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Viejas Birdsingers’ Gathering Shares Rich Traditions

An estimated crowd between 800 – 1,000 attended the 16th annual Viejas Birdsingers’ Gathering on August 16, 2014.

An estimated crowd between 800 – 1,000 attended the 16th annual Viejas Birdsingers’ Gathering on August 16, 2014. Tribal members from the north and as far as the southwest and Grand Canyon attended the event including: the Cuhuilla’s from Riverside, California; Cocopah’s from Arizona; the Hualapai and Havasupai from the Grand Canyon areas; Keowee’s from Martinez, California; Maricopa’s from Laveen, Arizona; the Mojave’s from Needles, California; Yavapai-Apache Nation from Flagstaff, Arizona; and the Quechan’s from Winterheaven, Arizona.

The day-long Gathering included a softball game; horseshoe tournament; bird dancing and singing, sharing meals, Peon tournaments and tribal booths. The tradition goes way back in the Kumeyaay history.

“The Viejas Birdsingers’ Gathering, like all of our gatherings, is a tradition to bring everyone together,” said Ral Christman Sr. who emceed the event. “The happiness, the cheer and sharing is like a rejuvenation of the land and a yearly cleansing and a celebration to give thanks for all that we have.”

Courtesy Kathy Foster

Ral Christman Sr. emcee of 16th annual Viejas Birdsingers’ Gathering.

Another focus of the event is for educational purposes. “For the older members it’s a time to reminisce about old times they used to have when they gathered together,” Christman said. “For young kids it’s a time to come out and take part as they learn from the elders, and then someday they can teach it.”

The Gathering is also the time when the event of crowning Miss Kumeyaay takes place. This year there were six contestants from various areas of the Kumeyaay nations. The winner was Toni Marie Dominguez from Santa Ysabel, California.

“This is the first time we’ve had a winner who has a parent from this side of the border and the other side of the border in Mexico,” Christman said. “The United States government split our tribe in half, so to this day we still have several Kumeyaay reservations south of the border. That’s where Toni’s father was from. He has passed on; and her mother is from Santa Ysabel. So, through blood, the Kumeyaay winners are representing both the northern Kumeyaay nations and also those of Baja California.”

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The Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians held their annual Yucca Festival Gathering in the spring. Christman explained the Yucca Festival is about the Viejas community and is a time of harvesting to get ready for the summer months. The Birdsingers’ Gathering – like the Pow Wows of other local tribes, Barona and Sycuan – is where they invite all communities on Kumeyaay land and tribes in the bird singing culture. Watching so many of the visitors on the Viejas reservation was very heartwarming and exciting to Christman.

“So many things were special,” he said. “When Miss Kumeyaay was announced, her friends and family came up to share in the celebration; and we saw communities from both the northern area and the Baja area come out and dance with her and all the past Miss Kumeyaay’s.”

Courtesy Kathy Foster

Visiting tribal women telling stories through hand gestures and bird dancing.

Virginia Christman, Elder, Past Vice Chairman of the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians, keeper of the tribe’s cultured past and mother of Ral Christman, is a vibrant leader of these traditional celebrations. A teacher of bird dancing, she was forefront in teaching and participating with women young and old throughout the day.

“Some of the dances are from a long time ago,” Ral Christman said. “The hand gestures of the ladies are re-creating a story that’s thousands of years old. In doing the dances, they are walking in the steps of past generations. This is a sacred tradition to re-create stories through the songs about our migrations, morality, animals and nature. It’s a giant metaphor for how we are supposed to act to each other, and kind of like a musical bible where there are stories and metaphorical and allegorical understandings; because it’s not written, it’s from oral our culture.”

Christman said it was exciting to see so many visitors from other tribes sharing in the Kumeyaay tradition. “Hearing or watching fast-paced songs talking about happy things; it was a great day. Our culture is really flourishing right now and coming back very strong.”

Courtesy Kathy Foster

2014 Miss Kumeyaay, Toni Marie Dominguez and other Miss Kumeyaay contestants.