I often ghostwrite editorials for the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, including this piece on the importance of Native American music. Check it out.
by Carla Rodriguez
Throughout history, across all cultures, music has been used for celebration, inspiration, storytelling, and even to express sorrow. For Native Americans, music and history are tightly interwoven. A tribe’s unique heritage is constantly told and retold through songs that link the generations and preserve culture and tradition.
Across California, Native Americans still play the music of their ancestors, even as they add to it. Some traditionally use the power of their voices, such as the Tachi Yokuts tribes of San Joaquin Valley and the Paiute of the Mono Lake region. Other tribes craft musical instruments from their native land, such as Salinan bird bone whistles; the Chumash clapperstick, or wansak’, made from elderberry wood; and the Kumeyaay tribes of San Diego County, who sing beautiful bird songs using gourd or tortoise-shell rattles filled with native palm seeds.
For countless generations, California tribes have sung songs for love, war, hunting and fishing, nature, curing the sick and coming of age. From Paiute game songs, to Chumash songs that teach children morals, to Miwok songs that were considered as personal as an individual’s belongings, music celebrates our beliefs and origins. Most important, our Native American music has helped keep our traditions and stories alive for future generations.
Here in the Inland Empire, the Serrano people have used music since time immemorial. To this day, songs describe social customs and tell the stories of origins, our relationship to God, nature and man, and the long history of the Serrano people that is still being written.
The San Manuel Serrano Indians sing bird songs, named as such because the migration of birds parallels the movement of people through a territory, telling the story of the Creation, animals seen along the way, and sacred places. Unlike Indian musicians from other parts of the country, traditional Serrano musicians do not use drums for rhythm but instead use hooves of game animals and fashion gourd rattles filled with palm tree seeds to make percussive sounds.
To celebrate the long-standing tradition of storytelling through song, I recently participated in a new educational television commercial about Native music, featuring tribes from across the state. The commercial has begun airing in the Los Angeles and Inland Empire media markets ahead of California Native American Day, which takes place on Sept. 28 – the fourth Friday in September each year. During filming, I had the pleasure of hearing members of the Manchester- Point Arena Band of Pomo Indians and the Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indian Tribe bird singers share their native music. The Pomo Indians of Northern California have traditionally sung lullabies, as well as hunting and religious songs. For the Cahuilla people of Palm Springs, bird songs tell stories of their origin, journey and return home.
Across California, tribal people are all very proud of the heritage, stories and language that have survived through the generations because of the power of music and song. Preservation of culture and tradition is of the utmost importance to the modern-day San Manuel people, just as it is in most families and communities. Because of music, Serrano stories of humble beginnings, courage, self-reliance, hope and community that are thousands of years old are able to live on today.
We invite the Inland Empire community and beyond to experience the distinctive cultures of California Indian people firsthand at a free public celebration, featuring traditional Native American bird songs, music, art and food.
The celebration will be held on Friday from 6 to 9p.m. on the campus of California State University, San Bernardino.
For more information, go to nativeamericanday.com.
Carla Rodriguez is chairperson of the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians. Sept. 28 is California Native American Day; November is National Native American Heritage Month.