We’re Still Here by Joan Koerper and Marja Anderson

“We’re still here,” announced Paakuma Tawinat, member of the San Manuel Mission Indian Band of the Serrano Nation, to the standing-room-only crowd at the Wrightwood Historical Museum on November 6, 2015. Accompanied only by his gourd rattle, Tawinat opened his presentation in Serrano tradition, singing a melodic song honoring the Big Horn Sheep, sacred to his tribe.

In an entertaining, informative, and interactive demonstration, Tawinat shared the history, culture, and current status of the Serrano Nation whose territory once covered 10,156 square miles of the San Bernardino Mountains, the Banning Pass, and the Cajon Pass. Now, Serrano territory is reduced to 1.5 square miles: the San Manuel Indian Reservation.

When the Spanish arrived in Southern California, 30,000 Serrano called their territory home and spoke the language. Only 200 closely related Serrano remain. Tawinat’s distinguished elder cousin, Ernest Siva, is one of only two remaining Serrano speakers. Determined efforts are being made to recapture the language and teach it to new generations. Classes in the Serrano language are even being offered at Cal State San Bernardino.

Tawinat’s ancestors survived forced conversion, slavery, disease, loss of identity, the “War of Extermination” declared by California’s first Governor, and deployment of Serrano children to Indian Schools dedicated to the motto, “Kill the Indian, Save the Man.” His godmother was one of the last Serrano to attend the Indian School at St. Boniface in Banning.

The Serrano once flourished on over 300 local abundant foods: plants and animals of the mountains and valleys in large territories they shared with neighboring tribes, such as the Cahuilla. Under Spanish and American rule they died of starvation.

Traditionally, the Serrano made full use of their environmental resources building round dwellings from flexible wood poles, palm fronds, and willows, which they left behind to be absorbed back into the land. Clothing was made from yucca and plant fibers. Established trade routes were used to both augment and sell goods with other nations.

Musical instruments were formed from natural elements. Flutes were carved from hollowed-out wood and reeds, while acorn seeds filled gourd and deer hoof rattles. Drums were not part of the Serrano repertoire. Traditionally, the Serrano also excelled in basket making. The audience was invited to peruse sandals, baskets, musical instruments, and other Serrano wares on display.

Tawinat highlighted how knowledge of the changing seasons was critical to his ancestor’s survival. These lessons were passed along, in part, through Bird Songs, Big Horn Sheep stories, and Flood Stories.

The Serrano had, and have, a rich social and spiritual life believing in a higher power, shamanistic healing, an afterlife, coming of age rituals, and death rituals. Music, gambling, and stories are enjoyed by all ages.

Strict rules covering marriage are in place thus, in the past, most were arranged. Tawinat’s grandmother, Martha Manuel Chacon, was the last Serrano woman to enter into an arranged marriage.

“It is done,” Tawinat concluded in his native language, the traditional closing of a Serrano gathering.

The meeting may have concluded, but the Serrano Nation is, as Tawinat announced, “still here,” succeeding. Serrano ancestors live on in their descendants and in the land itself. Purposefully overturned grinding stones lie under oak trees anticipating the return of the people who used them. Artifacts mark the sites of villages, and clumps of Datura plants still wait for the shamans who once harvested them. And if you listen carefully you can hear the voices of the People, intoning sacred Big Horn Sheep Songs, riding the winds up the Cajon Pass to a strong and healthy future.

Postscript for this post: Marja Anderson joined me in penning this article. Marja has a Masters in Anthropology from UCR and has conducted fieldwork in Hong Kong and Malaysia.

This article was first published in the Mountaineer Progress newspaper on November 12, 2015. Unfortunately, due to editorial oversight, the hardcopy version published that day contained innumerable errors and repetitions. The newspaper admitted to the mistakes in the following weekly edition and made the necessary corrections for the online version of the paper.