The Pala tribe provided an exhibit, which was part of this year’s San Diego County Fair, displaying a Native American game called peon.
“It depicts how the game was played that goes back for centuries,” Pala Rez Radio station manager’s assistant Eric Ortega said, who along with Cupa Cultural Center artifacts curator Mike Aguilar, put together the exhibit in the Theme Exhibit barn.
Peon is a game played by two teams of four men apiece along with a referee. One team at each time has four white bones and four black bones along with a blanket which is used to conceal the bones. The other side guesses which hand the bone is in; a string is attached to a hole in the bone and is wrapped around the wrist so that the player cannot change hands after the guess. The side with the bones also sings songs to distract the other team. The referee awards tally sticks for correct guesses, and the game ends when one side has all 15 tally sticks.
“It’s a simple game; yet there’s a lot of strategies behind it,” Ortega said.
Peon was common to the Kumeyaay, Luiseno and Cupa cultures.
“It was one of the games that everybody played,” Ortega said.
The game was often part of annual festivities.
“Whoever won it usually had bragging rights until the next annual event,” Ortega said.
The ability to guess accurately also led to reputations.
“In the old days when a person won that game, they said the person was able to foretell the future,” Ortega said.
The need to obtain all 15 tally sticks precludes peon from being constricted to a specific time schedule.
“Sometimes it can be a wipeout,” Ortega said. “Other times it goes back and forth. Then, you’re essentially trying to wear somebody out.”
This year’s fair theme was “Where the West Is Fun” and the Theme Exhibit has a Western emphasis. The American Indian was part of the West, and the exhibit includes a section devoted to the Indian component.
Ortega’s usual San Diego County Fair experience is with Pala Rez Radio, where he is the assistant to station manager John Fox. Ortega joined Pala Rez Radio six years ago.
“When I got here I knew nothing about radio other than how to operate the other end of it,” said Ortega.
Ortega is a 1982 Fallbrook High School graduate who played football and wrestled for the Warriors. He also served as president of the United Indian Club on campus. He qualified for the state wrestling tournament as a senior, and after graduating he wrestled at Palomar College. He left the Fallbrook area when he was 21 to live in Los Angeles for six years and in Tucson for eight years. He returned to Fallbrook in 2000.
Pala Rez Radio has been broadcasting from the San Diego County Fair since 2012. San Diego County Fair exhibit coordinator Holly Baker asked Ortega about including an Indian game in the exhibit.
“She wanted to get some information about some of the games that were played,” Ortega said.
Baker also contacted Kumeyaay and Luiseno reservations.
“She got a lot of information,” Ortega said.
A peon display wasn’t a significant undertaking for Ortega or other members of the Pala tribe to put together for the fair.
“We already had one set up at our cultural center,” Ortega said.
The Cupa Cultural Center is on Pala Temecula Road just north of State Route 76. A peon display has been in the cultural center for more than 20 years.
The San Diego County Fair opened June 2. Ortega and Aguilar assembled the display May 30.
“They were really nice to us setting up down there,” Ortega said. “They treated us really good.”
The fair staff did impose conditions in setting it up, something they do with all exhibits on display.
“They don’t give you a lot of time because there’s a whole lot of stuff going on,” Ortega said. “We didn’t need much time.”
Ortega and Aguilar set up the display in about 45 minutes, which was sufficient for their needs.
“It looked pretty good when we put it together,” Ortega said.
Other people who have seen the peon exhibit agreed with Ortega and Aguilar.
“They said it looked pretty good, too,” Ortega said.
The peon display is on the southeast side of the Theme Exhibit barn.
“I like it where it’s right inside the front door,” Ortega said.
The fair closed July 4, and the exhibits were disassembled July 5.