Animals in the Kumeyaay World

The place of animals and plants in the Kumeyaay universe and cosmology is integrally linked to the people themselves.  For the Kumeyaay there was a time when animals and humans were much more closely aligned, animals talked and possessed more human characteristics and human held more animalistic traits.  Unlike most Western societies and culture, the animals and insects of the Kumeyaay world possess special powers and values well beyond their size, physical attributes, or plumage.

Similarly in ancient Kumeyaay mythical times plants and trees talked, moved around, and even warred with each other.  The purpose of this chapter is to transcend the common description of plants and animals as food sources.  Their importance as food, as clothing, and as shelter cannot be overstated but of equal, if not more importance is the way in which the humans and the plants and animals interacted and how collectively they form the world, the cosmos.

In the mythic, ancient time what we now know as humans, or more correctly as mortals, did not exist.  The world was inhabited by animals and by animals who were humans but not mortals—these were the Early People and some creatures could embody traits of what came to be known as the mortal humans and animals.  Only later in time, much later did the separation grow between animals and humans and at that time the humans became mortal—although their spirit or soul might be immortal.

The following narrative is based on past ethnographic works where animals were mentioned but usually only in passing or within a specific topical discussion—not as important elements of a culture in and of themselves.  Archaeological reports that make reference to food sources and the study of faunal remains are not considered in this document.  

The overall goal of the current study is to provide a preliminary analysis of the role and place of non-human creatures within the world and cosmos of native peoples of the study area.  The various creatures are of the land, the ocean, the lakes, and the sky—they are not bound to soil as are most humans.  

In terms of organization classes of animals that served several functions or for which there are multiple stories, i. e., birds, these creatures are discussed as to their role. Animals that carried a very special place as major players or agents such as Animals as Shaman and Animals as Transmitters of Knowledge are discussed within topical headings.  While there may be an occasional overlap or redundancy, the goal is to make the discussion useable and friendly to the reader and researcher. For emphasis the noun for animals has been capitalized as means of calling out the specific animal but also because in the stories and songs as transcribed by early researchers the convention was to capitalize these important creatures.

The role of animals in the native world is multi-faceted but often overlooked.  Serving as a food source (such as deer) does not preclude the animal from have spiritual powers or from having special attributes.  With few exceptions animals small and large, powerful and meek, on the ground or in the sky appear as a near constant in the native world.

A good example is the Red Ant (chemilly) who was present at the time of creation and according to the Southern Diegueño creation story when Yokomatis surfaced from the waters he placed his hand on land and found red ants.  He pushed them below the ground and the more that he pushed them underground the more earth they dug up until they formed the lands of the Kumeyaay.  In the creation story, the common fly (mechhaapuuly or meshaapuuly or shampul, Tuchaipai gave humans three choices regarding death and mortality,  

Also present at the time of creation was the Badger (Mehwaa or mejwápikuyak) an important animal who appears in several Kumeyaay dances and bird songs.   In a flood account told by José Espinosa the badger was told to make a hole in the ground.  [Need more on this] In the creation story the mewhaa came to earth with Tu-chai-pa the creator while his younger brother Yokomatis brought a swift (a small bird).  Tuchaipai tried to convince Yokomatis that the mewhaa was really his animal, Yokomatis refused to accept it in trade for the swift.  Disgruntled, Yokomatis went underground leaving the creation of the earth to Tu-chipai.

Wild Cat is a particularly important animal because he was made by the Creator and his brother.  In the beginning of time there were two Wild Cats (Gifford 1918:169). A red one nimikumwal, who went to live on the east slopes of the mountains and a blue Wild Cat nimikuspil who went to the west slopes.  The Imperial Valley people are thus red Wild Cat people and the Kumeyaay on the western slopes and towards the ocean are blue Wild Cats.  For the Tipai Wild Cat is considered to be a culture hero who “raised” them.  It is Wild Cat who first told the people the names of the months and divided up the year (Gifford 1918:169).



Coyote plays many roles in Kumeyaay tradition and culture; as a trickster for certain but also as a friend, as a creature with knowledge unknown to humans, and as a source of prophesy. In a story recorded by Dubois in 1904, Coyote takes time out of his daily routine to play stick ball with the humans before he goes to fetch wood for his new born human children.  Torrie Burch Miskwish said that Coyote still comes out and dances with the people and sometimes sings with them (Carrico 2015: Burch Interview at Campo).  This interaction of humans and animals is not an unusual event given that human and animals occupied the same spaces far more in the ancient times—at times coyote and other animals are interchangeable with humans.

Animals are known to have power and knowledge that they sometimes offer to share to humans—but they must be asked.  As Junior Cuero noted, “Animals are teachers, we must listen to them, they have a lot to share.”  According to an early story recorded by Dubois, Mai-Hâ-o-witt, a mysterious being, was asked by a messenger to help the people (the First People) make a ceremonial dance for their dead god, Tu-chai-pa. At this time the people did not know the dances and songs that they learned later.  He came to Wik-a-mee, a sacred mountain near Newberry Mountain, in the form of an immense Serpent and shared his songs. DuBois wrote that in 1907 his trail was said to still be seen in a white line embedded in the mountains that border the Colorado River.

Other mystical and supernatural events took place at Wikamee.  Dubois wrote that “…”near the river at Wik-a-mee, below Mohave, is a smooth round plain,” said her interpreter. “The story is that all birds and animals and people had to run around the edge of this mesa holding their breath. The Eagle is the only bird that succeeded in making this circuit, flying swiftly and steadily. Indians still try in vain to run around this mesa holding their breath.” The Eagle is held in such high regard that according to Kumeyaay elder Stan Rodriquez, their feathers are not used for arrow quills.  Each clan or sib “owned” one or more Eagle nests to ensure that each group would have the Eagle when needed for the Eagle Dance and would have feathers for special occasions (Almstedt 1968; Curtis 1926; Kroeber 1925; Waterman 1910).