Canku Ota

(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


May 5, 2001 - Issue 35



Traditions Passed on at Tribal Museum


 by Benjamin Spillman The Desert Sun


photo of Bird Singers at the Makli Museum

MORONGO INDIAN RESERVATION -- As a boy on the Morongo Indian Reservation near Banning, Aaron Saubel never learned from the last generation of Cahuilla shamans.

As a man who now sings bird songs with his uncle Alvino Siva -- a 77-year-old Cahuilla elder -- Saubel now wants to learn the traditions of the ancient culture.

Saubel, 34, was among a small group of American Indian and non-Indians who gathered Saturday afternoon at the Malki Museum.

The group shared a traditional feast of roasted agave, rabbit, corn and tortillas, and told stories and sang songs.

"For us to be here is special," said Saubel, as he hauled the used pots and pans across the dusty, windblown driveway of the tiny museum in the San Gorgonio pass.

The event was an important fund-raiser for the museum that operates on as little as $20,000 annually, according to Hazel Duro, an employee of 13 years.

But to the tribal people it was a chance to strengthen the cultural bonds that have survived despite more than a century of outside forces working against them.

"I still canít go and talk about the past like (the elders)," said Duro, a member of the Torres Martinez Band of Desert Cahuilla Indians.

Younger people mingled among themselves, listened to the old men, sang and studied the traditional tools used to dig agave.

Siva and his older brother Paul spoke to each other in the Cahuilla language.

The two men sat at a wobbly picnic table on a concrete pad outside the one-room museum laughing and catching up.

Saubel watched from a distance, "just to see the look on (Sivaís) face when he talked to Paul," in their original language.

While others ate, Siva shook hands with visitors, told stories to the group and led songs.

"These songs are telling a story," Siva said.

Despite efforts by Siva and others to preserve the Cahuilla culture, much of it has already been lost, he said.

The shamans who treated wounds and illnesses, taught religion and expressed their power through acts like chewing hot coals are all gone, he said.

Siva learned what he could at the knee of Pedro Chino, the last shaman of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians.

"I donít think weíll ever see them again," he said.

The songs Siva sang were snippets of stories that originally took hours and even days to sing.

Much of the sequence has been lost, as have many dances.

Siva said he canít find anyone who can do an eagle dance.

"It is a tough one," he said. "It is just like being a ballerina. You spin, you get dizzy."

Daniel McCarthy, a non-Indian, used traditional methods to roast the agave for the event. After digging the cactus with a handcrafted oak stick, he removed the edible portions and roasted them in a pit for about 36 hours.

McCarthy said the most valuable lessons heís learned in 26 years of working with Cahuilla people have come from tribal elders.

"We think of big things in life as being distinct or more important," McCarthy said. "There are so many subtleties in a culture. Those subtleties are really the tapestry in which the culture is weaved."

Morongo Tribe




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