Also serving the communities of De Luz, Rainbow, Camp Pendleton, Pala and Pauma

Cupa Days will return to Pala

Joe Naiman

Village News Reporter

Since 1974, the Pala Tribe has held a Cupa Days event, which will return to the Cupa Cultural Center on the Pala reservation May 6-7.

"It is tiring for two days to be the MC, but it is a lot of fun," said past and likely 2023 master of ceremonies Eric Ortega, who is a member of the Pala Tribal Council and is the assistant station manager for Pala Rez Radio.

Cupa Days will include cultural entertainment, native crafts, and peon. Peon is a game played by two teams of four men apiece along with a referee. One team at each time has four white bones and four black bones along with a blanket which is used to conceal the bones. The other side guesses which hand the bone is in (a string is attached to a hole in the bone and is wrapped around the wrist so that the player cannot change hands after the guess).

The side with the bones also sings songs to distract the other team. The referee awards tally sticks for correct guesses, and the game ends when one side has all 15 tally sticks. The game was often part of annual festivities, and peon was common to the Kumeyaay, Luiseno, and Cupa cultures.

The opening ceremony will take place May 6 at 10 a.m. Peon will begin at dusk that day. Cupa Days will continue on May 7 from 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

The Cupeno had a village in what is now the Warner Springs area called Cupa – the village had been spelled as Kupa before California became part of the United States. In May 1903, the Cupeno were evicted from Cupa and were relocated to the Pala Indian Reservation approximately 30 miles away. Cupa Days is held in May because of the anniversary of the relocation

"It's not a festival because it's still part of a memorial," Ortega said.

Ortega's grandfather attended the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania. Sherman Indian High School was once called the Sherman Institute and was a boarding school. Boarding schools were an attempt to assimilate Indians into American culture.

"A lot of students were sent away to schools, and they weren't allowed to speak their language," Ortega said.

"They were taught English, but they weren't taught advanced English," Ortega said. "They (the non-Indians) wanted them to be industrial workers, so they were taught basic English."

The boarding schools also split up siblings, and family members were not allowed to visit, so they were also at the expense of the Native American family structure.

Most non-Indians think of Carlisle Indian School not as an element to destroy American Indian culture and create industrial workers but as a football powerhouse where Jim Thorpe played and where Pop Warner coached.

American political leaders eventually relented on the assault on Native American culture and customs. "The whole idea of the cultural center was to preserve the language and the culture," Ortega said.

The Pala Tribe began building the Cupa Cultural Center in 1970. At the time the reservation's largest source of income was a quarry on tribal land, but no quarry revenues were used for the Cupa Cultural Center and the facility was also built without any public money or private grants. Reservation members provided the donations. The Cupa Cultural Center was completed in 1974.

"When they completed it that May, they had a grand opening and they had the first Cupa Days," Ortega said.

Prior to the April 2001 opening of Pala Casino, the Tribe used Cupa Days to fund cultural activities. "Cupa Days was the event we used to raise money," Ortega said.

Native American tribes historically visited other lands both for trading and for marriage purposes, so the participation of peoples other than the Cupeno and the Luiseno (Pala itself was historically Luiseno land) allows other tribes to share their culture with the Pala Tribe.

A government health order is not part of the California Penal Code and is thus civil regulatory rather than criminal prohibitory, which means that a sovereign Indian reservation may but is not obliged to comply. The Pala Indian Reservation thus wasn't subject to coronavirus restrictions on public gatherings, so the May 2021 Cupa Days was held in-house after not being held at all in 2020.

"In 2022 when we had it, it was actually the first Indian event in Southern California," Ortega said.

Some limitations were part of the 2022 Cupa Days. "This year we'll be kind of wide open again," Ortega said.

Representatives of tribes from throughout California and Arizona will perform during this year's Cupa Days. That includes the Inter-Tribal Bird Singers led by Pala tribal member Wayne Nelson. "That's sharing our culture," Ortega said.

The performances will include dancers as well as singers. "We're trying to show each other and everybody else that we're still here," Ortega said.

Past years have drawn approximately 300 visitors. "It is open to visitors. We usually don't get a lot of visitors," Ortega said.

A shuttle will take visitors from Pala Casino to the Cupa Cultural Center. "People can park at the Casino and then go over there," Ortega said.


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