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.
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."
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”