When Ernest Siva was a boy in the Morongo Reservation in Riverside County, he listened to the music and stories of his ancestors, who had lived in Southern California long before the land was named that name.
He remembers running around a ceremonial fire in the reserve at the age of 5 when a weeklong ceremony honoring those who had died the previous year culminated with the combustion of images in their image. Dollar bills and coins were thrown into the fire in tribute as the tribal elders sang songs reserved for special occasions. Siva and her cousin chased down the scorched silver that rose from the flames, largely ignoring the traditional lyrics in the background.
The specific words and rhythms are now distant memories for Siva, 84, a Cahuilla / Serrano Native American.
“I remember hearing these songs, but… I didn’t learn any of these songs because they are only sung for a specific occasion,” he said. “Once these ceremonies were over and they ceased to be celebrated, we no longer had these songs. “
The following year, the ceremony was hosted by another tribe, but over the years people who knew the native songs died without passing them on.
Siva is working to change that. For the past 25 years, the Banning resident has served as a tribal historian with the Morongo Band of Mission Indians.
For thousands of years, the Serrano language has been passed down through oral tradition. The word “Serrano” comes from the Spanish term for “mountaineer,” which is what 18th-century explorers called the Maara’yam people.
The stories have been passed down from generation to generation by the elders, but Siva believes that by the 1950s some of the oral history – as well as the native language, which has many dialects – had already started to fade.
Dorothy Ramon, Siva’s aunt, was the last “pure” or common speaker of the Serrano language.
In the 1920s, Ramon was forced to attend the Sherman Institute in Riverside, a boarding school intended to assimilate Native American children and strip them of their Native traditions and languages. But Ramon and his siblings were encouraged by their grandfather Francisco Morongo to keep their language alive or risk losing their heritage.
For the past 100 years, linguists have researched Serrano speech. When Ramon was almost 70, she collaborated on a 12-year-old project with linguist Eric Elliott, a white man, who translated his stories in the 2000 book “Wayta ‘Yawa’ (Always Believe).”
“It was a big surprise that she even worked with a linguist because she was on the shy side and remained isolated,” Siva said. “Without her, we wouldn’t have volumes of her stories.
But when Ramon passed away at the age of 93 in 2002, the tongue almost died with it. Revitalization efforts over the past three decades, led by the Morongo and San Manuel Mission Indian Bands, have resuscitated the language that was once spoken by locals.
Earlier this month, San Bernardino County officially recognized the language for the first time, although Serranos have been in the area since before the arrival of Spanish missionaries in the 1700s.
Siva’s work played a big part in this. He devotes most of his time and energy to sharing the Serrano culture and language.
Siva contributes to the Cal State San Bernardino language program through an agreement between the San Manuel Mission Indian Band and the university. A Native American language course was introduced over ten years ago, but today it is offered as a credit course.
Carmen Jany, California Indian Language Programs Coordinator at Cal State San Bernardino, said Siva’s instruction has been vital in keeping the Serrano language alive.
“I believe his sincere desire to preserve and pass on the language and traditions of local indigenous cultures – evident in his generous donations of time, talent and knowledge – is clearly a driving force behind these efforts,” Jany said in an email about Siva’s work.
After her aunt died, Siva and his wife, June, opened the Dorothy Ramon Learning Center in Banning, where they host Indigenous artwork including drama, poetry and music. They also regularly give Serrano lessons.
A dedicated student at the Learning Center is Mark Araujo-Levinson, a 25-year-old Latino who found the courses through a Google search.
The Riverside resident’s great-grandfather was Mixtec, an indigenous Mexican group, and Araujo-Levinson’s fascination with languages began during his childhood. But it wasn’t until he graduated from high school and friends told him about the Native American dialects of the area that he began to wonder why he hadn’t heard of them before. This curiosity launched him on a journey to learn more about the indigenous languages of California – and led him to Siva in 2017.
“At first, Mr. Siva was a little wary of the situation, just because I’m not on the reserve. But as our friendship grew, it became more encouraging, ”Araujo-Levinson said. “The last few years have really been a blessing for me. It means a lot to me that he taught me the language and how well he holds me up.
Araujo-Levinson, a math student at Cal State San Bernardino who considers grammatical rules like equations or theorems, shares his love of languages - including Serrano dialects – on his YouTube channel and even got a job in the Department of Morongo cultural heritage as a specialist preservation language.
Siva loves having such a natural student, even if he is unconventional.
“He surprises everyone with his ability to grasp and understand and all that is needed to write,” Siva said. “Not many people can do that.”
About two years ago, Araujo-Levinson translated a story told in 1918 by Yuhaatviatam leader Santos Manuel to anthropologist JP Harrington. The story, titled “What Owl Said” and originally written in English and Spanish, was translated into Serrano with the help of Siva.
Kwenevu ‘kesha’ ‘aweerngiva. ‘ (There was a big storm.) Hakupvu ‘weerngtu.’ (It rained a lot.)
The story describes the darkened sky and four boys playing in the rain. Then an owl visits a sleeping old man. The owl tells him to sing and play his rattle in the morning. The story ends with the music of the old man chasing the rain.
Puuyu ‘taaqtam hihiim taamiti.’ Puuyu ‘peehun ‘a’ayec ‘can’ nyihay kwana. ‘ (All the people saw the sun. They were all happy.) Kwenemu ‘api’a ‘puuyu’ taaqtam poi’cu ‘chaatu.’ (After that, everyone started singing.)
‘Ama ‘ ‘Yes.’ (That’s all.)
The end of such a narration – in Serrano’s native tongue – is what Siva fears. He never wanted to become the tribal historian of Morongo. As a teenager he wanted to play the saxophone but after decades as a teacher, from elementary schools to universities, he understood the responsibility of preserving his language.
He said his family used to fight for the right word in Serrano and failed.
“They were like, ‘Ah well, goodbye, language,’” he said.
“It was the end of our ways, you know,” Siva said of the celebrations long ago on the reserve. “Without having these things… without having the ceremonies, they were gone,” he said of Indigenous culture, language and songs.
Siva regularly promotes the Serrano language online and with linguists in San Manuel, who are part of the Serrano Language Revitalization Project, an effort to resuscitate the language. Although Araujo-Levinson is a natural speaker when it comes to Serrano, Siva believes that one day he will lose his star math student.
“We would hate to lose him,” Siva said. “He’s just one of those talents. It’s great to see him teach it. Teaching it is so important now.
Siva recalled that her aunt had recounted how her grandfather was once approached by a nearby tribal community, who admitted that she lost her songs to honor the dead. It was a rewarding experience, she said, and Morongo offered to teach the community the Serrano songs.
He explained that the songs are from the creator and intended for all of God’s children. But the experience left an impression on the family – especially him, Siva said.
“My great-grandfather said to his family, ‘You have to remember your culture and your language, otherwise you will end up in a wandering tribe.’ “