The Bighorn Sheep trio at center (Courtesy of NASA)
Welcome to Autumn. This is the time of the year when we watch the night sky closely. We watch the Bighorn Sheep (Orion’s belt) run closer and closer overhead, amid the other stars. Around mid-October the Bighorn will sparkle directly over our Southern California homelands, and in older times, this was the time for Serrano weeklong sacred mourning ceremonies.
Ernest Siva (left) with Kim Marcus and his son, Raymond Marcus, singing traditional Serrano bighorn sheep songs at Dorothy Ramon Learning Center’s August 2021 Dragonfly Gala (Carlos Puma Photo).
We’ve told you how in older times, ceremonial bighorn hunting (“Sharing the Bighorn Creation Story”) and plant gathering such as pinyon pine nut harvests (“Harvest and Tradition”), preceded this important sacred ceremony.
This week, we’re sharing memories from 1968 of what this Serrano ceremony was like.
”The following narration was transcribed from tape recordings made during the spring and fall of 1968 at Morongo reservation in southern California ...” 1
“Compiled and edited by Guy Mount”2
The People [in 1968]
“Sarah Martin, Keeka, age 783 [undated family photo]
Louis Marcus, Serrano singer, age 72 [undated family photo]
Magdalina Grace Nombre, Serrano singer, age 704
“SARAH: When people used to kill a deer they would sing on it. They’d bring their food to the Big House and put it there so that you cooked that other food with the deer. They’d cook black beans and potatoes with the venison and sing all night.
About the only other kind of ceremony we had was we would “Feed our House” every once in awhile. We’d hold a big dinner and invite everybody who belonged to our House along with many of the Cahuilla people from around here. We didn’t hold it regularly, just whenever we thought we ought to. It depended on when somebody had an important dream. Maybe they dreamed about the dead. We told everyone who came about the dream. They wanted to know.
Oh, yes, there is one other ceremony I know about, the Memorial Fiesta for the Dead. Our people used to have that, every year.
The Serrano Memorial Fiesta for the Dead lasted a whole week, beginning on Monday and ending Sunday morning. Our House always held it the week of the 15th of October. We invited people from different tribes here on Morongo Reservation and from down at Palm Springs. The people from Palm Springs held their Memorial Fiesta in March. The Wana-kick [Wanikik]5, Cahuilla people from Morongo, held their Memorial Fiesta two weeks after ours. Of course the Memorial Fiesta was not for having fun. We were mourning for the dead. We made images of all the people who died that year. We sang sacred songs all night long Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday nights, resting on Thursday, and singing again all night Friday and Saturday.
Ceremony for the Dead
“On the first day, members of the House would bring in food that was to be cooked. Long ago, it was acorns and all that stuff they made from grass seed flour. That’s all they had. But here, when I was a young girl, they took us in the Big House — a brush house bigger than this one — and we sat on the ground. Even the adult men sat on the ground, even the singers. We all sat on the ground. Then they’d bring in our food. There would be a big pan of beans, a big pan of stew and tortillas. Then there was a big pan of acorn, a very big pan. We didn’t eat it. It’s funny, we didn’t eat it. Instead the food was divided among the people who were there and they took it home and ate it the next day — the beans, the meat and potatoes.
The person who received the food for our House was called keeka. The man who prepared the food and gave it away was called pa-ha. If the paha had a wife, she did the cooking. The keeka usually lived in the Big House and that’s where people from families belonging to the House brought their food. We gave the head of each House that came to our Fiesta two sacks of flour. When our House went to their Memorial Fiesta, like at Palm Springs, they gave our keeka food to take home, to feed his House.
On the second day we sang for our feathers. We had songs for our feathers and beads (the sacred bundle). There were eleven or twelve songs just for that. We call our eagle feathers mirtch and we used to have an eagle dancer, but not in recent years. Nobody knows the songs for the feathers anymore. Nobody sings those songs now.
On the third night we brought the feathers out and displayed them. They were very old. We kept them in a hand dug cave back in the mountains.
On Thursday, the fourth day and night, everybody rested. The images of the dead were made on Friday morning. Men gathered Spanish Dagger (Spanish Bayonet), a tall plant that grows tall and has a flower. They’d make it just like a cross. They’d put the head on top. The leaves are arms. Then women made clothes for the images. We always burned clothing belonging to the dead and made new clothes for the images.
The people had to rest on Thursday because they were up again all Friday night. That’s when they danced with the images: Friday night about midnight. People who belonged to the family of the dead person held the images in their arms and danced. They cried in sorrow.
On Saturday morning they’d take the images of the dead outside. They would sit and sing. Sometimes people would come from all over on Saturday. The men played peon and sang gambling songs.
At dawn on Sunday the paha burned the images. People sang sacred songs while the images were burning. After that, the paha measured shell-bead money with his arm and passed it out to the families who came. The paha would measure out the beads and say, “This goes to that House.” He’d mention the clan name and one of their men would come and get it. About three measures of beads went to each House. The shell-bead money was measured by going once around the wrist then up over the fingers and down to the elbow. It was worth about seventy-five cents. Nobody knows where the string of shell-beads came from. We brought them with us and kept them. The people from our House also gave each family who came a pan of acorn flour. When we went to their Memorial Fiesta they gave each of our families a pan of flour and returned the beads.
The Loss of the Sacred Bundle
“However we don’t have those ceremonies anymore in our House. The Palm Springs people ended theirs and we ended ours. They ended it because the last of their old people died and nobody else wanted it. They buried the sacred beads.
And you know, back in 1945, we went to get our sacred feathers. They were kept in a cave we built just for that purpose. Well we found some of those feathers lying along the trail. Those feathers had been fixed in special ways. Some were fashioned into little feathered skirts. And I said to this woman who was walking with me, I said, “You know, it’s funny. I found one of these feathers on the trail.” She said, “I found one, too.” When we got to the cave, there was nothing there. Somebody had stolen them. We didn’t know what to do. We just returned and sat there in the house. We didn’t know what to do. My brother felt so bad.”
Ernest Siva: Memories of A Sacred Ceremony
Elder Ernest Siva (Cahuilla-Serrano), president of Dorothy Ramon Learning Center, shares memories of attending the last Serrano Image-Burning Ceremony, part of the weeklong mourning ceremony, around 1943, when he was a small child. He also shares memories of his mother singing farewell in Serrano to the beads once used in the ceremonies.
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Story excerpt from Serrano Songs and Stories, 1993, compiled and edited by Guy Mount, self-published, Sweetlight Books, Cottonwood, CA, pp 18-19, pp 27-30. Author note: “The following narration was transcribed from tape recordings during the spring and fall of 1968 at Morongo Indian Reservation in southern California. I have omitted all of my questions and rearranged the dialog to present the material as a continuous story.”
Guy Mount (1938-October 2020) studied at University of California, Riverside, in the late 1960s-1970s, pursuing a masters degree in anthropology. As part of his studies he documented Cahuilla life with Ruby Modesto, published by his own Sweetlight Press of Cottonwood, CA, in 1980 as “Not for Innocent Ears: Spiritual Traditions of a Desert Cahuilla Medicine Woman.”
Guy Mount used his own orthography for Serrano words. More often you’ll see the orthography for a Serrano traditional ceremonial leader as kiika'.
About Sarah Martin: According to Ernest Siva, Sarah Martin was the daughter of Captain John Morongo, the political leader of the main Serrano clan at Maarrkinga' (Serrano), or Malkinga' (Cahuilla), as the Morongo Reservation was previously known. John Morongo’s older brother, Francisco, was the traditional leader, or kiika', of the main clan, called Maarrenga'yam Hithiith. (Francisco Morongo was Ernest Siva’s great-grandfather.)
After Francisco Morongo’s passing in 1906 and the deaths of all male Serrano traditional leaders at Morongo, Magdalina Nombre, together with Sarah Martin and Merinciana Lyons, held some traditional Serrano ceremonies together until Mrs. Martin’s death in 1976. The ceremonial house was then burned. This was the end of an era. (Read more in Martin, Sarah, with Kenneth C. Hill, (Pat Murkland, editor), 2005, The Road to Maarrenga': Serrano Memories of a Long-Ago Ceremony at Mission Creek, Ushkana Press, Banning, CA. )
We met Magdalina Nombre in a News from Dorothy Ramon Learning Center story earlier shared from Guy Mount, "Catching a Song.”
From Culture Bearer and scholar Sean Milanovich of Agua Caliente Reservation: Re: "Wana-kick." “I write it as Wanikik. The name originates from wanish or river. As the story goes, after the flood, the river flowed over the village of the people, thus you have the name Wanipiapa.”