If we were in older times, the Bighorn Sheep Constellation in the night sky would tell us it was nearly time for the Serrano mourning ceremony. This ceremony held at Morongo would be in October, but when it was hosted by the Pass Cahuilla in Palm Springs, it would be held in February or March, Elder Ernest Siva (Cahuilla-Serrano) says. For the ceremony held in the fall, people already had turned to the rich resources of the Native American homelands to gather and hunt, so they could feed the guests at the weeklong events.
Hunting for deer was a ceremonial and joyful adventure. Rituals before hunting included singing songs and dancing for the deer. These ancient traditional songs, much like those for bighorn sheep, retold the creation story of how the deer were people who gave themselves and transformed into game animals to help feed the people. The songs paid respect to the animals’ sacrifice and reminded the deer to make themselves available for the hunt. The deer’s many resources were never wasted, whether hide, or meat, or bones used as tools.
This week we celebrate the deer’s own ceremonial musical instrument. We’re talking about the deer-hoof rattle. Deer toes or hooves were highly valued because they make beautiful percussion instruments.
Kumeyaay deer-hoof rattle with yucca fiber handle. Siva Family Collection.
Each deer has eight toes. So, Cahuilla Singer Anthony “Biff” Andreas told us in 2004, 1about three deer make a good rattle. That’s 24 toes. He preferred ordering them from a mail-order catalog, so he didn’t have to do the work to boil and separate them after a hunt.
Deer-hoof rattles were used only to accompany important ceremonial songs. Chumash and Tongva men, for example, used deer hooves attached to a wooden handle to accompany nighttime Winter Solstice ceremonies and sacred death songs (Hudson and Blackburn, 1980). The Cahuilla didn’t use deer-hoof rattles to accompany death songs, Mr. Andreas said, but the rattles were important to accompany the ceremonial deer songs before a hunt.
Elder Ernest Siva (Cahuilla-Serrano), president of Dorothy Ramon Learning Center, talks about the wonder of a deer-hoof rattle:
Retired Morongo Tribal Chairman Robert Martin remembered in 2004 what the late Jack Mathews once told him:
“When Mr. Mathews was a young man — ‘This must have been in the 1930s’ — he killed a deer one day back in one of the reservation canyons. He was taking it home when he heard that ‘Pedro Chino was having a Big House,’ that is, a ceremony in the Big House. So instead of taking home the deer, Mr. Mathews brought the deer to the Cahuilla ceremonial house and to Pedro Chino, who was one of the greatest Cahuilla shamans … After the deer arrived, ‘Pedro Chino danced the last deer dance,’ Mr. Martin said. ‘It was the last one.’”2
Dorothy Ramon Learning Center’s 501(c)3 nonprofit mission to save and share Southern California Native American cultures, languages, history, and traditional arts. We love to hear from our community: EMAIL. Subscribe, share! Thank you! Pat Murkland, Editor. October 6, 2021.
Dorothy Ramon Learning Center “Heritage Keepers” newsletter, Spring 2004, Vol. 1, no. 2, p. 6, article on deer toes by Pat Murkland