Kumeyaay Customs and Traditions

Kumeyaay customs have been passed down through generations and are maintained to the present day. Tribal members gather in times of celebration and grief -- ranging from weddings to deaths -- to sing, dance, and share the company of friends.

The Viejas Band observes two major annual celebrations, indicative of tribal members' reverence for their ancestors: "Clearing of the Graveyard," in which tribal members make sure their two graveyards are clean and properly tended, and "All Souls Day," a tribal gathering during which members sing and light candles for the deceased.

At the heart of modern-day Kumeyaay culture are Bird Songs, the last of an allegorical cycle of approximately 300 pieces passed down through the generations, and kept alive by the Kumeyaay Bird Singers. In place of a written language, the ancient songs served to perpetuate the life-style and philosophy of the Kumeyaay. For example, through the use of animal metaphors and allegory, the songs were used to instruct and imprint collective teachings about such practical things as food, the environment and geography, as well as history, customs, and social/moral values.

Originally, Bird Songs were only one of these specialized song cycles, such as "Wildcat," "Salt," and "Funeral" songs. Each of these would be sung and led by a specialist Kuseyaay (one of a council of male and female priests, doctors and scientists to the Kwaaypaay, leader), and danced by those in the clan who embraced their meaning. The Kuseyaay underwent special ceremonies to prepare for their work.

Today, Bird Songs serve a utilitarian role in ceremonies and commemorations. Kumeyaay Bird Songs are a unifying, ancestral element at funerals and memorials (Takaay) and at special ceremonies (Kuruck). A funeral sequence may include 117 different songs and continue for 24 hours. Kumeyaay Bird Songs use no drums. Rhythm is supplied by gourd or tortoiseshell rattles filled with native palm seeds. For the Kumeyaay, the fact that so many songs have been lost make the ones that are left even more precious. They have found lasting wealth and a mission in perpetuating and sharing the people's history and culture through Bird Songs.