Exploring Native American Indian Culture and Arts at Coachella Valley Archaeology Symposium

Katherine Siva Sauvel memorial service November, 2011 by Douglas McCulloh.jpg
Katherine Siva Sauvel memorial service November, 2011 | Douglas McCulloh.

If you can, imagine a slide show and lecture on outstanding samples of moon and star Native American rock art in the California deserts and southwest. Close your eyes and listen to a blessing of guidance and inspiration, borne of thousands of years of indigenous wisdom, delivered by esteemed Ramona Cahuilla elder, Anne Hamilton, the last fluent speaker of the Mountain Cahuilla language.

Now, listen to the potent memories of the decades-long professional collaboration between one of anthropology's most esteemed treasures, Dr. Lowell Bean, author and Professor Emeritus at California State University, Hayward, and recently-deceased, highly-celebrated Cahuilla elder Katherine Siva Sauvel, of the Morongo tribe. Hear the beautiful threads of Native flute music played by Cahuilla-Serrano elder Ernest Siva of Banning drift transport you to another time and place, and imagine your own hands crafting a traditional clay pot as you watch master potter Tony Soares create pottery using traditional paddle and anvil techniques employed by his Cahuilla ancestors for centuries.

Are you wondering where you are? Welcome to the 15 annual Coachella Valley Archaeology Society Symposium, "Difficult Times: Adaptive Strategies," held this past November 17 at College of the Desert. This year's symposium focused on the culture, arts, music, literature, history, ethnography, archaeolgy, and other features of the Cahuilla, Serrano, and other California desert tribes in the region. Presenters at this year's and past years' symposiums include representatives from Indian elders and other tribal members, as well as local college professors, lecturers, archaologists and scientists, all combining to make a spectacular day of Native American cultural/artistic celebration and education.

"We must all be nice to each other, and pray all the time to the creator," said Hamilton in her blessing, which she gave in both Cahuilla and English. "We are not going to be forever, and it's so important that we all try to get along with one another." Hamilton, who made the journey to the symposium from her home in Anza, located in the Santa Rosa Mountains above the Coachella Valley desert floor, is noted for her lifelong dedication to the preservation and teaching of the Mountain Cahuilla dialect, an endangered language. Hamilton was also honored with a special recognition and achievement award at the 6th Annual L.A. Skins Film Festival this past weekend at the Autry Museum.

This year's event, which has been held nearly consecutively for almost two decades, was organized, as it has always been, by anthropologist and professor Dr. Ellen Hardy of College of the Desert in Palm Desert, and sponsored by the long-running Coachella Valley Archaeology Society, which is a group of archaoleogists, anthropologists, artists, Native Americans, professors, photographers, and other community members in the Coachella Valley. This year's symposium was dedicated to the memory of Cahuilla elder Katherine Siva Sauvel (1920-2011), an internationally-recognized and honored local, national, and international preserver of Cahuilla language and culture and co-founder of the country's first Indian Museum, the Malki Museum in Banning in 1965, who died last November. Sauvel had been instrumental in her contributions to and presence at CVAS symposiums in past years.

Cahuilla elder Anne Hamilton. | Photo: John Pinson.
Cahuilla elder Anne Hamilton. | Photo: John Pinson.

In his presentation, Dr. Lowell Bean, author of many books on Cahuilla culture such as "Mukat's People," elaborated on the 50+ year association he shared with Sauvel during his lifelong work with the desert's Cahuilla Indians. Originally sent to the desert by his professors from UCLA in the 1960's, Bean was told by them that there were no remaining Cahuilla Indians - largely dismissed by anthroplogists up until that time as unsophisticated primitives - in the area. "I was sent out to the desert to see if I could find any remaining Cahuilla Indians," he noted at the CVAS presentation. "No one expected me to find anyone speaking the Cahuilla language. My professors told me it was a dead language. But they were wrong. It was also presumed that most of the Cahuilla people, and culture, were gone."

And, much to his surprise, Bean learned that not only the desert area filled with Cahuilla people, speakers, spiritual leaders and elders, but that the Cahuilla culture itself, which covers a huge geographic range from the Inland Empire, San Gorgonio Pass, Anza, Coachella Valley areas all the way to the Salton Sea, was a living and thriving culture filled with a highly complex system of social organization, food gathering and resource management, epic poetry and exquisite, centuries-old ceremonial traditions that thrived in the present day. Together with Sauvel, Bean co-authored the ethnobotanical book Temalpakh: Cahuilla Indian Knowledge and Usage of Plants, that details traditional uses of plants by the Cahuilla. Bean, along with linguist Eric Elliot, also helped Sauvel compose her two-volume memoir, I'sill He'qwas Wa'xish: A Dried Coyote's Tail, written in both Cahuilla and English and published by Malki Museum Press.

I'sill He'qwas Wa'xish: A Dried Coyote's Tail
I'sill He'qwas Wa'xish: A Dried Coyote's Tail

This past weekend's symposium also offered stunning glimpses of Native American star and moon rock art by Reverend Galal Gough, who has done extensive work chronicling sacred rock art sites in the Coachella Valley and desert southwest. "Imagine looking up at the clear night sky every night, without city lights, the way Native American people in the desert did for centuries," he said. "When you see the star and moon rock art they created, you are seeing what they saw."

Other features at this year's symposium included Palm Desert-based author and professor Ruth Nolan, reading excerpts of desert Indian literature from the region's companion literary anthologies No Place for a Puritan: the literature of the California Deserts (2009, Heyday Books,) which she edited for a sabbatical project at her job at College of the Desert, and Inlandia: A Literary Journey through Southern California's Inland Empire (2006, Heyday books), which includes a foreward by noted Riverside author Susan Straight. "The stories in these anthologies, which I assign to students in all of my college English classes, contributed by our area's Native Americans play a crucial role in defining the literary geography of the desert region," says Nolan, who read Native-transcribed passages describing a massacre of desert Indians at present-day Desert Hot Springs, the forced explusion of Cupeno Indians from today's Warner Springs Ranch, and an inspirational story about the adaptability of local Cahuilla Indians in transplanting a huge garden of barrel cactus plants from a hillside during construction of the windmills near Palm Springs.

Attendees at the symposium were also treated to a digitally-enhanced presentation, given by geologist John Goodman, of the history of Ancient Lake Cahuilla, the precursor to the present day Salton Sea in the eastern Coachella Valley, along whose shoreline Cahuilla Indians forged a livelihood by creating fish traps, hunting birds, and erecting temporary village sites. Other speakers included CVAS staples such as noted archaeologists John Hale, and Harry Quinn. Daniel McCarthy, who leads the annual springtime agave harvest - a traditional food source for the Cahuilla - gave a colorful talk, "Going Green," on Native uses of green plants indigenous to the desert area, in which he showed how the Cahuilla utilized, and managed, every plant community available to them at the widely varying climates - from desert floor to alpine forest - in their geographic territory.

Native American Star and Moon Rock Art | Photo: Ruth Nolan.
Native American Star and Moon Rock Art | Photo: Ruth Nolan.
Desert scholar and author Ruth Nolan giving a desert literature talk and slide show. | Photo: John Pinson.
Desert scholar and author Ruth Nolan giving a desert literature talk and slide show. | Photo: John Pinson.

At most of the past CVAS symposiums, Cahuilla Bird Singers, who sing the tribe's sacred songs at ceremonies throughout the year, have performed; although they were not present this year, their presence was strongly felt, as much as that of Sauvel, who, as Bean noted, "is still here working at my side" in the continuance of Cahuilla culture. And, as this year's symposium began and ended, the traditional American Indian flute music of acclaimed Cahuilla/Serrano elder and musician Ernest Siva, author of the book/CD Voices of the Flute, who gives flute playing and flute-making classes throughout southern California and at the Dorothy Ramon Learning Center in Banning, was played. Siva's traditional flute music filled the auditorium and evoked the spirit of those who have lived in this desert land for centuries, and whose presence continues here into this day.

Now close your eyes, and imagine you are walking among the ancestors. Hear the flute music, listen to the singing of the Cahuilla bird songs, calling the birds home. Imagine swimming in an ancient inland desert sea, and thanking the creator for bringing you safely home to your village, so that you can share the sunset with your relatives and friends and enjoy the stories of your desert people, from the time creation began, as you lay back and watch the patterns of the moon and stars wheel across the night sky. At the Coachella Valley Archaeologic Symposium, your magical journey has just begun - forever and again.

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