Lizard key player in Quechan creation story

May 20, 2002|By LAURA MITCHELL

Staff Writer

Squirrel, wren and lizard tried to protect Ku-mat's heart from coyote. Coyote wanted to eat Ku-mat's heart to gain his power but the other animals cremated Ku-mat's body to preserve what is sacred.

Lizard was there. He lit the four corners of Ku-mat's funeral pyre.

So goes part of the Quechan creation story as told by tribal singer Preston J. Arrow-weed.

"The lizard is very important to my people," Arrow-weed said.

He made the same statement recently at a U.S. Bureau of Land Management public hearing on the Imperial Sand Dunes.

The BLM's draft management plan and the environmental study it was based on have been the subject of criticism from environmentalists and off-roaders. The two sides are passionate about how the sand dunes should be managed.

Arrow-weed said both sides are not listening to the other.

"When there's no compromise, it causes a lot of problems," he said.


Arrow-weed moved from the Fort Yuma Indian Reservation to El Centro last year to pursue art but he's become involved with politics and defending environmental conservation.

"We are more sensitive to the Imperial Sand Dunes because at one time it was ours. We were the stewards of the land. Now it is in the hands of the BLM," he said.

The lizard in the Quechan creation story is not any specific lizard, but Arrow-weed said all lizards need to be protected.

The flat-tailed horned lizard was recently proposed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to be listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. Part of its habitat is in the sand dunes.

Ku-mat was the creator of the world and his heart held a lot of power. Coyote wanted this power but wren found out about coyote's plan and told the other animals. They decided to cremate Ku-mat's body so coyote couldn't get his heart.

All the animals, except coyote, gathered for Ku-mat's cremation. Lizard lit the four corners of the funeral pyre. All the animals were filled with sorrow. They pulled off their tails and threw them into the fire. The humans who were there pulled out their hair and threw it into the fire.

Arrow-weed said he was 10 years old when he first saw the sand dunes.

"It was so awesome to me. I climbed up and came down with sand in my shoes. I just looked at it. To me it's something we should not bother," he said.

The sand dunes need to be respected for what they are. They're not something to conquer, Arrow-weed said.

"The BLM should not have thousands of people there. You go to national parks and they limit the number of visitors. They should do the same for the sand dunes," he said.

But coyote snuck up on them. He jumped over squirrel, got Ku-mat's heart and ran away with it.

Hawk followed coyote to the east but didn't catch him. Coyote ate Ku-mat's heart but Ku-mat's power was already gone.

"The songs are very powerful. It's like an oral history told in a song," Arrow-weed said. "The songs teach us we should take care of everything. Everything is sacred."

Coyote used to be part of the animals. He was a teacher and had a lot of power of his own. But after he stole Ku-mat's heart, he lost his powers and he lost his mind. He's been an outcast ever since.

>> Staff Writer Laura Mitchell can be reached at 337-3452 or

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