The Kuksu Cult
The Kuksu Cult was a central California religious cult system based on a male secret society and characterized by the Kuksu or "big head" dances. The Maidu, Pomo and the Patwin stocks of Wintun are among those who practiced it.
The presence of the secret society meant that only the initiated and instructed could participate in a set of esoteric rites, in this case spirit impersonations. Secret societies in many parts of the world use masks and disguises as a means toward concealment. True masks have not been reported anywhere in California; but it is clear that wherever the secret society prevails at least some of its members have their identity concealed during dances. The disguises were accomplished either by crude and heavy coats of paint, or by face curtains of feathers, down, grass or shredded rushes.
The ceremonial chamber was a large earth-covered house, approximately circular, with its domed roof resting on posts and beam logs. The living houses and sweat houses were similar in structure but smaller. The dance houses can be determined by the presense of a foot drum. This is a large, hollowed slab, 6, 8, or 10 feet long, placed with its convex side up, above a shallow excavation in the rear of the dance house, and stamped on by the dancers. So far as available information goes, this drum is used only by secret society tribes.
The secret society, the pseudo-masks, and the semi-subterranean dance house with its foot drum are the regular recognition marks of the Kuksu Cult.
In the society itself there seems to have been at least two grades of participants. The first took place when boys were of a tender age, the second when or after they reached puberty, perhaps in early manhood.
The Maidu term for a first stage member was yombasi. The northwestern Maidu of the foothills called the head of the society in each village huku. The valley people in the same group use the term yeponi. This term seems to be sometimes used specifically of the individual of highest authority; at other times, to be the designation of any fully initiated adult.
An initiate who has never risen to the highest rank is called beipe. The word is also used to designate the individual who assists the head yeponi. The ba'api is an expelled member or degraded initiate. The kuksu is the instructor of the yombasi or boy novices. The hinaki teaches the impersonators of the Yompui spirit.
The southwestern Wintun do not know the terms ba'api and hinaki, declare that any full initiate taught the boys, and add that if a member proved refractory he was magically poisoned by his fellows.
The Maidu and the Patwin universally accord the highest rank among their spirit impersonations to the Moki. They state that for a man to make the Moki implies his having enacted all other characters and being acquainted with everything concerning them. And yet the Moki performer attains his post not by any tested proficiency or service to the society, but by having acted as assistant to the individual who was the last incumbant, and having been designated by him as successor.
There are certain impersonations, such as the Moki, Sili, Kot-ho, Temeyu, and Sika, which many men receive instruction for but are afraid to enact. Possibly, they think, the teacher was offended at not receiving more pay and in resentment gave erroneous instruction, which, if carried out, would bring death to the performer. They placed full confidence, in such dangerously sacred matters, only in a near kinsman; so that the enactment of these spirits usually descended from father to son. The T'uya, Dado, Dihli, Wit'ili, and Kuksu impersonations carried much less risk, and were freely assumed by all innitiates.
The northwestern foothill Maidu distinguished the huku or head of the society in each locality. He was not chosen by ritual of the society but by the leading shaman, acting as shaman and not as a society member, after consultation with his spirits, not the deities presiding over the organization. If he is not a shaman when chosen it is expected that he would become one.
The responsibilities of the huku were not just that of shaman but of the governmental chief. He found the best sites for acorn gathering and announced them to the public; if the trees belonged to another village, he negotiated the payment for the crop. Besides inflicting sickness on foes, he warded it off from his own people. He made rain when it was needed, insured abundance of seeds, and a favorable run of salmon. He lit the fires at the anniversary mourning burnings. He knew and taught myths and more recent lore. Enmities were at once reported to him, that he might protect the people. He must understand all smoke signals. He advised about fighting, prepared arrow poison, and accompanied or led all war parties. The duties and prerogatives were so numerous that he must have been priest, shaman, and political and military chief all in one. Matters of money and wealth are not referred to in connection with the huku.
We should not look upon the society of each village as a branch or chapter or lodge of the society as a whole. This is our modern way of organizing things. There is nothing whatever to show that the California Indian arranged affairs in such a way, and a great deal to indicate that he did not. The society existed only in seperate communities. Each communal society no doubt recognized the others as parallel and equal.