Two Myths of the Mission Indians of California


AUTHOR: A. L. Kroeber

What are today known as the Mission Indians are those Shoshonean and Yuman peoples who occupy the portion of southern California which lies between the principal mountain ranges and the sea. Our knowledge of the mythology of these people is derived from two very different sources.

The first goes back a century, and consists of the brief but invaluable account left by the missionary Boscana of the beliefs of two groups of Indians in the vicinity of the Mission San Juan Capistrano. The second source is a series of articles by several authors published in the most recent years in this journal.

The mythology of the Mission Indians is ethnographically of interest because it is of an entirely different type from that of the Indians of the remainder of California. It bears certain resemblances to the traditions of the Indians of Arizona and New Mexico, but has also much of a distinctive character. This is the more remarkable because while the culture of the Indians of certain parts of southern California, such as those of the Santa Barbara islands on the one hand and those of the Colorado valley on the other, was very different from the culture characteristic of California as a whole, that of the Mission Indians was much less specialized.

In general status of civilization and social conditions the Mission Indians were certainly not markedly different from the Indians who inhabited the central and northern parts of the State. Ethnographically they stood much nearer these people than they did to the Pueblos and the less settled tribes of the Southwest.

Over the greater part of California the most important myth is a more or less full account of the creation. The creators may be one or many, human or animal. They make the world, its mountains and waters, make or acquire the sun and moon, create plants and animals, mankind, and often give to men their principal religious institutions.

The culture-hero, who brings culture to men but is not responsible for the existence or workings of nature, scarcely appears. Beyond the account of the creation, the myths of California consist of stories of the adventures and experiences of individuals, sometimes human and sometimes animal. A favorite story is that of the deer children whose mother was killed by the bear, and who in revenge killed the children of the bear and then after a hazardous flight and pursuit were finally saved. It is stories of this type that make up
the bulk of Californian mythology outside of the creation. Migration legends are entirely lacking.

In southern California there is no creator. Generally heaven and earth are regarded as the first beings, or at least the first concrete existences, and they produce the principal objects of nature, plants, animals, and mankind, by a simple process of generation.

The people move in a body under the leadership of a great hero among them who is not more than semi-divine. Only after a time do they break up, or are separated by him, into tribes. This hero becomes sick through the shamanistic operations of his enemies, especially the frog, and, after for some time expecting his death, he dies.

The customs and especially the religious practices of the tribe recounting the tradition are instituted either by him or by a second leader. Most of the fuller accounts give two such leaders, Ouiot and Chinigchinich among the Shoshoneans of San Juan Capistrano, Matevilye and Mastamho among the Yuman Mohave.

Besides this account of origins, there seems usually to have been also some form of migration tradition in which the movements and experiences of the people, or of several bodies of people, are recounted. Such a tradition is very fully developed among the Mohave. It has never been obtained among the Mission Indians, but parts of the relation of Boscana make it clear that something similar, though possibly in briefer form, must also have existed among these tribes.

The non-creation myths of the southern California Indians are also different from those in the north. While often quite simple in plan and not essentially different from the northern tales recounting the adventures of a hero or a pair of heroes, they are enormously elaborated, so as to be of great length, and almost invariably take on a ceremonial or ritualistic character which is not found in connection with the much shorter and purely traditionary stories of the north.

A great number of songs form an integral portion of such traditions in the south, and, in the form in which these myths exist and maintain themselves among the people from generation to generation, they consist essentially of such a series of songs. Such a body of songs, accompanied by a greater or less amount of ritualism, of course constitute a ceremony; and it is precisely of such singings that nearly all the ceremonies of southern California consist.

There is thus a very much closer association of myth and ceremony than in the north. It is not only that the myth underlies or explains the performance of the ceremony: the ceremony itself is only a myth told in song.

The two are identified, and the composite or intermediate product can with equal justification be called at one time a myth, at another a ceremony. The words of the song alone may often not be sufficient to give the thread of the story to those not acquainted with it; but the thread is always there, and a person acquainted with the series of songs is always able to relate the myth in full. The best published examples of this form of myth-ceremonies are the Chaup traditions of the Diegueño collected by Miss Du Bois.

The southwestern affinities of this mythology, that is to say, its relations to tribes directly east, are evident. Both in Navaho and the Pueblo traditions there is no real creation. Mankind emerges from the earth as a wandering body or tribe. Sometimes a generation by heaven and earth is related. The entire account of origins, which is always very lengthy, is essentially nothing else than a mythical history of the people. The migration legend is in part contained in this pseudo-history, in which mankind and the tribe are virtually identified, and in part appears in the form of traditions of clan wanderings.

There is no important leader of the people in the southwestern myths, but the hero who appears later and gives to the people at least part of their ceremonies until finally he leaves them, has some aspects in common with Chinigchinich and Mastamho. The elaborate rituals of the Southwest differ much from the simple singing ceremonies of southern California, but both, in action, in songs, and in symbolic paraphernalia, always refer to a myth.

They are probably much more than mere dramatic representations of myths; but that they should have been characterized as such makes clear their deep-lying similarity to the myth-ceremonies of southern California. In northern and central California as well as in the Plains, conditions are radically different. There are ceremonial origin myths, but these are almost always only accounts of the reason for the existence of a ceremony which in its essence and in the majority of its details is an independent growth not associated with any mythical tradition. Among these peoples mythology and ceremony at times come in contact, but in the main each goes its own way; while in southern California, as well as in the Southwest, each contains the essential elements of the other.


Contributed as part of the Proceedings of the California Branch of the American Folk-Lore Society.