Word went around to other people on the reservation that a prayer leader from Santa Ysabel was praying in Indian, and they invited Ponchetti to come to their homes.
Although they only die once like the rest of us, it has forever been the custom of the Diegueño Indians to bury their dead twice: once at death, and then once again a year later. And so it was that the people of Santa Ysabel had gathered at the mission on a Saturday morning in October, one year after the death of Steve Ponchetti, to hold the ceremony in honor of the man who for more than forty years had been their leader — in the old meaning of the word, leading not out of power, but out of wisdom, knowledge, and strength.
Mission Santa Ysabel. In 1928 Father La Pointe, a Canadian missionary who had been at Santa Ysabel since 1903, began building a new mission there.
It was mostly the women and older people who sat in the small chapel and sang the old Spanish hymns, “so beautiful,” as Steve Ponchetti once said, “they almost make you want to cry.” The chapel was full, even the aisles were packed, and a crowd stood outside on the steps, craning their necks for a glimpse of the empty, linen-covered coffin that represented the body of the man they had buried a year ago. The singing carried outside and across the mission grounds, where the men leaned against pickup trucks, talked, laughed, and even stole an occasional drink. When scolded about this, one of them shrugged and said. “It's not a funeral. It's not supposed to be a sad day."
Flo Ponchetti: “If you don't know how the Indians feel about their dead, then this is a hard thing to understand."
Before the white man arrived, the people of the Santa Ysabel Valley, then known as Elcuanan, called the custom karuk the clothes-burning ceremony. After a person died and his body was cremated, his spirit was said to linger on this earth for one year, staying in the place, and among the people, he had known while he was alive. During this time, his family and friends were careful not to speak his full name for fear evil spirits might learn of his death and try to capture his soul. After one year of mourning, the dead persons family gathered together his clothes and belongings and burned them, in a kind of second cremation. While the wind carried the smoke to the cast — out to the desert where all men began — the family sang songs telling the dead person it was now time for him to leave this earth.
Santa Ysabel. Indians from Warner Springs, Pamo Valley, San Pasqual, and other areas were then removed from their lands and relocated at Santa Ysabel.
“If you don't know how the Indians feel about their dead, then this is a hard thing to understand," explained Steve Ponchetti's widow, Flo, before the ceremony. Though she spoke in English, her voice somehow retained the sound and rhythm of Ipai, the native language of the northern Diegueños. “This is something that has been passed along by the people from way back, years and years ago. This ceremony is something which has to be finished, it has to be done.
"They’d pray and sing all night long. A lot of people in the cemetery at Santa Ysabel were buried that way."
Photo by Robert Burroughs
After that we know his spirit is free to leave this earth. Then I have to change my life. I can't grieve so much. Life must go on.” After a pause her eyes narrowed and she added, with a startling intensity, “But the Indians never forget their dead. Never”
Even though this wasn't supposed to be a sad day, after the Mass, when the 400 people in attendance filed into the small cemetery and stood over the flower-covered mound of earth, there was open weeping. Six pale Catholic priests, dressed in white vestments and squinting against the bright October sun, sprinkled holy water over the grave and tried to think of something to say more to the point than a ritual prayer. A few feet away, Sam Brown, more than a hundred years old, sat in his car in the shade, too feeble to get out and walk to the grave of his old friend. But at least he was there — he had honored the man and the ceremony.
The Ponchetti home. The man agreed to sell the shack to the Ponchettis for seventy-five dollars. Ponchetti moved his family into the house and began remodeling it,
At first glance, everything about the memorial ceremony might have appeared to be Roman Catholic: the hymns, the prayers, the white cross over the grave. Yet everyone there, except perhaps the Catholic priests, knew that the very purpose of the ceremony, as well as the man it was held for, were purely Indian. How that is possible, how one culture can survive within the shell of another, taking the new form but keeping the old substance, is the 300-year story of the Diegueno Indians.
Flo raised twenty-two foster children, plus her own son. The son, Ken Ponchetti, recalled. “Some days I'd go outside and the clothesline would be filled with Levis and T-shirts."
Nobody at Santa Ysabel calls the ceremony a clothes-burning anymore. Sometimes it is referred to as “the year-after,” but more often it is simply called the “anniversary memorial,” which at least has the sound of a good Christian ritual. Many Indians at Santa Ysabel are still reluctant to discuss openly, or identify with, traditional Indian ways. It wasn’t so long ago they were flogged by the Spanish padres for practicing their “heathen” ways, and most of the older people can still recall being punished at the government's Indian schools for even speaking their native language. But many of the old ways, like the clothes-burning, have survived — sometimes in secret, and sometimes disguised within Catholicism. One reason for their survival is Steve Ponchetti.
Bust of Steve Ponchetti by James Hubbell. Ponchetti, who called himself "just a jackrabbit Indian," fought night and day against termination of the reservations.
In 1818 when the Spanish padres arrived in the serene Santa Ysabel Valley to establish an asistencia, or satellite mission, to the Mission San Diego, they rapidly succeeded in converting nearly all the local Indians to Christianity. The biggest reason they were so successful (other than the fact that they had armed soldiers to enforce the conversion) was that Catholicism and the Indians’ native religion were surprisingly compatible. The two shared a belief in human spirits, in an afterlife, in supernatural beings, in the observance of rituals for birth and death, and in the power of prayer and song. In some ways the conversion of the Indians to Catholicism was not that at all — rather it was an absorption of Catholicism into their traditional ways.
After the secularization of the missions in 1834, in which the Mexican government confiscated the mission lands in California, the padres abandoned the Indians of Santa Ysabel. Without the Catholic priests, the authority for practicing the religion reverted back into the hands of local tribal spiritual leaders, where it had been for centuries before the arrival of the white man. “On this reservation we used to have seven old people that were chosen as prayer leaders,” Flo Ponchetti explained, sitting in her small, neatly kept home overlooking the Santa Ysabel Valley. She is a gentle woman, as her husband was said to be, yet there is a strength and firmness that can only be found in a person who has worked hard and struggled all her life. “When the Franciscans came here, they taught all the people to pray in Spanish. The priests pounded those prayers into the people, over and over — that's how the people learned them. And then the priests would teach them the hymns. Most of the old people could pray and sing the hymns by heart. Years ago, when everybody traveled by wagon, it was hard to get a priest to come around to the different reservations, so the priests gave the prayer leaders the right to bury people. When the Indians would die, their families would call for the prayer leader to come over, and they’d have a wake. They’d pray and sing all night long. That’s how we used to do that. A lot of people in the cemetery at Santa Ysabel were buried that way. Steve buried a lot of them himself.”
At first Flo Ponchetti was reluctant to discuss her husband. Perhaps this was part of the old tradition too, in which it was not proper to speak the name of the dead — and for all she knew, this stranger asking her questions that were none of his business had come to steal her husband's soul. But she put her reticence behind her and revealed at least part of the man she had been married to for fifty-five years. “Steve’s mother was a prayer leader,” Flo said. “She used to pray and sing at the mission when we didn't even have a church. There was a little ramada the people had built, and that's where we'd say our prayers and sing the hymns. Later. Steve became a prayer leader. He would bless the grave when people died, and he would do the praying. At the funeral he would talk to the people in English, and if they didn't understand English, he would talk in Spanish, and if they didn’t understand Spanish, he would talk in Indian. But he would always talk in the line of life and death.”
As the widow spoke the word "life,'' she raised her hand over her head, and at the word “death,” she dropped it — like the sign of the cross, or perhaps a much older sign.
“Steve was so close to that line of life and death. That was the kind of man he was. He knew so much about the people and about their religion. I don't know what they're going to do now. All the prayer leaders are gone. Steve buried all of them. Now he's gone. We won't see no more of that.”
Steve Ponchetti was born on the Santa Ysabel Reservation, in the year 1909, in the village known to the Indians as Tekemak — “place sheltered from the wind.” His grandfather on his father's side had been a Swiss immigrant who settled in the Santa Ysabel Valley and married an Indian woman, hence the European surname, Ponchetti. When he was quite young, Ponchetti's mother, Solida Couro, had to go to work to support her family, and Ponchetti went to live with his mother's parents, Samuel and Maria Couro, in the village known to the Indians as Hapyaal (“place of large boulders”). Although they were devout Catholics who prayed often and sang the Spanish hymns every night after supper, the Couros also practiced traditional Indian ways, and at home they spoke Ipai, the northern-Diegueno dialect, which was Ponchetti’s first language. During his youth, Ponchetti’s grandparents imparted to him the deeply personal and spiritual belief of the Diegueños, that all things — plants, animals, even rocks — have a spirit, that the earth is sacred, and the proper way for a person to behave is a tradition handed down from ancient times.
Like most Indian families at Santa Ysabel the Couros were displaced from their land, either directly or indirectly, by white ranchers. Some of the white ranchers claimed title to the land through the old Mexican land grants of 1841, even though the land granted by the Mexicans was occupied by, and belonged to, the Indians. Some of the ranchers claimed Indian land after the United States negotiated a treaty with the Santa Ysabel Indians in 1852. Steve Ponchetti's great grandfather, Diego Couro, had participated in that treaty, but Congress never ratified it, and even today the Indians believe all their land sold after that treaty was sold illegally. Later, in the 1890s, when gold was discovered in the Volcan Mountains east of Julian, the Indians watched as whites poured into the area, flagrantly disregarding the Indians' ownership of the lands. In 1893 President Benjamin Harrison signed a patent (or treaty) designating the boundaries of the three tracts of the Santa Ysabel reservation. For the most part, that land was all the steep, rocky, or brush-covered lands which the white ranchers didn't want. Indians from Warner Springs, Pamo Valley, San Pasqual, and other areas were then removed from their lands and relocated at Santa Ysabel, sometimes dislocating those Indians who had always lived there. This latter situation was the fate of Steve Ponchetti's grandparents.
Ponchetti attended the government's Indian school at Mesa Grande until 1918, when he was in the third grade. Indian schools at that time were little more than institutions dedicated to the abolishment of Indian culture, and perhaps that was part of the reason he decided to quit school and go to work to help support his grandparents. When he was ten years old, Ponchetti got a job digging the canal that passes through the Rincon Reservation as part of Escondido's water supply. It was against the law for someone that young to be working on the project, but when the truant officer would come around, Ponchetti would hide in the canal until he was gone, then go back to work. When he was a little older. Ponchetti went to San Diego, where he got a job working for Daley Construction Company driving a mule team hauling dirt and rocks. Little by little he learned all facets of the construction trade, and he became a skilled carpenter and builder.
In 1928 Father La Pointe, a Canadian missionary who had been at Santa Ysabel since 1903, began building a new mission there. The old mission. built back in 1818 under the direction of the Franciscans (but with Indian labor), was in rubbles. A new chapel of rough-sawn lumber had been built, then later was burned to the ground —- some say by white settlers who coveted the mission's ten acres, which were then occupied by several Indian families. When Father La Pointe finally raised the funds to build a new mission of reinforced concrete, Steve Ponchetti was one of the first workers hired.
Every day at noon the workers would stop and have a hot meal under the oak-branch ramada the Indians were using as their chapel. One of the young women who cooked for the workers was Florence Osuna. Her grandfather, Juan Osuna, had been the first alcalde, or mayor, of the pueblo San Diego when it had been established in 1834 and had once held title to Rancho San Dieguito, now known as Rancho Santa Fe, before he moved to the Santa Ysabel Valley and married an Indian woman. The young Florence had known Steve Ponchetti all her life, but it was during this time when she cooked for the workers at the mission that they became more than just acquaintances. Their wedding, in 1929, initiated the newly completed chapel at the Santa Ysabel mission.
For the first few years after they were married, the couple lived wherever Ponchetti could find work — San Diego, Escondido, Julian, Warner Springs. He was a strong man and a hard worker, but as the depression years set in, work of any kind became scarce. The Ponchettis decided to move back to the reservation, where they knew they could at least survive, no matter how hard times became. With their young son, Ken, they moved to the top of Volcan Mountain, where several other Indian families were hunting, gathering food from the land, and taking work at the ranches down in the valley whenever they could.
Volcan Mountain was a beautiful oak-and pine-covered ridge, with spectacular views in every direction. But at an elevation of nearly 6000 feet, the winters were long and cold, and after three exceptionally severe winters in a row, some of the families there were living on nothing but “shawee," the Indian acorn mush. In the winter of 1941, the Ponchettis decided to call it quits on Volcan Mountain. They walked down in a snowstorm, with Ponchetti carrying young Ken and Flo carrying their little dog.
It was about this time, when he was in his early thirties, that Steve Ponchetti started becoming known as a spiritual leader among his people. One night he and Flo went to a wake at the Barona Reservation. As usual, everyone stayed up all night long singing the old Catholic hymns and praying in Spanish. The next morning, in a corner of the tiny shack where the wake had been held, there was sitting an old man who spoke only Indian. As Ponchetti was leaving, the old man leaned over, touched him on the arm, and said. “That was very beautiful, what we heard here last night."
“Yes," Ponchetti answered him in Ipai. “The songs were beautiful. But tell me this: Did you understand any of the words to the prayers you heard last night?"
“No.” the man smiled, “but I knew by the sound they were prayers." Like many Indian people, the old man had been saying the Spanish prayers all his life but didn't even know the meaning to the words.
“Yes," Ponchetti nodded. “Listen to me now, though, and I'm going to say them in Indian." He prayed the “Hail Mary," then the “I Believe in God," both in Ipai.
After Ponchetti had finished, the old man looked at him in disbelief. Praying in Ipai was something that hadn't been done in many years. In fact the old man had never heard it done in his lifetime — until Steve Ponchetti did it.
Later that night, word went around to other people on the reservation that a prayer leader from Santa Ysabel was praying in Indian, and they invited Ponchetti to come to their homes. One very old woman, after listening to him in amazement, came up and said slowly in Ipai, “What sort of a person are you? I heard this prayed in Indian many years ago. Then I never heard it no more. But I'm hearing it now."
A few years later, Ponchetti and Flo attended a wake at Santa Ysabel for an old prayer leader who had died. Once again, they stayed up with the old people, singing and praying all night long. The next morning, after the funeral, a group of old prayer leaders came up to Ponchetti at the cemetery. “We’re getting old now," one of them said. “It’s getting harder for us to go around to all the different reservations and to stay up all night long. But you’re still young. You've just started. From now on, you're going to be our prayer leader. Whenever the people call you anywhere, you’ve got to go to them. This will be your responsibility now."
During the next few years, Ponchetti and Flo traveled around to the Diegueno and Luiseno reservations in San Diego and Orange counties, to the Cahuilla reservations in San Bernardino and Riverside counties, to the Yuman reservations in Imperial County and Arizona, and even to the Pai-pai in Mexico. He listened to the old people talk about the old ways, about the healing power of plants, of the magic of animals, of the sacred places where the ancient people were buried, of the ceremonial sites where the solstices were observed and the petroglvphs were etched in the rocks. He learned about the old migration patterns and where the old trails could be found. He listened and watched the bird singers who sang the traditional songs at the wakes, and learned the meaning of the birds' message. At a time when even many Indians were saying it might be better for the old ways to die, Steve Ponchetti acquired a profound love and appreciation for his people and their customs.
In the old days, before the white man's arrival, an Indian male would have learned all these things in his youth, and by the time he had reached his early teens, an initiation ceremony would have been held to mark his passage into adulthood. But by Ponchetti's time the culture had been fragmented, some of the old ways had been lost, and other ways were practiced in secret — sometimes without even local Indians knowing about them. People interested in learning more about the traditional ways had to seek them out on their own. As a result, Ponchetti received his initiation relatively late in life. The particulars of Ponchetti’s initiation are unknown (or at least not openly discussed), but it is safe to assume there were older spiritual leaders and that Ponchetti was taught and initiated by them. He learned the meanings of the ancient sand paintings drawn by his people and the meaning and uses of the medicine stones It is said he began a personal relationship with his animal protector, the golden eagle — known to the Indians as the messenger between this world and the spirit world, as well as the most powerful and sacred animal protector.
Perhaps the most difficult thing for an outsider to understand is that Ponchetti — and really all the Indian spiritual leaders — did not reject the Catholic teachings but absorbed them into the old ways. Rather than allow the two cultures to tear him apart, he was able to intertwine them by recognizing and accepting the spirituality of each. At the Indian wakes, the Spanish hymns and the traditional Indian songs were sung, one after another. The importance of this, Ponchetti believed, was that the ancient Indian traditions were not a dead religion, to be studied by anthropologists and recalled by old people; rather they were a living tradition capable of growing and adapting to modern life. Naturally, there was a danger of the old ways becoming diluted, and some people objected to this — but those who objected were rarely the spiritual leaders themselves.
There are people on the reservations today who say the old ways should die because they are old-fashioned. And there arc other people who say the old ways should die because there aren’t enough of them left to pass on. But Steve Ponchetti once said, “I don’t want to be the one who decides how much of the old ways to pass on. I will pass on as much as I can and let those who come after me decide what to keep and what to reject.”
Shortly after the winter in which the Ponchettis walked down from Volcan Mountain, they were living with Flo’s sister and looking around for a place of their own. They knew of a small, abandoned, practically falling-down shack on the reservation, located on a hill overlooking the Santa Ysabel Valley. The owner of the shack was a friend of theirs who lived in Ramona, and when Ponchetti went to talk to him, the man agreed to sell the shack to the Ponchettis for seventy-five dollars. Ponchetti moved his family into the house and began remodeling it, adding rooms, a new roof, plumbing, and outbuildings. By the time he was finished, it had become the comfortable, oak-shaded home his widow lives in today.
Ponchetti would often leave for work in Julian or Ramona on Monday morning and not return home until Friday evening. During one of these absences, an employee from the county’s juvenile probation office, a Mrs. Adamson, came to talk to Flo. She said there was a sixteen-year-old boy from the Pala reservation who had been in trouble with the law and at school, and nobody quite knew what to do with him. “I don't know just what the problem is,” she said. “He seems like a nice boy to me. Maybe you’d like to keep him for a while. If you can see things aren’t working out, we’ll come get him.”
Flo warily agreed to keep the boy, Donald Chavez, on a temporary basis. When Ponchetti came home he didn't object, but he was concerned that Donald would have a bad influence on his own young son. So he sat Donald down and told him firmly, “I don’t want you to teach this little fella any kind of a bad word or a bad habit. Not any kind. I want you to treat him right and be good to him.”
“All right," Donald agreed.
“Donald was so nice!” Flo said. “I couldn't get over what a nice boy he was. When the county saw how it was working out for us, they started bringing me more boys — little ones. First I had three little pups, then six, then twelve.”
All the boys came from Indian families where they had been neglected. Usually the parents were alcoholics. “Like little Ervin,” Flo said. “He was just three years old when Mrs. Adamson went to his house and found him all alone, dirty and filthy, standing on a stool over the stove, trying to fry an egg. That’s the kind of homes they came from. So I took care of them.” Altogether Flo raised twenty-two foster children, plus her own son. Ken Ponchetti, who is now a test engineer at General Dynamics, recalled. “Some days I'd go outside and the clothesline would be filled with Levis and T-shirts. She must have washed clothes every day. And there were big meals for every breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I don't know how she did it."
Steve Ponchetti served on the school board at Warner Springs for twenty years — until the last of their foster children was out of school. In addition to the foster children, he would frequently take in destitute families who had nowhere else to go, sometimes keeping them in his home for a year at a time.
In February of 1950, a crisis hit the Indian reservations of Southern California, and Steve Ponchetti, who had come into his own as a leader of his people, was the single most important person in resolving it. Purl Willis, a white man from El Cajon who represented an organization called the Mission Indian Federation, selected five Indians from nearby reservations, loaded them into his car, and drove them to Washington, D.C., where they testified before a House appropriations committee, and with astounding ease persuaded the committee to support a bill abolishing the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ $22.6 million budget for the management of Indian reservations in Southern California — in effect, calling for the termination of the Indian reservations.
To an outsider, there is nothing in the world as complex or bewildering as Indian politics. Besides the endless confusion resulting from one culture forcing its will upon another, the Indians themselves have retained memories of tribal and familial conflicts that took place several generations ago, resulting in almost as many factions as there are families. The Diegueños are no exception. But even when the land-greedy white men pitted them against each other, the Diegueños had always managed to retain a kind of unity. This crisis of 1950 was the greatest threat to that unity they had ever faced.
For several years a group of anti-Indian congressmen had been pushing for termination of the Indian reservations in California. Their intentions, other than saving the government millions of dollars in managing the reservations, were to open up Indian lands to logging, mining, and other development. Whether or not this was Purl Willis's motivation is unknown. However, for several years he and the Indian Mission Federation had been involved in a power struggle with the government’s Bureau of Indian Affairs. Termination of the bureau's reservation system would have been a personal triumph for him, even if it meant chaos for the Indians.
Most of the Indians from San Diego County who supported the federation worked for white ranchers. They were a minority and were in fact bitterly resented by many other Indians. One way the federation enlisted their support was by openly criticizing the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Most Indians, including Steve Ponchetti, despised the BIA, which had almost dictatorial power over them. Indians at that time were officially not citizens at all but wards of the government and had little control over their own destinies. (The director of the BIA at that time was Dillon Meyer, who ran the Japanese-American relocation camps during World War II.) But as much as the Indians hated the BIA, the reality was that the impoverished and under-educated Indians depended on the agency for almost everything: housing, health and medical care, law enforcement, road construction and maintenance, water facilities, and more. What Willis and the federation were calling for amounted to the termination of what little protection the Indians had from an alien culture that for the last one hundred years had been waging genocide against them.
After the five Indians from the federation testified before Congress, Purl Willis abandoned them in Washington, D.C., and they had to be sent $240 apiece from their reservations' welfare funds so they could return home. Back at Santa Ysabel, Steve Ponchetti, who at that time was the elected tribal spokesman for his reservation, sent a telegram to Congress protesting Willis’s action, informing them that the five Indians did not represent the Indians of San Diego County. Then he called for a meeting of Indians from all the nearby reservations.
At noon on March 12, 350 Indians met at the Banning Ballroom in Warner Springs. Dressed in his usual blue jeans and work shirt, Steve Ponchetti stood up and said, “Congress has been hoaxed by Purl Willis. Without consulting us, he went to Congress and made them believe we are asking for termination of the reservations. I am amazed the congressional ' committee would go for that. Purl Willis has been making his living off Indians for years. And for years he has tried to represent us without our consent. Now, under this decision, the impoverished Indians of San Diego and Riverside counties will be further impoverished. While I agree in principle with relief from wardship, the government must first settle matters of land apportionment, water rights, land surveys, medical care, and police protection. If Purl Willis were sincere, he would be pleading for these things. I hope it is not too late to prevent this Willis trickery from becoming effective."
During the next several months, Ponchetti fought night and day against termination of the reservations. The third-grade dropout, who liked to call himself "just a jackrabbit Indian," taught himself to type and sat for hours at a time banging out letters to congressmen and bureaucrats in Washington. He persuaded the San Diego Board of Supervisors to oppose the bill (on the basis that they would lose school funds contributed by the BIA). He traveled to Sacramento as the representative of the Diegueños in a coalition of reservations opposing the bill. And he appeared before a group of senators meeting in San Bernardino to hold hearings on the bill.
Late in 1951, Congressman Clinton McKinnon, who had sponsored the bill and had once announced to the press, “We must move quickly on this bill…The human rights involved in freeing these people from ward status are paramount," admitted he had been fooled into believing a majority of Indians wanted the reservations terminated. A Senate appropriations committee later altered the bill by restoring the BIAs funds.
Steve Ponchetti continued to serve as his tribe's elected spokesman throughout the Fifties and Sixties, until health problems finally forced him to step down. Even then, the tribal spokesmen, now called “tribal chairmen," would come to him for advice, just as Ponchetti had sought advice from his elders. Over the years he had acquired a lawyer's knowledge of Indian law, and he could quote many of the treaties and legislation by heart. At his home he kept a copy of the Santa Ysabel patent, written in long-hand and signed by Benjamin Harrison in 1893. Sometimes members of the tribe would come to his home to read the patent or have it read to them, to learn where the proper boundary lines for the reservation lay. More than once he pointed out to the people that local ranchers were using property that legally belonged to the Indians, and he was instrumental in seeing that the Indians got it hack.
One of the many legal complexities of the Santa Ysabel tribe is that they were divided by the government into two political entities, residing on three separate tracts. This sometimes put the people in competition for land and resources. Sometimes when the people quarreled, Ponchetti would scold them, saying, “This is not the way our people are. This is something you have learned off the reservation. Our people have always shared whatever they had with each other, and now you should do the same.”
Once during a tribal council meeting in which there had been a heated argument over land use on the reservation, Ponchetti stood up and said.
“Look, we’re all Indians here. These are Indian problems. So let's talk Indian. Let's hold this meeting in Ipai.” Some people, particularly the younger ones, couldn't speak Ipai. Others hadn’t spoken it in years — many of the older people, though, insisted they try. The meeting was thrown into confusion as translations went back and forth in three different languages, but Ponchetti had made his point: they were a unique people, with a unique history, culture, and language, and any decisions regarding them should be made in that context.
Steve Ponchetti, observing that there were fewer and fewer people whom he could converse with in Ipai, once said of the traditional ways, “I don't want to be the last one to remember these things.” During his last years, Ponchetti was concerned that his culture would become a museum curiosity piece, rather than a viable way of life. Once he visited the Museum of Man in Balboa Park and saw on display there a Diegueno basket with the rattlesnake design woven into it. These baskets were used by rattlesnake shamen in curing people with rattlesnake bites and were not supposed to be the common property of just anyone. “It isn't right for them to have that basket.” he said to a friend. Although he couldn't challenge the museum's legal ownership of the basket, he knew that many of the baskets had been sold by Indians during times of hardship. For example, the museum's largest collection of baskets came from the Campo store, which accepted the baskets as payment for food during the depression. Ponchetti’s efforts to remove the rattlesnake basket from display were unsuccessful.
On another occasion he saw on display at the Museum of Man a rattle made from deer hooves hung on agave fibers. These hooves were used at the karuk ceremony and were considered to be sacred. He knew this particular rattle had belonged to a family from the Barona Reservation who were then going through a period of illness and misfortune and who believed their misfortune could be traced to their loss of that rattle. Ponchetti had tried to recover the rattle and was again unsuccessful, though he was later able to arrange for an identical rattle to be made. He then held a purification ceremony for the rattle before presenting it to the family.
The last project Ponchetti worked on was opposing the proposed dam to be built by the City of San Diego in the Pamo Valley. The reservoir behind the dam would cover several Indian burial sites, and like many other Indian elders, he didn't want the dam to be built. But his reservation's tribal council informed him that the dam probably would be built and asked him what he thought should be done with the burial sites. Should the old bones be dug up and relocated, or should they be left alone? Though Ponchetti had spent his entire adult life conducting burial ceremonies and probably knew more about Diegueno customs regarding the dead than anyone else, he didn't presume to make this decision on his own. He went to the Viejas reservation to see old Sam Brown, his elder by twenty-five years, and asked Brown's advice. Sam Brown listened to Ponchetti's explanation of the situation, then answered, “Don't dig up the bones! Leave them there! They can't hurt those spirits by covering them with water. The spirits can go right up through that water if they want to." And that was the advice Ponchetti passed on to the tribal council.
Just a few months later, it was Sam Brown who stood up at Ponchetti's funeral and spoke a few words in farewell to his old friend. And then, after a year had passed. Brown was there again at the anniversary memorial to tend to the ceremony that ancient tradition said had to be done. This time, though. Brown was too feeble, and after the priests had finished blessing the grave, it was a woman prayer leader from Jamul who spoke briefly to the crowd in Indian. She lacked Ponchetti's gift for oratory, but she did her best. “Many times you have heard Steve speak to you in Indian and say, ‘Keep up your language.' But he also said the language was more than just the words, it was the land, the water, the animals. When you walk on the land, bless it."
Among the young people on the Santa Ysabel reservation today, there is a resurgence of interest in the old ways. A woman whose great-grandmother was one of the last great basketmakers has taken up the old, almost forgotten skill. Other young people have put together two teams to play “peon," the old gambling game. Others are trying to learn the old songs and seek out the reclusive spiritual leaders who practice the traditional ways. Some have fought political battles to protect burial sites such as the one at the Sabre Springs development, south of Escondido. "We have learned that the blade of a court’s knife is sharper than any steel blade." one young woman said.
In a brief newspaper interview in 1970, Steve Ponchetti said, “We have survived three governments, centuries of war, a change in religion, in language, in customs, but we did survive — only by our way of living, by staying close to the ways handed down by our people since the beginning. We were slaves under the Spanish, but at the same time we absorbed their language, their ways, and even their religious beliefs. But there is always the legend that makes us what we are, and in our hearts and culture and blood, we are Indians"
Anything that might be written or said of a man after his death is a clothes-burning of sorts. The recollections his family and friends have of him. the newspaper clippings he carefully cut and saved, the fence around the old Indian cemetery he built with his own hands — these are like fragments of clothing. They can be held up to show how they still bear the man’s form — the thickness of his neck, the curve of his back, the stoutness of his shoulders. But they are not the man, only what he left behind. And in the end, the reasons for this ritual are both to forget the man and to make sure we never forget.