The Quechan Creation Story
John Peabody Harrington was an eccentric genius who worked as an anthropological linguist. From 1907 until his death in1961 he pursued single-mindedly the mission to record Native American languages and lore that was fast disappearing as elders passed away.
One of his first published articles was “A Yuma Account of Origins,” which was published in the Journal of American Folklore in 1908. Working with Quechan (or Yuma) informant Joe Homer, he recorded the Quechan creation story.
I will return to John Peabody Harrington’s life in future blogs, but for now I will give an edited version of the Quechan creation story from Harrington’s publication.
Under the water were two brothers who swam to the surface. The first to come to the surface was Kwikumat, who came up with his eyes closed. He told his younger brother to come to the surface with his eyes open. Because of this his younger brother was blinded. The Quechan call him Blind Old Man.
They set about to create people. Blind Old Man fashioned beings with webbed hands and feet. Kwikumat declared this was not good and he kicked the creatures into the water where they are found as the creatures that swim in the Colorado River. Enraged, Blind Old Man sank into the water, creating a whirlpool that emitted sickness.
Kwikumat had created a Quechan man and woman, a Kumeyaay man and woman, a Cocopah man and woman and a Maricopa man and woman. He taught them to speak and told them to marry and have children. However, the Quechan woman wanted to marry the Cocopah man. Kwikumát told her not to and Blind Old Man found an opportunity to try to get her to disobey Kwikumát.
Kwikumát became angry and caused a flood. He plucked the Cocopah man and the Kumeyaay man from the water and turned the Cocopah into a mockingbird and the Kumeyaay into a deer. The first Quechan man, Marxokuvek, was rescued as well.
Kwikumat created more people and he slept with the Quechan woman and she bore him his son Kumastamxo. Kumastamxo created the sun and the stars; Kwikumat had already created the moon.
Kumastamxo created plants, including corn, gourds, and melons. Marxokuvek made the coyote, the raven, the mountain lion and the cougar. Because they would not behave, Kwikumat created another flood.
Kwikumat created a rattlesnake which bit Marxokuvek. Kwikumat hurled the snake into the ocean where he grew huge. Marxokuvek died but Kwikumat taught the people how to heal him and bring him back to life. Kwikumat created more people, including a Mexican and a White and a horse and a ship, which he gave to the White.
Kwikumat was sleeping in his dark house with his daughter, Frog, when he offended her, as Joe Homer relates, by touching her private parts. She put a spell on him by swallowing his excrement. He died and the nonhuman persons, the animals, decided to cremate him.
However, they knew that Coyote intended to eat his heart so they sent him away to the sun to get fire to light the cremation fire. While he was away, Wren, who was directing the proceedings, told Housefly and Big Blue Fly to make fire by rubbing their feet together and with this they lit the pyre.
Coyote saw the fire and came running back to where the other nonhuman people formed a circle around the pyre to guard it from him. However, he jumped over Badger and Squirrel, the shortest ones, and grabbed Creator’s heart. He ran off with it and consumed it and went insane.
The nonhuman people did not know how to express their grief at creator’s death, pushing and shoving each other. The cicada taught them how to cry. They put parts of themselves into the fire. The deer, the bear, the jackrabbit, the cottontail put their tails in the fire.
In the ocean, rattlesnake hid. Kumastamxo sent for him, with the message that someone was sick and needed healing. He knew that they wanted to kill him but he felt the obligation to cure a sick person.
He came and poked his four heads into the Dark House and Kumastamxo cut them off with a stone knife. Rattlesnake’s blood became gold and his spittle became silver. Because it was unclean they burned down the Dark House.
Kumastamxo took his spear and pressed it into the ground and cut a channel, which became the Colorado River. He created his new Dark House at aviikwamé, the sacred mountain near what is now Laughlin Nevada. There he gave the clan names to all of the Quechan clans.
He gave each man a gourd and taught him to “throw the gourd” (shake it to accompany singing). He gave each tribe their place on the land. The Cocopah and the Maricopa attacked the Quechan and the Kumeyaay.
Marxokuvek grew sick and died. Another cremation was held like the first one for Kwikumat. This is how things are done today when a person dies.
Kumastamxo sank into the ground, then came out again and grew feathers, becoming the black eagle in the West, the high eagle in the East, the fish eagle in the South, and the white eagle in the North.
So goes the Quechan creation story is recorded by JP Harrington from the telling of Joe Homer. Joe was a member of the Methodist Church on the Fort Yuma Indian Reservation but he provided this story from Quechan oral lore. Similarly, Black Elk, who provided Lakota belief as recorded in “Black Elk Speaks,” was a lay Catholic preacher.
In other instances native belief was fused with Christian teachings. The teachings of Wovoka, the prophet of the Ghost Dance, is one instance. The Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico is another.
In my next blog I will recount the Luiseno-Juaneno creation story which may have been fused with Christian influences from the missions.