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Traditional Origins of Southern CA Bird Songs
Public performance and text by; Ron Christman. Ipai/Tipai

Introduction: Ron Christman has been listening to local tribal songs for all of his life. Ron's father sang variations of the Kumeyaay traditional song styles. Following Ron's military service and during his long employment as an Engineer by the California Department of Forestry, he sought out tribal elders for instruction in singing these traditional Bird songs. For the past thirty years Ron is often called upon to participate in the custom and tradition of the local Kumeyaay people. He is frequently requested to speak to non-tribal groups and address civic and youth activities. This particular occasion he was to acknowledge a commitment to sing after fulfilling a request to sing all night! By his own admission he felt kind of rough after two or three hours sleep.

California Indian Days 2000; Balboa park, San Diego
Edited by Roy Cook

"This is our homeland. This is the land of the Kumeyyay people. These songs were given to us because in an earlier time people were running around willy-nilly and not really paying attention to each other. They were not respecting each other. They were treating each other with a lot of indifference and creating a lot of problems for themselves and everybody around them. The creator took notice of this behavior and saw a need for a process to change the situation. He created a series of variation and sets of songs. These are allegorical in nature. Telling us, by example, different stories about different animals and different beings that are on this earth with us. Telling us how to interact with each other in a way that is beneficial to ourselves as human beings but also telling us how to be beneficial to all living things. Our brothers the four legged and the winged and all the different beings. The plant life, the rocks and the very earth we walk upon.
So, the Creator sent these songs with a very, very colorful beautiful bird. This bird, which is to bring the songs and also the dance that goes with it, is not quite what it appears to be. As it happened this bird messenger, with the gift from the Creator, is kind of a jealous person. He wanted to keep the songs and dances to himself. This bird thought, if he had to he was going to try and make arrangements to sell these songs. In this way he might gain in whatever way thought he possibly could. He would try to gain personally and advance his stature in the community. In this way he felt he would be somewhat better than all the rest. So he kept these songs and wouldn't give them out to no one.

Then, the Creator came down and told him that he has to give these gifts up. These gifts were not for him but for the people. The Creator told him, "You were sent here only to sing these songs and to show the people the dances. You will pass them out to all the people so the people could know what the correct way to behave like a true human being and not just run around treating each other with great indifference."
So bird says, "OK. Fine, I'll do that." Creator went back home to his island just a short ways off the coast here. So, lo and behold this bird did the same thing again. He arrogantly said," I live here, Creator don't live here so I'm going to do what I want to do. I have no need to depend on anyone else. I have the power of these songs because they say that under the right conditions and if sung in the right way if you have bad weather and you want a ceremony you can have bad weather and sing these songs and the bad weather will go around you. If you have people that are feeling poorly mentally and are down in the dumps you can sing these songs and it'll bring them right back up. If you're looking for a new husband or wife and you sing these songs, you'll get what you need." Well bird thought about this entire thing and said to himself," Well I'm going to keep these songs and if they want them than they're going to have to pay dearly for them."
So the Creator being what the Creator is, he knew about these ideas and plans and he came back and took away those beautiful colors and the beautiful plumage and the beautiful voice that this bird had.
So, what came to be, is the bird we now recognize as the California crow. That is why today this bird can only squawk and why he is now only one color, dark.

We now come to another little bird. This little bird is humble, unassuming and very, very beautiful to this day. We call him Tu cuk in my language. Ashaw tu cuk. The Creator said to Tu cuk "You bring these songs to the people. I'll see that you will always be remembered."
So, that bird immediately went to see the people and brought us these songs."


BIRD SONGS from an Inter-tribal perspective all point toward the west as a place of tradition and similarities in style and to a Grandfather time and ancient islands off the coast of present California. These songs are composed of an allegorical cycle of approximately 300 pieces. The Kumeyaay were the original guardians, and they served to perpetuate the lifestyle and traditions through effective medium of music and dance in lieu of written language. For example through the use of bird metaphors and allegory, these lessons would instruct and imprint on children and adults the proper time for the young to leave the nest and start a new family, and the necessity of parents to "let go" of their maturing children. Originally, bird songs were only one of several specialized song cycles, such as wildcat and salt dances and funeral songs. These songs enabled the Kumeyaay to preserve and strengthen their successful lifestyle over the millennia.

This harmony was irretrievably upset, however, with the arrival of European settlement the 18th century. Spanish missionaries equated all Kumeyaay ceremonies with barbarism, paganism, or witchcraft and went about the forcible suppression of the cultures of the Native Americans. Most zealously purged were those ceremonies perceived by them as having religious significance. This policy of suppression, in conjunction with the loss of three-quarters of the local native population within the 63-year reign of the California missions (1769-1832), succeeded in snuffing out much of the Kumeyaay culture and traditions. Probably owing to their allegorical nature (likely not viewed as potentially heretical content), the bird songs weathered the European onslaught. Today they survive as one of the last examples of a tradition of instruction and celebration that served the Kumeyaay well until the arrival of Father Junipero Serra in 1769. As the remnant sprig of a once-flourishing collection of songs and dances, bird songs now serve a utilitarian role in ceremonies and commemorations. In addition to performances at Indian powwows, Kumeyaay Bird Songs are the unifying ancestral element at funerals and memorials, as well as at the special ceremonies held, for example, when Indian bones are returned to the Kumeyaay for reburial. Ron Christman, who was born on Santa Ysabel Reservation, leads one of the two surviving Kumeyaay Bird Song core groups. According to Christman, the lack of superficial "flash" in the performance of the bird songs is a conscious form choice.
Unlike many Native American dances, Kumeyaay bird songs do not use drums for accompaniment. Instead, rhythm is supplied by gourd or tortoise-shell rattles filled with native palm seeds. The color of the rattle possesses a highly personal symbolic value for its owner. At one time dancers and singers would paint designs on their bodies that related to their clan. Today, markings are subtler. Ribbon Indian shirts, a feather, or possibly a small tattoo have now replaced the painted designs. For the Kumeyaay, however, even these subtle symbols are secondary in importance to the richer and more lasting wealth found in perpetuating the ideas and culture of their people through their bird songs.
**Reprinted from Native California, Fall, 1992

BIRD SONG: Analysis -2001
Excerpt edited by Roy Cook

The bird songs are an example of one of the most important statements in Native American oral history. It is a clue that philosophically people did exist in a different form, other than the one that we see here, and that at some point there was a great transformation wherein people took on different forms in order to accomplish different works or fulfill different responsibilities. Therefore we can realize deer and men and coyotes and birds are all related to each other because they are all people.
Mutual responsibility is important. The bird songs are important in that during the time of the singing the singer is propelled, if you will, back to that mythic time. Those who hear the song have a chance to return to the original form that they were in before we became human, animal, deer. The songs express important concepts that underlie all the cultures. Therefore, one of the purposes of the singing is to remind the animal that he had once been a person, and that the reason why they had transformed into these different forms was to fulfill the responsibility of keeping life going on the earth. It is therefore the responsibility of the deer to present himself now to be used as food, so that the human body will be able to function, and it is the responsibility of the human body to properly use the deer body in its furtherance of life. It was assumed when the song was sung that the deer would literally present themselves to be killed. It was therefore also assumed that if one did not follow these proper prescriptions, one would never be able to hunt deer successfully. Now, that is very different from the concept of ritual offering. As you formulate the idea, it also sounds very different from the notion of compulsive magic. That is, a mutual responsibility is not the same thing as one being compelling another.
In an interview in SAIL, Paul Apodaca (Navaho-Mexicano) is asked,"The songs as related to an emergence-creation story. What can you tell me about the story and about the bird song cycle as a whole?" Paul Apodaca: "The idea of the songs being depictions of creation, is absolutely accurate. But they should not be confused with the tribal creation myths, because those are different. And yet, they are similar. So, the Cahuilla have their own creation story, which was recorded in the 1960s, and that creation story is very different from the Mojave creation story. And yet the Cahuilla and the Mojave both sing bird songs, which contain elements of the creation myth in them. What is fascinating, though, is that the creation story that is being told in the bird song cycles seems to be a different creation story from the ones that the particular tribes who are singing the songs may use within their own religious complexes. Some of the Tohono Ootam (Papago} and Akimil Ootam (Pima) people, also sing bird songs. "

Southern California descriptions of the emergence of the first people are in terms that are very different from what people would expect. They talk about the people coming up through the earth, almost as if materializing up through the earth. They have come from somewhere else, but they didn't come down to the earth from the sky, and they don't come out of holes in the ground as they do in Navajo. Rather, they seem to ooze right up out of the ground, and when they come, they are on their stomachs. They talk about crawling on their stomachs and moving over hills and down valleys on their stomachs, almost like people on sleds, sliding down snow-covered hills. Almost like that, undulating and sliding, all up and down hills and down through valleys. This movement of the people, and the way they describe their movement, is very different from anything you hear elsewhere.
Also, their description of the transformation into the modern forms of deer, birds, and so on, is alluded to in other myths, but it is openly stated in these bird songs. For instance, one of the songs says,

`My hands are growing hard, and make a rat-a-tat sound when I walk.
My hands are growing hard, and make a rat-a-tat sound when I walk.
I have a tail, but it will not hide me.
I have a tail, but it will not hide me,'
As it describes the transformation into a deer.

And the people's exclamations as they're changing into these forms are remarkable: they are done in the first person, and they sound surprised as they describe what's happening to them. They very graphically describe this physical transformation.

To sing the entire body of songs takes all-night or longer. The first songs, the entrance songs, are sung as the sun goes down. The entire cycle is gone through during the night, until the morning; when the sun rises, the final song in the cycle is sung.
The length of individual songs seems to be completely up to the singers. The songs themselves are generally two, maybe three lines long, and they are repeated; how many repetitions of those lines within a song seems to be up to the singers. They can complete one song in two minutes, or they can take that same song and extend it for ten minutes.
The songs are allegorical, but they are also social-entertainment, when they are not being sung in their entirety. If the songs are being sung during the daytime, for instance, in a home or something like that, dancing accompanies the songs, and the California Indian style of dancing, of course, is a whole other subject. When they're done in that way, the songs are performed more for social fun. When they are going to be sung in the entire body, though, that's when a group of singers gather together and will spend the whole night singing. Dancing may or may not occur during that singing.

SAIL Studies in American Indian Literatures
Series 2 Volume 1, Numbers 3 & 4 Winter1989