Katherine Siva Saubel, Cahuilla Elder: Meki'i'wah, The Place That Waits for Me

Photograph by Douglas McCulloh
Photograph by Douglas McCulloh

On the clear, cold day after the first snow, the Morongo reservation in the rocky foothills of the San Gorgonio Mountains, the land allotted to Cahuilla people decades ago, was quiet. A school bus wended its way up the road from the 10 Freeway, which goes from Santa Monica all the way to Florida, and passes by the ancient ancestral lands of California Native Americans where drivers might notice only the towering casinos and full parking lots.

But on this day, five mourning doves sat atop a gnarled native California sycamore near St. Mary's Church, on the higher part of the reservation. The next day, the cemetery would receive Katherine Siva Saubel, who died November 1. She was 91. Cahuilla elder stateswoman, scholar and linguist, keeper of language and bird songs and plant lore, founder of the Malki Museum on the reservation, she was legendary in this part of Inland Southern California.

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Photograph by Douglas McCulloh
Photograph by Douglas McCulloh

Because of her, I made my younger brothers gather acorns with me in the Santa Ana riverbed and try grinding them into flour in a granite boulder where we found a metate - a hole formed by generations of Native American women grinding there. After I'd read in the library her book "Temalpakh" about the traditional Cahuilla usage of plants, I never looked at an oak grove in the same way. "The Cahuilla sense of ownership toward oak groves is indicated by the word for such groves, meki'i'wah, which meant 'the place that waits for me.'"

She had an epic life, and her teaching influenced the way many Southern Californians looked at the land around them, and the people who'd been here for hundreds of years.

Katherine Siva Saubel was born in 1920 at Pachawal pa, or Los Coyotes Reservation, high in the mountains above Warner Springs. She lived there until she was nearly four, when a shaman advised her father to take his family to Agua Caliente Reservation, in Palm Springs. At twenty, she married Mariano Saubel, who lived at Morongo. They had one son and were married for 45 years until Mariano passed away in 1985. When she died in her bed on November 1, she had been living for fifteen years with her nephew Kevin Siva as caretaker.

She spoke both the Mountain and Pass dialects of Cahuilla, and was still meeting at her home every Monday with young men learning the Cahuilla bird songs. In her memoir, "A Dried Coyote's Tail," which she wrote with Eric Elliott, her stories are told in both Cahuilla and English. She met Mariano during a ceremonial feast in Palm Springs: "This was the last time they had the image ceremony there. Many Indians were there from here (Malki'i) , from the east and from Soboba and from as far away as Los Coyotes...they would sing their power songs...All the shamans danced. They danced there...And there was a young man standing there..."

Katherine asked a girl whether she knew the young man, and when the girl answered no, she said, "He is going to be my husband."

Her memoirs tell hundreds of stories of ancestors, songs, plants, animals, and life on mountain and desert land. Because of her, I showed my three daughters, when they were small, the plants in the riverbed near our house and in the vacant fields all around us. The datura plant, known as jimsonweed by whites and kiksawva'al by Cahuilla, bloomed along the reservation roads that day. I stopped to look, remembering the reverence and fear I taught my girls when they wanted to pick the flowers, the most beautiful blooms they'd ever seen. Buds long and chocolate as cigars, unfurling in five-pointed stars, and then a long trumpet of milky white with the lavender of dawn at the very edges.

Photograph by Douglas McCulloh
Photograph by Douglas McCulloh

This is a plant of shamans, Saubel taught me. They gave a datura tea to teenage boys to help them find their dreams; men sometimes drank it while playing peon, an ancient game, to help them win.

In the fields on Morongo that day, buckwheat bloomed like rust-and-cream clouds, and cows moved along the washes. The mourning doves rose from the sycamore into the sky.

Photograph by Douglas McCulloh
Photograph by Douglas McCulloh

Coming down from the foothills to the lower part of the reservation, the white tower of the Morongo Casino looked small against the San Jacinto Mountains. Somewhere in those mountains, covered with fresh snow and turning cool purple in the gathering sunset, the god Takush lives. Tahquitz Canyon, famous to tourists, always frightened me because I'd read Saubel's stories of how that god kidnapped girls and kept them in caves high on the mountain. That's legend - but my ex-husband works with a man whose brother and two friends drowned in a whirlpool below a waterfall in the canyon during the 1980s.

Legends are forever because of storytellers like Saubel. Her wake was to be held that night, and in the parking lot outside the Morongo Community Center, a loud raven croaked and spoke atop a lightpole. A hawk circled the field beside the center, where more jimsonweed grew near the dried silver-green leaves of a vine I recognized from her work as well. A bitter-smelling gourd nestled in the vines - my girls and I knew it as something you could make into soap and shampoo.

Inside the center, bolts of cloth were pinned to the walls, rectangles of purple, turquoise and royal blue, forest green and lime. A cool-hued rainbow. She was carried to the front in a simple pale pinewood coffin with a wooden cross atop the lid.

The hall was nearly full, with people sitting, talking, staring ahead, visiting family, and each making their way up the central aisle to say goodbye. Some wore shirts and jackets printed with the names of their reservations - Los Coyotes, Torres-Martinez, and others. Coffee cans filled with sand, and candles nestled inside, were placed at the end of each row. On a few chairs were handwoven baskets with delicate patterns, some filled with loose cigarettes. Tobacco as offering.

I had never met her, only seen her picture a hundred times, and maybe I saw her at the Malki Museum, when I went to wander the grounds and work on a novel with a young Cahuilla character who makes the datura drink so he can see the spirit of his dead mother, who shows his Mexican-American girlfriend how his grandfather cooked acorn porridge. She was sitting in a chair beside the ramada with the palm-frond roof.

A woman approached the wooden casket, covered with a drape of netting, and cried for a long time, shoulders bent. Then she reached her hand under the delicate fabric and touched Katherine Siva Saubel one more time, as if she couldn't bear to see her gone.

Susan Straight was born in Riverside, where she still lives. Her latest novel is "Take One Candle Light a Room." She teaches at UCRiverside. Read all her posts on KCET here.

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