Initiation Rites in California

An Indian so initiated would not likely have suffered an "identity crisis." Would that we and our parents had been so fortunate in knowing when the psychological boundary between childhood and adulthood had been crossed!

In California, the toloache initiation cult originated among the Shoshonean (Uto-Aztecan) peoples of the south, but some of its features spread as far north as the San Joaquin and Sacramento Valleys. The puberty-rite aspect with its prominent death-rebirth theme was especially well developed among such Southern Californians as the Diegeno and Luiseno, for whom the Datura cult stood at the very heart of the entire religious system (Kroeber, 1953). In the main, only boys were initiated with toloache, girls having their own puberty rituals, but among some tribes, especially in the north, girls could also take Datura.

Among the Luiseno, among whom the cult was especially well developed, the boys' puberty ceremony was not conducted annually, or even at a fixed season, but performed every few years—whenever a sufficient number of youths were judged to be ready for initiation. Also, any man, or even a visitor from some other group, who had never taken toloache (Datura was drunk only once in a lifetime), was given the drug along with the youngsters, to whom the drink was administered at night, in a specially consecrated secluded place, following a period of food restrictions and instruction. The dried roots of Datura inoxia were pounded in freshly painted mortars that were used for no other purpose and were kept in sacred hiding places. The powdered root, mixed with hot water, was drunk from the mortar itself, each boy in turn kneeling before it, with the ceremonial manager holding his head, to pull it back when it was thought he had had enough. Following the drinking the boys were taken charge of by men who assisted them in the processions and dances that followed, including ceremonial circuits around the fire.

Before long the drug took effect and the boys fell unconscious. They were then carried into a small enclosure where they lay stupefied, watched by some of the men. The duration of complete narcosis varied from group to group. The Diegeno gave warm water to the boys after one night to help them recover. Among the Luiseno the intoxication seems to have lasted longer, up to three nights, but there must have been considerable individual variation, since not all the initiates were of the same age and size, and there was no definite measure of the amount of root used. In any event, the effect of the drug was powerful and the Luiseno reported some fatal cases. Whatever the initiates experienced in the course of the trance,

... becomes of lifelong intimate sanctity to them. This vision is usually an animal, and at least at times they learn from it a song which they keep as their own. It seems also that they will not kill any individual of the species. It is clear that the concept of the vision corresponds exactly with what among certain primitive tribes has been unfortunately denominated the "personal totem." It is certain that a special and individual relation of a supernatural kind is believed to exist forever after between the dreamer and the dream. The similarity to shamanism is also obvious; but it would be misleading to name the Luiseno institution outright "shamanistic" or "totemic." (Kroeber, 1953:669-670)

Nonetheless, the final ritual, which takes place about two months after the toloache drinking, is unmistakable in its similarity to shamanistic mythology the world over. The central figure in this ceremony is called wanawut, a man-sized animal-like effigy with a body, head, arms, legs, and sometimes a tail, made of mesh or netting of milkweed or nettle twine, that is laid in a trench, with three or four flat stones set upon it:

Each boy in turn now enters the trench, supported by the old man who has acted as his sponsor, and at a signal leaps from stone to stone. Should he slip, it is an indication that he will die soon. Very small boys are partially assisted by the old men. When all have jumped, they help the old men push the earth into the trench, burying the figure. The symbolism of this strange rite clearly refers to life and death. The trench represents the grave: the Luiseno cremated their corpses over a pit which was filled when the embers and bones had sunk in. The figure is human. It is specifically said to denote the Milky Way—otherwise a symbol of the spirit or soul. There seems also to be present the idea that the spirit of the dead is to be tied, perhaps to the sky, at any rate away from the earth; and the cordage of the object is probably significant in this regard. (Kroeber, 1953:671-672)

After the burial of the wanawut, there was dancing through the night, ending with a fire dance and the destruction by fire of the brush enclosure in which the toloache drinking took place. The boys had now forever left their childhood days behind. The Datura had done its sacred work and they would never taste it again.

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