■ By Rob Lindquist / Contributed
The hills south of town never cease to attract me. I have moved along their brush-laden slopes, over their weathered granite rocks and solid ledges since childhood. Called the Santa Rosas, they have served as an impeccable backdrop for the enactment of “Ramona,” Helen Hunt Jackson’s poignant portrait of 19th century California; a time when missionaries and immigrants successively sundered the fragile communal network of the region’s Native American people.
Along the Santa Rosas, running east to west, lies a depression, a sandy wash known as Pepper Creek. I know and feel in my bones that this side of the valley, with its bouldered ravines and sun-warmed slopes, holds secrets sacred only to those who were driven out by the determined onrush of land-hungry newcomers.
The creek bed and hillsides were the site of a sprawling village known to the Cahuilla and Luiseño Indians as Pochea. Its extended area spread east to west for some three or four miles along Pepper Creek. The area’s fractured rock formations often provided second and third walls to the residents’ brush kish structures; blackened boulders that still testify to long use as hearths and fireplaces.
It would have been fascinating to be the time traveler, a pilgrim, traveling along the trails that tracked through Pochea when it was alive and thriving. Gerald Smith, founder of the San Bernardino Museum, once estimated that seasonal Native American populations in and around the Santa Rosa hills could have exceeded 2,000 adult individuals. The rocks with their grinding holes, the many ‘slicks’ worn into monolithic granite, the sandy middens area where lie buried the sacred remains of a great culture; ground where bits and bone fragments, potsherds and burial sites testify to cycles of continued occupation spanning hundreds, if not thousands of years.
Even now, those hills harbor places that instantly fill me with reverence; worn trails and faint footpaths that draw me into weaving frail tapestries of out of the scattered remnants of Pochea so that I might wonder and somehow be there with them, the ones that were here for so long. Cool haunts along the stream bed, flat ground at the base of a hill’s or the pungent earth under the oaks make me feel that I am not really alone. This, particularly, as autumn begins to vest itself into the dark places, the canyons and hollows. The People were here for a very long time dancing and singing, living and dying. The proof need only be a shadow in late summer, a lonely old elderberry tree or grinding holes near a water seep or spring.
Where the verbena were
Here’s a single kernel, a seed that we might plant like a wildflower in our hearts. Several years ago, a story was told to me that brought my own recollected memories of wild verbena that bloomed where the San Jacinto River canyon opens into a broad river bed.
Near a grove of oaks that once sheltered a trading village near Cranston Ranger Station, there spread a patch of low-lying verbena that spread over the river sand each year in clusters of the most delicate lavender. There, too, were gourds for making rattles and the white trumpeted jimson weed. Once I heard a grownup say that many of the “Old People” died there from smallpox and cholera. Ever after, this place of the bright sand would make me very quiet.
As a child looking down on those verbenas, feeling the summer wind and sun on my skin, I knew at once that the sand, with its many flowers held the children, the little ones, some of whom died from these sicknesses. The area east of it was blackened with bits of charred wood and ash, dappled with fire-blackened pieces of pottery, bone fragments and rock implements. I thought of their mothers and grandmothers.
One such Native American grandmother told a story of those days when her people were still there at Pochea. It was shared early in the last century when the town of Hemet was in its nascency, its flat land spotted with newly planted groves and ranch houses. The old Indian woman appeared, walking slowly up the Pepper Creek wash.
A young wife saw the grandmother and called out to her from the backyard of her new home to come up for a glass of water. Once settled into a chair, the old woman shared her favorite recollection of childhood spent there in the Indian village. Many years later, the hospitable listener passed on the Indian’s story to her daughter, which was then told to me by a granddaughter several years ago.
Waking the people
The happiest memory for this old woman was waking up as the sunshine spread to bring light and warmth to sleeping families along Pepper Creek. It was the joy, she said, indeed – the honor and privilege of the children – to be the earliest to rise from their beds.
The first out would begin running as the growing sunlight began to warm the ground under their feet. They would run eastward up the wash and into the hillsides to “wake up the mothers and grandmothers.” It was, for them, to chase the fleeting shadows so that life could begin anew along the Santa Rosa hills. They ran like little birds, bush wrens flitting from one camp and cooking fire to another, all along the creek bed, chirping their bright greetings, calling for other spirits young and old to come out of their kishes and rock shelters to greet the sun.
They frightened the rabbits, scattered the quail and sent coyotes afoot as they skipped and scampered through the brush, carrying out their cheerful assignment. It was a song of a kind unknown to us today, that of children and birds calling out to other animals and creatures, to mothers and fathers, to the elders and spiritual leaders of a vanished people.
Theirs was the only music. The frenzied noisome racket and subliminal hum that announce the break of dawn in our communities today was not only inconceivable, but unconscionable. The children and the animals were the first to be heard. They laughed with the sun as it rose and mourned when it set on their nation.