The Peon Game

The Luiseño hand game called “Peon” is actively played by families in the Pauma community today. It is slightly different from other Indian hand games, both in the equipment and the manner of play. Each player has two playing pieces, a white one, usually made of bone, and a dark one, usually a piece of wood. Each piece is attached to a chord or line, with a loop tied at the end so the player can easily slip it over his or her hand. There are also counter sticks, which vary from one tribe to another.

According to a description from 1888, “the game is for one side to guess in which hand of each player of the other side the white bone is in. The teams arrange themselves opposite each other. They toss to see which has the innings. The “umpire” gives the bones to the successful team and commences to sing a Peon song. The women of each side arrange themselves behind the players: all are kneeling or sitting on their feet. Each side has a blanket stretched in front of their knees.

The players with the bones grasp the blanket in their teeth, forming a curtain, and behind it they slip the lines over their wrists, without the opposite team seeing which hand conceals the white bone. As they take the blanket in their teeth, they join the “umpire” in singing the song, swaying their bodies and making grimaces with their faces. The others sing and keep time with them. The opposing team watches every motion, chatter and talk to each other, and the game becomes exciting as the team drops the blanket from their mouths and joins in the song, in a louder key, with the other players. They have their arms crossed, with their hands under their armpits.

The other team at once commences making all sorts of motions at them, pointing to each one, sometimes with one finger, then two, when finally one of them announces which hand the white bone is in of the four players. If they only guess one or two, then the ones they have not guessed go through the same motions until all are caught, when the other team takes the bones, and the performance goes on until one team gets all the counters, the game is ended with a regular jubilee…of the winning side.

The “umpire” who has watched the game and whose decision on any disputed point is law, hands over the money or prize to the winners, who are nearly exhausted, for it takes nearly three to four hours to play the game.”

Click here for a sample of a Peon Song sung by these members of the Pauma band of Luiseño Indians.

Honoring the Deceased

The Pauma graveyard is located on traditional land but separated from the reservation. The simple grave sites have a canopy of pepper tree boughs whose falling leavings provide a soft cushion to walk upon. In the center of the cemetery is a large cross and next to it is a war memorial for Pauma’s veterans.

This sacred space houses the remains of Pauma’s ancestors. On All Soul’s Day, the tribe comes together to commemorate their past and celebrate the present and future of the Pauma community. Mrs. Beemer, in her book My Luiseño Neighbors, captured the essence of it: “The children scampered around lighting candles. The adults talked among themselves. I heard laughter now and then. This was no long-faced occasion but a greeting with joy and light. Deeper night intensified the light until the areas shimmered, the pepper trees dripped in a smooth gold glow”.

During this celebration differences existing between individuals and families are set aside. We are reminded of our human frailty. The joining of our dead in common ground exposed to the heavens and the stars, where many believe the spirits of our ancestors dwell, reminds us we are one people.

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