Pa-Aqniwetem (Water Babies)
Painting by Amil Pedro
In Cahuilla culture, supernatural beings are considered to be capable
of both good and evil. The Hot Spring, dwelling place of such nukatem,
was both revered and feared for this reason. Cahuilla legends tell of
strange sounds or voices emanating from the Spring, reinforcing a
respectful and cautious relationship to the Hot Spring and its powerful
inhabitants. These voices might be human or animal in nature.
According to tribal elder Pedro Chino, the Agua Caliente Hot Spring was inhabited by Water Babies – precognitive nukatem that audibly cry, like human infants, when unfortunate events are about to take place. To hear the cry of a Water Baby, or to be called by one when nearing the water, is considered an ill omen that might mean death. Their cries are heard in the wee hours of the night.
"If you hear a baby cry, don’t go to find it – because it’ll pull you into the water, you know, and you’ll be drowned."
- Donna Largo
Though normally heard but not seen, Water Babies at times emerge
from the Hot Spring. They are described as hairless, like newborn
children. In one legend told by elder Francisco Patencio, Water Babies
emerge from the Hot Spring for the purpose of luring an unsuspecting
victim into the waters, where they are drowned. These are nukatem to be feared.
“One morning three of the sisters went to the Spring, and they saw a little child crying on the top of some fallen tule. But, instead of being dark skinned like an Indian, this child had pure white skin and hair.”
“The younger sister went to it, thinking that it belonged to some of the people. But the other sisters told her to let it alone – that it was an animal, and not a child. But she would not listen, and she picked it up in her arms.”
“Then a whirlwind came and lifted the girl and the child and whirled them up in the air. Then the whirlwind settled over the water, and both the girl and the child disappeared down with the water in[to] the Spring.”
- Francisco Patencio, Stories & Legends of the Palm Springs Indians, 1943