Viejas Indian Village Eighth Annual
Bird Singers

By Roy Cook

Peon Tournament


This is perfect summer weather to look forward to meeting old friends in the cool of the evening. So often, in the past, we would look to the end of the day to rest and reflect on the accomplishments of the day and appreciate this special time to laugh a bit and step out of the kitchen or the fields to enjoy family and friends. The Viejas gathering location has shown much improvement and accomplishment over the past two or three years. It is now a fenced area to keep out the cows. The landscaping has helped tremendously in keeping down the dust. It is nice!

Many of the singers today and tonight were over to Palm Springs desert area singing again all night. Some from the Colorado River had their companions drive them over the mountain while they slept a few hours. Still they were glad to be able to socialize a bit in the daylight before they would be called upon in the arena. The circular pavilion arena is stoutly constructed but it was nice to see it traditionally roofed with willows.

Additionally it was strung with small accent lights that gave it a festive atmosphere later in the evening. Four bright floods brightly illuminated the dance competition grassy arena. In past years bonfires and hand held lights made do along with fifteen or more peon fires lit early for illumination. This day we can hear the large generator over on the side powering the amplification and lighting system and many of the vendor’s booths also had access to the power. I was complementing Marianita Sanchez on the improvements and her part in the presentation of the event. Just then she was called away to find the vendors table assigned to the Moore family from Ft. Mohave. He made good sounding and very well painted gourd rattles with traditional pottery and basket designs.

Formally, John Christman called upon Tribal elder Tom Hyde to provide the welcoming blessing and officially start the event. He then called upon Anthony Pico, Viejas Tribal Chairman for the next activity. Anthony emceed the proceedings as the Kumeyaay Queen 2004-5 Danika Cuero, from Campo, and her court: Jasmine Aloese and Silvanna Grijalva took leave of the title and the new 2005-6 Kumeyaay Queen Jasmine Aloese, from Jamul and her first attendant, Silvanna Grijalva were presented to the assembled family and friends.

Proceeding into the late afternoon, John Christman, Viejas Tribal Treasurer and Emcee for the moment, called upon one of the popular Bird singers, Wally Antone, from Parker, Arizona, on the Colorado River, to open the Bird singing. Later in the evening John was heard to tease the row of singers for singing, “Crazy songs, that will cause you to lose your wife and girlfriends!” Some time ago John taught a class on Bird songs and said, “Yuman song very often is generally labeled Bird songs. There are from 12 to 14 variations of the Yuman song style. Yuman or Bird Song singers are a vital element in the Kumeyaay custom and tradition within the local Native American social structure. Bird Singers occupy responsible roles. Traditionally, early in life, potential singers are introduced to established lead singers. During these associations young singers are evaluated to determine: commitment, capacity to learn, and qualities essential to group singing as opposed to individual performance.” We heard some favorite and intricate songs this evening.

There were some lovely and very serious young girls that formed a row of dancers for the singing. Age group categories of lovely Lady dancers and alternating Northern and Southern Bird singing styles allowed the selected judges to determine who was dancing to the song and who was maintaining the style most identifiable to their area or Tribal Band.

Along about seven in the evening John Christman announced to everyone that not only is it time to eat but the Viejas Band would also be providing a ‘midnight meal’ for all attending this event. Appetites were sharpened for the catered generous feast. Seating was provided ‘al fresco’ around tablecloth covered round tables. It was mighty good company, generous selections and very tasty.

More singers kept arriving along with Peon teams and their captains. Ral Christman was organizing the teams and every so often John would announce that Ral was still signing up the women and men teams for the night and morning matches. The Bird singing and dance competition was completed along about 10:30 in the evening and attention shifted to the peon playing area and bonfires and which teams would be matched up

"Peon" is a highly competitive game of complex strategy, skill and calculation. Peon songs are sung in the evening into the early hours of the morning. Often youth groups’ form into teams and start early in the evening and the adult trams competing organize and warm up well after midnight.
It is played with eight players - four on each side, with an additional man or woman to act as umpire (Koymi). The two sides are usually made up of male or female players from different tribes or bands. The object of the game is for one side to win all the tally sticks.

Much betting accompanies the game among both the men and the women. The game may be won in a short time, or it may - as frequently happens - prolonging itself through an entire night, until the early morning.

This night the stars in the sky were again clear and bright. Even though I have tried to count them many evenings back home in Arizona, especially sleeping outside in the summer, it would be foolish to try to wonder how many peon games these stars have gazed upon in this Tipai land. Mehan, Aho, thank you.