The Story of Kisily Pewish
As retold by Phil Brigandi
Among the Cupeño people -- the Indians who once inhabited the Lost Valley area -- storytellers were always careful to make a distinction between things they’d seen with their own eyes, and stories they had only heard. Ku’ut they would say. It is said. All the old stories that had been passed down from generation to generation began with that word. This is how the Cupeño told their history . . .
It is said that people from the north came down and settled at Cupa, at the hot springs, and they built their village there. And nearby lived Southerners, in their villages. And the Cupa people went to them and invited them to go hunting with them. But when they hunted, the Cupa people would take much of the game. And if a Cupa man desired a southern woman, he would take her.
So it is said that the Southerners held a council, and said “Why have these people come among us who treat us this way? If they need food, we shall share. If they want our women, let them ask for them, and marry them, as is proper. These things they do are not right,” they said, “it is best that we kill them.”
So the Southern warriors made their plan. It is said that a child-naming ceremony was being held at Cupa, and all the people were inside the wamkish, the dance house. It was a cold night, and all the people were inside except for two old women, who sat outside. And it is said they heard the warriors coming, and they called to those inside, saying “Listen, there are men coming!” And the people inside said, “No, who would be out on such a cold night?”
And so the Southern warriors surprised them, and attacked them. And it is said they killed them all, and set fire to the village.
Inside one of the burning huts, they found one of their own people, a Southern woman who had married a Cupa man. And they said, “Come out, sister. Come out.” And she came out, with a baby in her arms. And they said, “Give us the child that we may throw it in the fire.” But she said no, and showed them that the child was only a little girl. And so, it is said, they spared the child.
Then the Southerners said to her, “Come with us. Come back to your home.” But she said “No, first I must mourn here. I will follow you tomorrow.” And so they left her in the village.
The next morning the woman and her child (who was not a girl, but a boy she had disguised as a girl) set off from Cupa. But they did not go towards the Southern village. They headed north, to Soboba, where the woman had relatives. And as she was coming across the valley it is said that some of the children saw her coming, and cried “Who is that?”. And the people looked, and said, “It is our cousin.”
When she arrived, they asked her, “What happened, cousin?” “They killed them all,” was all she said.
So the woman and her son lived at Soboba. His name was Kisily Pewish, Hawk’s Down. And it is said that as Kisily Pewish grew, he grew strong. When the boys held races at the new moon, he would always win; and when they hunted, he would always bring back the most game. Still the Soboba boys would mock him, and tease him.
And it is said that Kisily Pewish went to his mother and said, “Why do they treat me this way?” And his mother said, “Do not worry, these are not your people. Your people came from far away, but they were all killed.” She would not tell him where his village was.
So Kisily Pewish stopped hunting with the others. His uncle noticed this and asked his mother what she had told him. “I told him these were not his people,” she said, “that he is from the hot springs at Cupa.” When Kisily Pewish, who was secretly listening outside heard this he sprang up and said, “Ah, now I know where my home is, I must return there!” “No,” his mother said, “they will kill you like the others.” “No,” he said, “I must go there.” “Yes,” his uncle said, “he must.” “Then I will go, too,” his mother said. And so they left Soboba.
It is said they traveled over the mountains until they reached Wiatava, Lost Valley, just beyond the mountain from Cupa. Here Kisily Pewish made his camp and set his traps. But when he went out each morning there was no game. “I think someone is stealing my game,” he told his mother. “I saw tracks.” “Ah,” she said, “it must have been isil, the coyote.” “No,” he said, “its tracks were bigger, like the hand of a man!” “Oh!” his mother said. “That is hunwut, the bear, you must be careful, he will kill you, he will eat you.” “No,” Kisily Pewish said, “I must kill that bear!” “No!” his mother said, “he will kill you!” But Kisily Pewish said, “No, I must kill that bear.”
So it is said he followed the tracks to the bear’s den, and as he approached it, he bear leaped out at him and the two rolled on the ground. Then Kisily Pewish broke away and struck the bear with his club. Then the bear grabbed him again, and they rolled and rolled and rolled across the ground. Then Kisily Pewish broke away again and he struck the bear a great blow with his club and he was dead.
Kisily Pewish took the bear back to his mother and said, “Here is food for you.” “No,” she said, “I cannot eat this, this is for the nu’utvum, the chiefs, in the wamkish.” So Kisily Pewish cut the hide from that bear, and sewed the skin back together. Then he gathered the sweetest grasses from the meadow and stuffed the skin, and when he breathed into the bear, it is said, that bear came back to life. And because Kisily Pewish had given the bear back his life, he became his friend.
“Now I am ready to go back to my home,” he said.
They left Wiatava and traveled over Su’ish Peki, Rabbit’s House Mountain, to Cupa, and there, a little ways from the hot springs Kisily Pewish built his home.
And that night, it is said, his mother slipped away and went to the Southerner’s village. “He has come back,” she said. “Then we will kill him,” the warriors said. “No,” she said, “he has a bear, he will kill you.”
But the Southerners didn’t believe her. They went to Kisily Pewish’s home and asked him to go hunting with them. And when they came back they asked him to see his bear, but he would not show it to them, so they did not believe he had a bear.
Later the warriors came back and called Kisily Pewish out. This time he came out of his hut with his bear and the battle began. Kisily Pewish swung his club, and the bear fought them with his claws. And those they did not kill his mother hit on the head with rocks. And they killed and killed and killed them all until only two were left, and it is said that Kisily Pewish picked them up by their ankles and swung them against a great oak tree. Then he threw them down on the ground and said, “Now, go and tell your people that Kisily Pewish has come back to his home!”
And the Southerners did not bother Kisily Pewish again.
In time, it is said, a Luiseño woman from near Palomar Mountain came to the hot springs. And his mother said, “Have you not heard? Are you not afraid?” “I am not afraid,” she said, and because she came unafraid, Kisily Pewish married her. Then later he married another Luiseño woman.
Kisily Pewish had sons and daughters, and grandsons and granddaughters. He had a special oak tree where he would dance, and the biggest, sweetest acorns would fall. And he would give them to his daughters and his granddaughters and tell them to make weewish, acorn mush, for him to eat. But he would not share it with his family.
So his family decided this was wrong. It is said they all got together and cursed that oak tree. And Kisily Pewish went out and he danced and danced and danced, but no acorns fell. And he called for help, but his family would not help him. And so Kisily Pewish died. But his children, and grandchildren became the ancestors of the Cupeño people.
It is said.
The story of Kisily Pewish is only a legend, but it still tells us something about the Cupeño. They did come from the north, and settled at what is now Warner Hot Springs. And they intermarried with the surrounding people, the Diegueño to the south, and the Luiseño to the west. Who knows, there may have even been battles fought over the ownership of the hot springs . . . and a great leader who led his people to victory.
Sometimes, after telling that story at camp, Scouts have said to me, “I believe all of that except the part about the bear.” “If you believe the rest of it,” I tell them, “you might as well believe the bear, too.” But it does not matter what we believe. What matters is what the Cupeño believed. And they believed in Kisily Pewish.
The story of Kisily Pewish was recorded by several anthropologists over the years, sometimes completely, sometimes in parts. Roscinda Nolasquez, the last of the old Cupeño also told me parts of it from time to time. I have woven these various versions together into this retelling. For more of the story, see:
Hill, Jane and Nolasquez, Roscinda (editors.), 1973, Mulu’Wetam: The First People, Banning: Malki Museum Press
Strong, William Duncan, 1929, Aboriginal Society in Southern California, Berkeley: University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology (Vol. 26) (Reprinted by the Malki Museum Press, 1972)
Gifford, Edward, 1918, Clans and Moieties in Southern California, Berkeley: University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology (Vol. 14)
Gifford, Edward and Block, Gwendoline (compilers), 1930, California Indian Nights Entertainments, Glendale: Arthur H. Clark [where Kisily Pewish is called “Hoboyak”]