Wearing his trademark western style hat and holding his gourd rattle, his eyes close to concentrate. The rattle strikes out a steady pulse, then he begins to sing. His voice is clear but not extremely loud. It is the first in a series of over 100 songs that must be sung in order, usually from sunset till dawn. Seven melodies are used for the different songs in the Lightning series.
Singing all night long is a feat of memory and endurance that younger men would have trouble doing. The night I stayed up all night for the funeral of Preston’s grandson I was in an altered state approaching the spiritual. The sleep deprivation, coupled with the sensory overload of the singing put me in a quiet, contemplative frame of mind. I did not want to talk.
At one point on the long drive home from the reservation to San Diego I looked up at the ridge of the mountains ahead of me and saw a line of wind turbines that generate electricity. I knew that none were there so I looked away and then back again. They were gone.
I looked away and back and they were there again. Once again I looked away and when I looked back there were no wind turbines, but rather a row of power pylons that carry electricity across the landscape to the city. They weren’t really there either.
I told Preston’s niece about this and she laughed. “Now you know where visions come from,” she said.
When I hear the gourd singing that is done at pow wows and celebrations I get a warm quiet feeling. Experiencing them is a centering on traditional culture and spirituality.
Preston knows not one but two songs series, the Lightning Songs and the Pipá Songs. In a serious moment he told me that they call it the “ministry of Preston” when he sings at funerals. He does it as a service, not for the attention and adulation like other singers, but for the deceased and secondarily for the family.
His mentor, T`kai, had an attitude of service as well, not only singing but also curing and acting as an orator. He could sing for four nights, an indication of the abilities of that generation of singers.
To understand the song series you first have to know the Quechan creation story. Recorded in the early 1900s from the telling of Joe Homer, it is one of the first publications of John Peabody Harrington.
J P Harrington is the mystery man of California anthropology. For years he held a position with the Smithsonian Bureau of American Ethnology. He was seldom in his office, sneaking off into the field to record Native American languages. Usually no one knew where he was. Many times he didn’t even cash his paychecks.
He was on a mission, one that he pursued single-mindedly from 1906, when he began his field work with the Mohave, until 1961, when he died. His publications are few but their quality is top-notch. His real legacy, however, is his field notes which started showing up after his death.
The notes number 800,000 and have been microfilmed by the Smithsonian Institution. The microfilms can be viewed at some universities. Considering the devotion he exerted to record his notes he made little effort to preserve them. At his death bills from Bekin’s moving and storage company started showing up at the Smithsonian for the storage of the notes at various locations. Other boxes showed up from other places. When researchers started looking at what he had recorded they were dumbfounded.
He had taken down numerous Native languages and lore in those languages. Many times he had located the last few speakers of the languages to receive their knowledge before they died. That was what impelled him on his mission, the fact that the elders who kept this information were passing away.
While in the field he was almost paranoid about recording this information before other anthropologists could. He coded the names of his informants in his notes and jealously guarded their identities and whereabouts. He did not have a very good relationship with other anthropologists and had a fraught relationship with the Bureau of Ethnology. Despite his openness to Native American cultures he was very anti-semitic. He mistakenly thought that Alfred Kroeber, the other major collector of California lore, was a Jew and was prejudiced against him.
Harrington’s wife, Cairobeth, wrote a memoir of her few years married to him. The title, “Encounter With An Angry God,” referred to the fact that when she met him he seemed to her to be almost an angry god. As engaging reading as a novel, the book is our best source of information about Harrington, even though it paints a negative picture of him. By the time she divorced him she had fallen in love with one of their Chemehuevi informants, George Laird, who she eventually married.
Harrington was born in 1884. His mother was a teacher, his father a lawyer. He graduated with honors with an AB degree from Stanford. He declined a prestigious Rhodes scholarship to study in Germany. He never finished his degree and returned to the States to teach high school, recording Native languages on the side. In 1915 he was hired by the Smithsonian Bureau of American Ethnology and in 1916 married Cairobeth. They had a daughter, Awona, who became a librarian at San Diego State University. In 1923 he and Cairobeth divorced.
During World War II he was employed by the War Department translating documents from foreign languages. He proposed using Native Americans as code talkers. Whether it was his instigation or somebody else’s that began the use of code talkers in the Pacific theater is unclear. He resented having to suspend his fieldwork for the war.
After the war he returned to the field and retired from the Bureau of American ethnology in 1954. He left Washington DC to return to California to record more native languages. He was afflicted with Parkinson’s disease, a degenerative ailment and in 1961 his daughter found him in a hospital. She took him to her home in San Diego where he died. He was 77.
While working on a film about Harrington with Quechan filmmaker Dan Golding, I was able to locate two elders who had known him when they were young. One was Chumash elder Ernestine De Soto and the other was Jack Marr, his neighbor when he lived in Santa Ana. Jack died soon after we filmed him.
John Peabody Harrington made a lasting mark on California anthropology. His notes are being transcribed in some of the communities where he worked. In many instances this is being done by the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of his informants. They are being turned into searchable databases that can be used to revitalize Native languages. Despite his peculiarities, many Native people are grateful for what he saved.
A solid piece of scholarship, Harrington published “A Yuma Account of Origins” in the Journal of American Folklore. Preston wrote a script for an animated film that was never made based on the creation story.
Harrington recorded the Creation story from the telling of Joe Homer. Preston tells me that Joe was a member of the Methodist Church but opened up about Quechan spirituality with Harrington. Other Native persons have had involvement in both traditional religion and Christianity. Wovoka, the prophet of the Ghost Dance was one. Black Elk, from whom the testimony of “Black Elk Speaks” was another. The apparition of the Virgin of Guadalupe had Native roots.
The Quechan creation story goes like this:
Under the water were two brothers who swam to the surface. The first to come to the surface was Kwikumát, (also known as Kumát), 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. Kwikumát 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 emits sickness.
Kwikumát 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 him.
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, Marxokuvék, was rescued as well.
Kwikumát created more people and he slept with the Quechan woman who bore him his son, Kumastamxó. Kumastamxó created the sun and the stars; Kwikumát had already created the moon.
Kumastamxó created plants, including corn, gourds, and melons. Marxokuvék made the coyote, the raven, the mountain lion and the cougar. Because the animals would not behave, and fought Kwikumát created another flood.
Kwikumát also created a rattlesnake which bit Marxokuvék. Kwikumát hurled the snake into the ocean where he grew huge. Marxokuvék died but Kwikumát taught the people how to heal him and bring him back to life. Kwikumát created more people, including a Mexican and a White Man and a horse and a ship, which he gave to the White Man.
Kwikumát 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 myth of the dying god and his bewitchment by Frog, as well as the cremation and Coyote eating the heart are found in virtually all southern California creation stories.
At the death of Creator the nonhuman people did not know how to express their grief so they were pushing and shoving each other. The cicada taught them how to cry. They put parts of themselves into the fire just as today blankets are put in the cremation fire. The deer, the bear, the jackrabbit, the cottontail put their tails in the fire.
In the ocean, rattlesnake hid. Kumastamxó 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 Kumastamxó 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.
Kumastamxó 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, 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 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. This aligns with the historic alliances of these tribes.
Marxokuvék grew sick and died. Another cremation was held like the first one for Kwikumát. This is how things are done today when a person dies. Kumastamxó 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.