Canku Ota - A Newsletter Celebrating Native America
May 6, 2000 - Issue 09

Learning Tribal Customs a Science
by Mark Henry of The Press Enterprise
To archaeologists, the piece of wood could be a stick. But to an Indian tribe, that stick could hold the key to life and death.

Science and training help, but archaeologists won't get a full picture of Indian life unless they learn from stories and songs that tribal elders have passed down to their young, cultural experts said at a conference in Riverside, Ca.

About 100 archaeologists and anthropologists listened as members of several Southern California tribes explained the importance of oral history during a conference at the Riverside Convention Center.

The importance of a particular stick or medicine bowl, even the way a pot may be cracked in two, has been told in stories and songs for generations, said Raymond Basquez Sr., cultural chairman of the Pechanga Indians near Temecula.

A bowl unearthed at an ancient Indian village would hold special significance if it were found cut in two, because cremated remains would be buried beneath it, Basquez said. And a piece of wood could be a medicine stick, he said.

"When we find these things we don't take them and put them on our shelves. We put them back in the ground because they don't belong to us," he said. "The land doesn't belong to us. It belongs to our Father who put us here."

Anthony "Biff" Andreas of the Agua Caliente Indians in Palm Springs said he grew concerned about the preservation of his tribal history 30 years ago as developers planned to build on leased Indian land.

He also recalled how the tribe turned to archaeologists at the University of California, Riverside, after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposed building a dam in a canyon near the city.

Andreas said he had hiked the canyon as a youth and knew of many culturally important Cahuilla Indian sites there. Archaeologists for the Corps of Engineers disagreed, but the UCR archaeologists found otherwise and the tribe blocked the dam for 20 years until it was scaled down, Andreas said.

He suggested archaeologists spend more than just one or two days with tribal members and get to know them and their history while studying Indian sites. Tribes don't want to stop development, but they are concerned about guarding and preserving human remains, burial grounds and ancient village sites that might be destroyed.

Developers often are quite willing to change their plans and go around sensitive areas once tribal members identify those sites, he said.

"We should underline the idea of learning from oral tradition," added Ernest Siva, tribal historian of the Morongo Indians near Banning.

The stories passed down to him by his family have become real, and they can help archaeologists understand why Indians settled in certain places and what happened to them, he said.

Riverside archaeologist Bruce Love, who organized the symposium, said the Indian cultural experts can help archaeologists better understand that an artifact is not just a piece of scientific data but part of a way of life.

The gathering was held as part of the 34th annual meeting of the Society for California Archaeology.

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