Jewish Sightseeing HomePage Jewish Sightseeing
Mission Trails—Kumeyaay beliefs
Harrison Weblog

2005 blog


Rock formations and belief systems co-mingle

In San Diego’s Mission Trails Regional Park, March 4, 2005

book file

Torah portion

By Donald H. Harrison

The Mission Trails Regional Park is one of the largest urban parks in America—covering about 7,500 mostly primitive acres at the locale where San Diego embraces the inland suburban city of Santee. 

By following Father Junipero Serra Trail named for San Diego’s first non-baseball playing padre, or by availing oneself of the dirt paths meandering near the San Diego River, pedestrians can glimpse unspoiled Southern California as the Kumeyaay Indians knew it in the years prior to San Diego’s settlement by the Spanish in 1769.

Visualization of the Kumeyaay’s lifestyle is aided not only at a visitors center, which looks like a modernistic eagle perched on a natural hillside, but also by various trailside story boards and exhibits.

Living a short way from the park, I am one of its frequent visitors—and often as I muse during my hikes, the stories in Hebrew Scriptures and sacred Kumeyaay beliefs co-mingle.  This sense that Mission Trails is a place of spiritual democracy is reinforced on my walks whenever I look at rock configurations and imagine them to be the depictions of legends, sometimes theirs, sometimes ours., sometimes those of other cultures.

At one spot along the road, there is a large boulder on a hillside against which two snake-like objects appear to be leaning toward each other in a friendly conversation.  At another spot, as I look up the hill, I see what could be interpreted as a shepherd’s camp—presided over by a rock that looks like a Bedouin figure. 

Further along, an outcropping looks very much to me like a man holding a pair of tablets crooked in his right arm—-Moses coming down the mountain.  I told you this place is spiritually democratic, so further still there is a tight cluster of large globular boulders, some of them patterned with what appears to be the maps of continents.  Astronomers might call this configuration “Before the Big Bang.”

Some of my friends who are deeply conversant with Kumeyaay culture do not appreciate my comparing these ancient rock formations to scenes from the Bible.  We should appreciate the ancient Kumeyaay culture for what it was—without overlaying upon it something foreign, they tell me.  I can appreciate, even applaud, their desire to appreciate Kumeyaay culture in its original form and in situ, but I also have a feeling that the ancient Kumeyaay would not have been such purists about it.

Their own creation legend, while different from what we read in the first portion of Genesis, has some points of comparison.  Reading from the Stone version of the Tanakh, we Jews learn in Genesis that initially there was darkness upon the surface of the waters, and that God decided to create light. 

On the third day, our biblical account continues, God separated the earth from the sea. Then, on the fourth day, “God made the two great luminaries, the greater luminary to dominate the day and the lesser luminary to dominate the night; and the stars.”

Jack Scheffler Innis recounts in  San Diego Legends (Sunbelt Publications, El Cajon, Calif: 2004) the Kumeyaay Creation story, which he, in turn, found in The Religious Practices of the Diegueno Indians, a 1910 book by T.T. Waterman.  ("Diegueno" was the name that the Spanish called the Indians in the vicinity of Mission San Diego, whereas "Kumeyaay" is the name the Indians called themselves.)

“In the beginning, there was no land, only salt water,” their creation tale begins.  “In the water lived two brothers who kept their eyes closed, so that the salt would not blind them…. On one occasion, the older brother swam to the surface and looked around.  He saw nothing except the vastness of the water…  (He) then decided to create ants. Little red ants sprang from the depths and were so numerous that they filled up portions of the water with their bodies and made land.”

Next the older brother made birds, “but since there was no light to show the way, the birds became lost and could not find anywhere to roost.  So the older brother kneaded together the colors of clay: red, yellow and black to form a flat round disk.  This he tossed up into the sky.  It stuck to the sky and began to emit a dim light. Today we call this object, Halay, the moon.  The moon’s light was too dim to be very useful, so he took another piece of clay and tossed it skyward across from the moon. It was very bright and lit up everything.  We call that Inyau, the sun.”

So, in both Genesis and in the Kumeyaay story, we start with a shapeless deep, and supernatural beings separate the waters from land (by different means).  Later  they create the sun and the moon as lights for the day and the night.  If you really want to knock yourself out, I suppose you could compare the story of the bird not being able to roost in the waters to the story of the raven that flew from Noah’s Ark after the flood.

In Genesis 1, we are taught that God “created man in His image, in the image of God.  He created him; male and female He created them.”  In Genesis 2, we are told the Adam and Eve story, wherein God “cast a deep sleep upon the man and he slept; and He took one of his sides and He filled in flesh in its place.  Then Hashem God fashioned the side that He had taken from the man into a woman, and He brought her to the man….”

In the Kumeyaay story, the mythic “older brother…decided to create people. Working with light-colored clay, he split one piece in two. First he made man, then he took a rib from the man and made woman.  The children of this man and woman were called Ipai, people.”

In Genesis 2, we learn that “Hashem God commanded the man, saying ‘of every tree of the garden you may freely eat, but of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad, you must not eat thereof; for on the day you eat of it, you will surely die.’”  A serpent however persuaded the woman that “God knows that on the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like God knowing good and bad… and she took of its fruit and ate; and she gave also to her husband with her and he ate…”

A serpent also figures in the Kumeyaay story about how people obtained knowledge.  “After the older brother had created people, a big snake arose from the ocean in the West…. When he reached the civilization, he devoured all learning and slithered to a place called Wicuwul, possibly the Coronado Islands (small, rocky islands owned by Mexico, clearly visible from San Diego Bay). Thus all the arts, including singing, dancing, basket making and speaking resided inside his body far away….

“A medicine man heard about the problem and decided to try to reach the serpent.  But before setting foot in the water, he changed himself into a bubble.”  The legend continues that the medicine man was swallowed by a second serpent, but (Jonah-like) remained alive in its body, until he was able to cut a hole through the serpent’s head and escape. 

Eventually the medicine man reached the knowledge-eating snake and persuaded it to follow him back to the village, where the snake coiled its body inside a ceremonial hut.  Frightened by the snake’s large size, the people set it on fire.  “The serpent burst, and knowledge within him scattered throughout the lands.  Each tribe got something different. That is why one tribe may be good at dancing, another good at basket making, and still a third tribe at singing.”

The scattering of knowledge is somewhat similar to the Genesis story of the Tower of Babel, in which common language was changed to many languages,  and the peoples were scattered to different places around the world.

I cannot say whether the Kumeyaay creation story predated the arrival of the Spanish missionaries, or whether the various biblical stories somehow were woven into the Kumeyaay’s spiritual basket.

Be that as it may, on my walks through Mission Trails Park, I never fail to gaze at the rock formations to see within them the kinds of pictures other people find while cloud-gazing.  At one place up on the hill, I have espied a formation resembling the kind of stone lion you see guarding the entrances to public buildings and some homes in China. 

This gives me further confidence that Mission Trails Regional Park is a place big enough in spirit to accommodate not only Native American beliefs but also those of the newcomer Europeans and Asians.