAND PAINTINGS

As shown on the table above, Awi is a prefix for snake in Kumeyaay and snakes play a major role in sand paintings, cosmology, and in the sky.  Awii, the rattlesnake is associated with the constellation Draco.  Western cultures visualize a mythical dragon while the Kumeyaay clearly see a rattlesnake.  According to some sources the constellation Ci’i is associated with Buzzard or with Turkey Vulture and contains Yung-ah-vish (Altair). Shaii or Sair is also a Buzzard with Spica forming a point on the outer wing, Porrima the center or body and Zavijava the outer point on the other wing.  In Western cultures, Spica is one element of Virgo.  One the table above Sair or Sai-r is shown on the two sand paintings and is known as the Buzzard Star or Buzzard constellation.  This constellation is prominent in December and may have been used along with the sun to mark the coming or arrival of the winter months.

We will never know how many Kumeyaay astronomical observatories and celestial markers once stood as sentinels on the land.  Early ethnographers rarely ventured far from settlements and villages (Constance DuBois and J. P. Harrington are notable exceptions) and thus took little note of rocks and monuments on distant hill and mountain tops.  In the region Viejas and Cowles Mountains both had solstice observatories on them constructed of stacked stones from which the observer could watch the rising sun peek out over a distant hill or mountain.  In the case of Viejas Mountain the distant marker is Buckman Peak.  Sadly both the Viejas and Cowles Mountain stone monuments have been destroyed by ill-informed thoughtless people.

morning-sunrise

WINTER MORNING SUNRISE SOLSTICE FROM VIEJAS MOUNTAIN

(Courtesy Ken Hedges)

 

In addition to architectural features used to mark astronomical events some rock art served similar purposes.  Rock paintings at Vallecitos de La Rumerosa are perhaps the best known.  At this important heritage site a ray of sunlight crosses the face of a small red figure at sunrise on the chilly morning of the winter solstice in December.  

Cĭlủk is described by Spier as “an arc of stars with a secant of three larger ones.”  According to Gifford this constellation may be Scorpio or more likely Leo.  Connolly associates Leo with Esally meaning the hand.  The hand rises before dawn on the Kumeyaay New Year (Halakwol) which is September 21.  At that time Emuu is straight up and the fall equinox begins.  Scorpio or Shuluk forms the constellation known as lightning and its rising harkens the summer solstice (Halapisu) on June 21.  Scorpio is a boy with a bow and arrow and his tale is told in a lengthy story.

sun-watcher

THE SUN WATCHER TELLS OF THE BEGINNING OF WINTER

Important calendric dates are associated with several stars and constellations including: Betelgeuse (July 15); Vega (December 22); Antares/Nu-ku-lish (January 21); and Altair/Yung-ah-vish) (February 10).  The risings of Nu-ku-lish and Yung-ah-vish along with Ay-luch-a (Venus) and Hat-tat-kurr are important verses in a song that details looking to the east to see familiar stars and planets as they are reborn on a yearly cycle.