Cochimi Social Culture
The backbone of existence
Very little can be gleaned from the Jesuit missionary reports about the Cochimi culture as it existed at the time of founding the missions. It was only the missionaries that had extended contact with the Cochimi and they were bent on assimilating, changing or obliterating the native cultures as has traditionally been done In every mission field almost anywhere in the world to date. The Jesuits recorded copious descriptions of the Cochimi but they were not impartial. They omitted whatever was inconvenient and they dramatized many exotic details and described what they perceived as general cultural backwardness.
You have to remember that the missionaries sought to attract support for their efforts by convincing their audience back in Spain of the dire and immediate need for Christian ministrations. They did not wish to portray In any way shape or fashion, any of the cultures that were intact and capable of serving the Cochimi people’s needs. Consequently the Jesuits either did not describe social institutions that were working well, and rather described them in a disparaging and belittling way As a result, little if anything can be known about Cochimi people’s religion, their way of government, or their family life, and what little that has been found has often to be read between the lines or implied from oblique back handed references In the reports that made their way back to Spain.
It was reported that all the people of central Baha and the Cochimi in particular believed in some form of deity. They all had creation myths and various hero figures or personifications of forces of nature or of animals. All groups had shamans who acted as intermediaries between the people and the supernatural. They interceded on the people’s behalf to ward off illnesses, divert storms, to ensure good harvests of fruit or seeds, and also ensure the success of the next hunting trip. Beside the prestige of their positions, Shamans extracted tribute In the form of food and offerings of hair that people cut from their own heads. These hair tributes were fashioned into capes that were worn by the shaman and were believed to attribute much power to the wearer. Shamans equipped themselves with various symbolic devices which would be talismans carefully crafted from wood and shell, often with inlaid bone or pearls.
When engaged to treat wounded or sick patients, they would wash and lick wounds. They would blow on, or suck through hollow reeds, from the skin. They would cast stones or bones in order to interpret the designs formed. And of course, only they could read and interpret the signs so formed.
The Jesuit missionaries called all shamans wizards and while they tried to play down the skills of the shaman they had to accept that they carried more influencing power than the Jesuits liked. The missionaries as a group referred to the shamans as quacks or spiritually misguided practitioners of the Cochimi heathen religion. Powerful stuff!
The Jesuits noted the presence of headmen, or chiefs and that in some cases they often were the shamans of the group as well. However it was never reported how the headmen were elected or chosen, the extent of their power over the group or the nature of their duties or responsibilities. The Jesuits noted that the headmen appeared to be popular and when these individuals were given a supervisory role of some kind in the mission, they were generally accepted with good will by the mission Cochimi.
The Jesuits reported that the headmen and elders of a rancheria took on defined roles in the planning of battles or skirmishes between groups. These reports indicated an almost constant warfare at some level or other between groups and that the object of battle was usually territorial in nature over food or water, but many may have been more accurately described as tests of manhood or tests of solidarity between rancheria members. Some “battles” may have had as their focus, an attempt to acquire new wives.
The question of exchanging one wife for another brought consternation and condemnation from the mission padres. In many instances there were more than one group or rancheria at a mission at any one time so there would have been ample time for socializing between groups. These would sometimes be compared to the gatherings or festivals that occurred during the time that the Pitahaya cactus fruit was ripe and the fruit was gathered. In times before the arrival of the missions, it was suspected that only during this time that food was plentiful. The fruit was easy to collect and share so allowing an abundance of time remaining in the day for socializing. So, for two or three weeks out of the year there were many smiles and many full bellies and consequent dalliance from one group to another.
At the missions, there were often impromptu gatherings and parties where eating and sharing food and drink went on. This was an enjoyable time for everyone with much laughing and camaraderie. Often people from one group ended up developing a relationship with a person in the other group and the relationships were described by the Jesuits as “casual” There was often open adultery and a decided lack of responsibility offered for, and to, children. No exact figures are available from the missions but it was reported that there was a high number of abortions and infanticide among the Cochimi.
The Jesuits were also shocked by the normal Cochimi practice of killing the aged and terminally ill and burying them immediately. The padres failed to understand that for a nomadic people on the cusp of starvation, a person who was infirm or debilitatingly aged would have caused extra stress on the remaining healthy members of the group and could possibly endanger their survival during times of critical food or water shortages. In combating this, the Jesuits were totally inflexible (and un-enlightened?) however and strongly maintained the Christian ethical line of caring for the aged and sick.
To reflect on the above, it is easy to conclude that the survival of the Cochimi before mission times required that they evolve a culture that adapted to their environment. The trading of sexual partners would prevent a stagnated gene pool in an otherwise small population. As the Baja weather changed to a drier, less-abundant and consequently resource dwindling environment, starvation and the need to constantly move from one area to another would be a drain on the Cochimi strength and fitness. During these times it would have been hard to transport the ill or aged and killing them might have seemed better than leaving them behind to starve. Having to transport infants and small children would be similarly rejected in order to maintain the health of the adults.
Mission life for the Cochimi was full of change and the stresses that that would naturally bring. On the one hand, their new life at the missions usually meant more abundant food and consequently more access to leisure time. On the other hand there was the forced servility and exposure to disease as well as the imposition of the rites of a new religion. One major hurdle for both the Cochimi and the Jesuits was the question of communication and language.