Púyily ‘Áy’enish (Big Meal, A Great Feast)

Launched just before the pandemic shook the world, the Pala Band of Mission Indians’ Púyily ‘Áy’enish (Big Meal, a Great Feast) couldn’t have been a more valuable last gathering.

The first Púyily ‘Áy’enish took place in November 2019. A collaboration among Pala’s Cultural Resource Committee, Chia Cafe Collective, and Indian Health Council, the feast was developed as an annual fall event to inspire community gathering, cultural learning, and general well-being. A menu of Indigenous food, prepared according to custom and heritage, was selected to nourish both the body and the mind.

“Preparing for the feast allows us to share knowledge and work with various partners to access traditional foods,” says Chris Nejo, a member of the Pala Band and spokesperson for the Pala Cultural Resource Committee. “It also gives us an opportunity to connect with the Earth as our ancestors did.”

The group contacted elders and community members to share their knowledge of how to properly harvest and process every food item, including honey mesquite and acorns that were gathered on what is now state park property and the Cleveland National Forest. Pala leaders forged relationships with local, state, and federal agencies to allow their people to go about their harvest undisturbed.

“At first, we could sense a slight hesitation among the agencies to allow us to gather in areas where many cultural resources are present, but they did what’s right—they allowed us to gather as we would traditionally, and saw firsthand the respect we have for the land and all the resources present,” says Nejo.

Practices of gratitude after gathering and preparing the food included prayer and giving small offerings, such as tobacco. The menu was distributed in both English and the Pa’enixily (Cupeño) language. Chris feels that the event significantly strengthened social connections among tribal members, by providing an opportunity for people to come together to gather, hunt, prepare, and eat food, and share traditional knowledge, especially about the uses of native plant species.

In the fall of 2020, however, with the world on pause, it seemed impossible to host a second great feast. It was obvious that the community craved some form of connection with tradition and with each other. Organizers of the event found a way to host a drive-through Púyily ‘Áy’enish.

The drive-through gathering included distributing 100 meals of prickly-pear-marinated quail—double the amount in its inaugural year. “Indigenizing our diet helps restore our spiritual, mental, emotional, and physical health,” Nejo says. “We felt we must continue doing what’s best for the wellness of our people.”

Besides the impacts of COVID-19, there are other challenges the Pala tribe faced in organizing the great feast that shine a light on difficulties they face on an ongoing basis.

“Climate change, invasive species, and pollution make it difficult to find foods that were once abundant,” Nejo says. “We also need to be careful where we gather because plants soak up the pollutants in water. We need to be mindful of where we harvest.”

The Pala Band now has a goal of starting a seed bank and planting community gardens to grow some of the harder-to-find food plants. “This will also ensure that everything we grow is safe to consume,” Nejo says.

He notes that the feast wouldn’t have been possible without the support and involvement of the entire community, including the governing bodies that permitted access to gather on state park property. But the bureaucracy was also an obstacle.

“My vision for food sovereignty in San Diego is tribal members being able to gather healthy foods in healthy environments without needing a permit,” Nejo says. “We should all be able to access healthy and culturally appropriate foods. We need to play a bigger part in land management and be more involved in developing policies that deal with how food is produced and distributed.”

Chris Nejo is a member of the Pala Band of Mission Indians, Legal Analyst at Pala Casino, and member of the Pala Cultural Resource Committee. Chris is committed to increasing his communities access to traditional foods and gathering spaces. Through a collaboration among Pala’s Cultural Resource Committee, Chia Cafe Collective, and Indian Health Council, Chris supports with hosting the annual Púyily ‘Áy’enish (Big Meal, a Great Feast).

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