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Viejas Keeps Native American Culture Alive

A Native American band is able to keep their Native American culture alive thanks to its gaming facility.

The 20th anniversary celebration of Viejas Casino on September 17 was a community event that heralded the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians’ pride and accomplishment. The premier gaming facility in San Diego County has birthed economic success for Viejas and the community at large.

The Viejas Band, one of the 12 remaining bands of the Kumeyaay Indian Nation, envisioned that their casino in Alpine, California could open doors to success, and it has. They give an estimated $2 million a year in philanthropic donations to community groups, schools, service and civic organizations, and charity events, and employ more than 12,000 people in their casino, bank, hotels and outlet center.

The Viejas Band endeavors to uphold its traditions and several of them were incorporated into the week of celebration festivities. The tribe’s philosophy of giving back was put into action on September 13. Over a 14-hour period more than 4,000 Viejas Casino guests were treated at the Harvest Buffet to a free meal in thanks for their patronage throughout the years. Viejas tribal members and council members showed their sincere thanks by serving the meals themselves.

“Viejas Casino was one of many firsts,” said Robert Scheid, Viejas public relations director. “It was the first casino in California, formally established on September 13, 1991 and ushering in an exciting era of tribal government gaming in California, which has provided world-class gaming, entertainment and dining to hundreds of thousands of people from California and beyond.”

On September 17 there was an official ribbon cutting ceremony at the front doors of the casino to commemorate the 20 years. Viejas Tribal Chairman Anthony R. Pico’s welcoming comments substantiated that the band’s heritage, tradition and journey to this moment was as vital as their business aplomb that has brought 51,346,910 casino visitors over the years.

“There was a time when we were steeped in poverty, and we were stunned at the compassion and love that you all gave us,” Pico said. “Because living in poverty you’re removed from the rest of society. We had a feeling that everyone was against us until we created our own destiny, and when we did you stood abreast with us and walked with us into the sun. For that we are forever grateful, and with your help we’ve been able to pull ourselves out of poverty, send our kids to school and again be the proud people we were thousands of years ago.”

Next was the traditional sage smudging by Viejas’ former vice chairman and tribal culture leader, Virginia Christman. Pico explained the ritual. “The smudging blessing is a cleansing ceremony that rids us of negative emotion and negative energy. From our perspective the joy and electricity it creates causes us to be in the frame of mind of goodness and forgiveness of one another.”

After the smudging blessing several Viejas Bird Singers began their chants. American Indian nations of Southern California have continued to embrace bird songs that started with early tribes as a part of Native American religious and spiritual ceremonies and events. Drawing from the world around them, the bird and its activity became the symbol of social gatherings to sing and dance and also mark the importance of rituals. Males of the tribes sing and shake their rattles while the women dance to the rhythms.

Pico said this is an important tradition of the band. He recalls how he, tribal members John Christman, Ron Christman and Leroy Elliott, chairman of the Manzanita Band of Kumeyaay Nation in Boulevard, California—24 miles from Viejas—sought to learn the songs as young boys.

“I remember bird singers from the Quechan Nation in Yuma would come to Viejas and sing all night at wakes,” Pico said. “I knew this older man, George Hyde, who lived on the Manzanita reservation and asked him to teach me the songs, but for years he would say, “No more Indian, no more bird songs, no more Kumeyaay, all gone.”

Years later Pico figured a way to get Hyde to record some of the songs. Pico then gave Ron Christman and Elliott discs of the songs for them to learn. The three of them were often asked to do the bird singing at other tribes and were instrumental in keeping the tradition alive. John Christman was 8 years old when he started learning the songs.

“He was a genius in music,” Pico said. “He learned to speak Spanish, is fluent in the Kumeyaay and Cocopah languages, and I believe is the last of the bird singers who knows the songs all the way through.”

John Christman said bird songs helped him learn a lot of other languages. He also understands that the tradition of singing—whether at funerals or weddings—is definitely connected to the business side of the Viejas Band. “The songs tell us where we were and why; and their strength has helped us stay together as a family that’s turned our lives around for a better future for us all,” he said.

Ron and Virginia Christman’s son Ral is yet another generation learning the songs from his father. “To me these songs are the best forms of music,” said Ral, who earned a college degree and now teaches history at a local high school. “And I can learn these songs because of the success of our casino. Before gaming, our tribal members who had jobs often didn’t even have cars so many had to walk long ways to get to work. Our gaming success now gives us the time to practice our culture, and not lose it, but pass it on to future generations. For that I say thank you to my tribe, and now I can teach my three sons the songs of their ancestors.”

Once the bird singers finished, the ribbon across the Viejas Casino entrance was cut and the tribal council officiated the cake cutting. The Viejas’ Kumeyaay traditions of giving back, sharing with their neighbors, the smudging blessing and Bird Singing were only part of the anniversary festivities that continued throughout the night. There were VIP receptions, dessert treats for everyone at the casino and a giveaway of a 2012 Corvette, won by Maria Teresa Magpantay Dull of San Diego.