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Kewet Celebration Puts Focus Back on Culture, Tradition

Cultural events aimed at sharing Indian traditions with those outside the reservation, seem to be just as much of a benefit to Morongo’s own people.
Gary Lyons, a tribal member of the Morongo Band of Mission Indians, was among a low-key gathering of visitors to the Malki Museum’s 50th annual Kewét last Sunday (Kewét is the Cahuilla word for “fiesta”), a significant fundraising and cultural awareness celebration for the museum.
According to Lyons, “This used to be a week long ceremony when I was little. Then the casino came, and changed everything.”
Among those changes, he hinted, was an estrangement from the heritage and tradition that his elders still cling to.
“I grew up as a modern Indian,” he explained. “I can’t say I know the language. It’s just my heritage,” he said, referring to the Kewét festival before him, where bird singers chanted rhythmically in the sun. “I don’t know much about it. I’m simply here with my family unit.”
According to Lyons, a lot of younger people on the reservation “fly the coop once they turn 18, and become ‘Americanized.’”
“Events like this help show where they came from before they were Americanized with a sense of entitlement,” Lyons said.
A dozen vendors sat in thatched booths — “Ramada booths,” made from alder forks, willor, arrow weed and palm fronds, specifically for Kewét — selling dream catchers, Indian jewelry, basketry, and various fabrics intricately woven.
Eva Salazar, a member of the Kumeyaay tribe of San Diego, sold basketry, some of which took weeks or months to make.
“It’s important to teach younger people about their traditions, to make sure Native traditions are kept alive,” she said.
Tracy Albrecht, an interpretive specialist with the Bureau of Land Management, has been working on a Cahuilloa Tewanet roadside stop where signs offer visitors bits of educational materials on Native Americans.
“I expected the information there would benefit the non-Natives, but I’ve pleasantly been learning that Natives have been using these references, too,” she said. “Having events like this helps many people learn many things; connecting with the museum, trying new food, speaking with people. On top of that, it’s fun.”
Cherry Valley writer and former Banning High School librarian Betty Kikumi Meltzer, author of “Losing Ground: The Displacement of the Cahuilla People in the 19th Century,” attended the event.
“It’s true of every younger generation of every background: we tend to get away from our heritage, since we’re homogenized under one language in school,” Meltzer said. “It’s a rare person who reaches out to learn about their heritage: bird songs required someone from way back to collect those, and teach them to others. There are maybe a dozen people who are still able to perpetuate their language to the younger generation.”
Johnathon Blick, a Boy Scout with Banning’s Troop 103, was among a handful of scouts who participated in Sunday morning’s color guard, to raise the American flag.
He waited anxiously for tribal members to dig up the deep-pit barbecued meat smoldering nearby. “It was fascinating to see them dig up the smoked pork,” Johnathon said. As for the event itself, “There are a lot of people around, and the bird singers were pretty good.”
One couple, passing through as they relocated to Los Angeles from St. Louis, stopped by Sunday morning to check out the Kewét festival, having heard about it from a friend. The identified themselves as “Raya and Jack.”
“I’ve never been to anything like this,” never mind seen the desert before, Jack said. “It’s cool. They have good food. It’s quite a culture shock. It’s the first desert I’ve seen.”
According to Raya, “Where we’re from, there’s not a lot of historical or cultural activity. It’s very modern. This is very authentic in the quest to be able to survive in this environment. It’s neat to find people who live in this environment every day.”
Record Gazette
By David James Heiss
May 30, 2014