Bird singing the blues: Revival of a native tradition

When looking at the collective stories of any group of people it is not only important to look at what the stories say but also how those stories are attained.  In his book “Reading the Voice” Zolbrod hypothesizes that oral poetry is meant to be transmitted from spoken voice to listening ear and that when it is encountered in a written form, it needs to be acknowledged that something is lost because the words are meant to be encountered not read.  While the words themselves have importance; the rhythm, the tonal inflections, the language, and the experience of one person speaking or singing the poetry and the other hearing it are just as important.  There are benefits and constraints to both the written word and the spoken word.  Scholars have been working to put onto paper the songs and stories of non-written cultures in order to share and preserve them but what is lost is the context which must be in the least, acknowledged and ideally, experienced. 

As I mentioned, there are benefits and constraints to both oral and written transmission of stories.  While documenting a story by putting it on paper or on a recording does give the story a level of authenticity and permanence that can’t be assured with oral transmission; it does not have the same power.  Written words do not change, they are fixed so generations from now, a person can read and know the stories.  The stories may even be recorded electronically so the voice is still heard, the body movements, and experience seen but that is still not oral transmission.  With oral transmission, there is a human contact that over time, becomes a relationship.  It means the student is accountable to an elder or elders.  These relationships also carry traditions, responsibilities, and guidance to the young people that seek them.  The drawback to oral transmission is twofold as I see it.  First, there must be a teacher for the student.  Oral transmission can’t occur unless there is someone willing and able to pass on the traditions.  The other drawback that may be seen as a positive by some is that the oral transmission can be fluid.  Stories, even when sung and passed down through the generations can change.  As seen with bird singing, the songs may lose their words because the singers don’t know the language they are singing or they may lose their sound due to younger singers trying to set themselves apart in pow wow competitions. Neither written or oral transmission is superior, they are just different and have different purposes.  For bird singing the transmission must be oral and experiential.   

For this paper, I will be looking at the transmission of a specific form of poetry, the bird songs of the local Cahuilla people. The Cahuilla people can be generally divided into three groups based on the geographical region in which they lived: Desert Cahuilla, Mountain Cahuilla and Western (San Gorgonio Pass) Cahuilla. All three spoke the Cahuilla language, had similar lifestyles and practiced the same traditions. There are a total of nine Cahuilla Indian nations (Green). This form of oral poetry was almost erased from the culture by the years of forced separation, assimilation, and education of Native children by the American government.  Its phoenix-like resurgence in the local Native communities is a testament to the power of the songs and their need to be heard.  Now that more people have been exposed to the bird songs, issues of transmission and legitimacy are being raised.  The question of what it means to be a bird singer has been raised and the importance of how the songs are learned is a major part of that discussion.  In this paper, I will attempt to offer a glimpse of the Cahuilla people through their songs.  Not the words of their songs, the experience of the songs and their importance to the people.

For eight years, I worked at Noli Indian School on the Soboba Reservation in Southern California.  It was there I witnessed the revival of bird singing.  Today, if you attend a pow wow or similar function in Southern California you will likely see several bird singing groups, each with their own set of songs, sometimes the same words just sung in a subtly different way.  The practice is so prevalent that it is hard to believe that the tradition was almost lost when the last ceremonial singer, Joe Patencio, passed away in 1977. A group of men decided to make an effort to bring the songs back to the people.  With the help of a grant from the California Arts Council, young men within the tribe were partnered up with mentor bird singers to help the practice continue to the next generation (Sing birds, 2009).  It was their passion and dedication for sharing the songs with the young men of the tribe that brought this tradition back to life.  

Working at Noli Indian School, I learned a lot about bird singing and had the fortune to listen to many of the elders like Ernie Morreo, Alvino Siva, Anthony Andreas, and Sat Torres in person before they passed away.  Also, I had the honor to work alongside Kim Marcus, the man responsible for so many young native youth learning their songs and culture.  Mr. Marcus is the school counselor, culture teacher, distinguished elder, and bird singer at the school.  It is due to his efforts that bird singing is such a large part of the culture of the school.  In culture class, boys make gourd rattles and girls sew ribbon shirts and ribbon dresses worn by the singers and dancers. Songs are a part of the everyday life of the school, not something learned as much as experienced naturally.  Those that want to learn can practice and perform at school functions and weekly during lunch breaks.  Elders within the community are often present on campus helping transmit the songs to the next generation.  Many bird singers perform with the students and the school has its own group that performs at local cultural events to educate people about bird singing, this is Mr. Marcus’s group, the Noli Bird singers.  This group includes Mr. Marcus, elders like Willis Torres, students that are establishing themselves as bird singers, and students that are just learning bird singing.      

In my eight years at the school, I saw a handful of students that actually bore the label of bird singer.  Bird singing can be practiced by any of the students but only certain students labeled and respected as actual bird singers.  Since there are no longer any practicing Shamans, the official title of ceremonial bird singer has been lost but there is a difference in stature of a boy that is learning the songs and a boy that is a bird singer.  These boys were also usually in a lineage of bird singers, they came in knowing their culture and the school just nurtured their growth. Some of the boys I watched become bird singers were Bo Bullchild, Joe and Dominic Duro, Julio and Daniel Briones, William Morrell, Dusty and Rocky Rhodes, and Adam Trujillo.  To “be a bird singer” is more than just memorizing the songs and performing.  A young man couldn’t just sing the songs, he had to know what they meant.  This means the young man has to learn his culture, learn his language and adhere, or attempt to adhere to the code of conduct of bird singers.  They had to carry themselves in a manner that befitted the respect they received from the community.  For instance, bird singers are not permitted to use drugs or abuse alcohol.  If a singer is using drugs or drinking excessively, the other students would become upset with them and help them to get back on the path.  Out of respect, singers should stop singing when they know they aren’t living an honorable life. This has led to some tensions within the community as many of the younger singers bend the rules, especially the use of marijuana and alcohol. 

The songs have importance because they hold the history of the tribe and to sing them in the wrong way is to take power from the songs.  It is important how they are taught and practiced.  Both student and mentor need to recognize the sacred nature of the songs and the relationships that grow from their transmission.  The relationship between elder and apprentice bird singer is a special one, not unlike the relationship between Guru and disciple. This is because of the sacred nature of the material.  It isn’t just teaching, it is mentoring.  It is a care relationship not unlike father and son.  “The transmission of Dharma requires language, encounter, and human relationships” (Tsyogal) just like bird singing.  Some people try to learn the songs by listening to the recordings and imitating them but this is the wrong way.  It must be transmitted just like Dharma, by acquiring the language, encountering the songs and their ceremonies and by building relationships with elder singers.

The songs tell the creation story, track tribal migration and history and reinforce native language transmission but they also foster a code of conduct in the community. They are a major part of tribal gatherings and bird singers are respected members of the community, members that are following their cultural calling and keeping the songs alive.  Being a bird singer is no small task.  Bird singers are often asked to perform at gatherings and ceremonies.  In the community, if there is a death, the bird singers will be asked to sing.  On the night of the wake alone, the singers will sing from sundown to sunup, often in a small room with tobacco smoke hanging in the air.  The bird singers are often exhausted both mentally and physically after these events.  Many times, Mr. Marcus would hardly be able to speak after perfoming the songs for a passing tribal member. The importance of teaching the young people culture, especially the bird songs is highly stressed at Noli Indian School as well as on the reservations. “A 1990 census revealed that there were only about 35 people left who could speak the Cahuilla language. The language is nearly extinct, since most speakers are middle-aged or older” (Green).  Soboba tribal hall hosts weekly storytelling nights, language classes, and basket weaving gatherings. Many of the other local reservations have similar events and most have annual gatherings and pow wows where bird songs are sung and danced.  Each day Noli School begins with tobacco offering and prayer, at least once a week bird songs are performed at lunch, often with community members in attendance, and special events occur throughout the year like presentations from community members and the annual gathering. 

The important lesson is not the songs themselves necessarily but the way they are taught and what they have to teach.  Since these songs are taught through practicing together, there is a strong bond that develops between the elder singer and his students.  Most men teach the songs to boys in their direct family; sons, younger siblings, or nephews.  Even with the resurgence of the tradition, the tradidion struggles to survive intact.  Life on the reservation is a struggle for the young men and many from the reservation die young or find their way into the prison system. Sadly, two of the bird singers I saw emerge from the school Dusty Rhodes and Joe Duro died shortly after they graduated high school from gun violence while others ended up in prison, or fell prey to addiction or crime.  This is part of the reason many boys at Noli School do not have that strong male role model to teach them the ways of their people.  Many of the families were led by women because it was the women that were the ones that raised the families and become elders.  This is where men like Kim Marcus and many others stepped in to give these boys instruction on what it means to be a strong, Native man.  They were taught what it meant to have cultural pride and a heritage.

The way these songs are taught are by experience and social interaction.  The men and boys get together and sing.  They sing at social gatherings like funerals, fiestas, and even just backyard get togethers, anywhere can be a place to sing.  At first, a boy will just shake the gourd rattle with the others, next he will hum along but eventually, he will sing. By the time the boy sings, he will have spent enough time with the elder singers to have learned much more than the words to the songs, they will have taught him about his culture and how to be a man.  They will have created bonds that hold the young man to have respect and act in a manner that is culturally acceptable.  This is why the method of transmission is so crucial for keeping the bird songs alive.  In our world today of electronic media, the songs have been recorded, the words and stories will no longer be lost but the tradition, the language, and the social interactions are also in jeopardy of being lost.  Now that the words of the songs, the performance aspect is safe, the sacred needs to be protected.    

The revival of bird songs has brought some mixed feelings about the future of bird singing. “The loss of the Cahuilla language, infusion of money from Casinos (in some of the bands), contemporary western culture and issues of mixed blood have all affected the intention of the singers and the purity of the bird songs” (Sing birds : following the path of Cahuilla power – National Film Network).  The culture of the Cahuilla people was almost destroyed through the over 100 years of forced assimilation of reservation youth.  Now that the culture is being brought back to the reservations, the people need to decide how much they will allow the old rules to bend in order to attract the younger people to participate.  This is not limited to Native cultures but can be seen universally. The issues have to do with who can participate, how they need to be taught, and how they must behave once they are taught.  This is not a matter of who is allowed to participate in social gatherings or simply want to know about the songs, which is open to everyone.  This concerns becoming a ceremonial bird singer; one that has the respect from the community, sings at special functions, and learns the sacred songs.  I will attempt to introduce and look at each of these issues.  I am only trying to look at the arguments, I am not trying to take any position on the subject.  They are part of an ongoing conversation within the bird singing community and in many Native communities.  There is no wrong or right answer, just a conversation. 

First, there is the matter of exclusivity.  The battle to keep the culture alive has not been an easy one through the years.  It makes sense that after struggling so hard to revive the culture, the people are now very protective of that culture and do not want it put under the scrutiny of those that do not understand the context.  Bird singing is a sacred tradition and the songs hold power.  Some members of the community argue that anyone that wants to learn the songs, if they want to do it from their hearts, should be permitted to learn.  They are more concerned that the songs do not die out.  Then there is the other side which wants to limit the songs to members of the tribes that traditionally practiced those songs.  They may talk about blood qualifications and tribal enrollment.  The matter of blood quantum and enrollment is a huge, heated issue in the local tribal communities especially since the economic boon of casinos hit those communities.  Members that have identified themselves with a tribe for generations have been and continue to be disenrolled to increase the payouts for the members that are still enrolled. I admit to feeling slighted as an outsider when I hear that tribal members want to exclude outsiders from learning their traditions.  This is natural but I have to look at it from the perspective of the people that are trying to protect their dying culture. It is not about keeping people out, it is about preserving the specialness of the songs.

By limiting the amount of people that learn the songs to specific individuals, the members are trying to protect the way the songs are transmitted and also keep the power and sacred nature of the songs alive.  While tribal members may also approach the songs in the “wrong way” just like an outsider, it is less likely that they would do so if properly exposed to the culture. When too many people learn a tradition, the tradition begins to weaken.  People begin to learn the songs without the traditions, they do not understand the power of the songs so the songs begin to lose their power.  We as humans value that which is limited, like time or gold.  If everyone could sing the songs, eventually they could lose their meaning, especially when the people singing the songs do not know the language.  It becomes more performance than ceremony and loses its power.

 One way to protect the bird songs from becoming performance pieces is to limit the way these songs are learned. In my mind, this seems to be a bigger issue than the first.  The manner of transmission has everything to do with what is sacred and powerful about the songs. The songs are not something that can be learned from recording or books.  They have to be learned experientially and through human interactions. Many would also argue that to sing the songs, the singers should know the language and understand what they are singing.  While many of the young singers know the songs and their meanings, not as many know the individual words they are using.  When the singers do not know the individual words and their meanings, it is more likely for them to sing the songs incorrectly, the songs just being sounds not actual words.  This is a criticism from some of the elders that do not just want to see the practice of bird singing survive, they want to see the transmission of language and culture to follow that practice. 

The last issue raised is the code of conduct for bird singers.  This is a difficult line to balance when trying to keep a tradition alive.  Similar to the issue of who can learn the songs because it is about protecting the power of the songs.  Reservations are known for their alcohol and drug problems.  Many of the young men that want to learn the ways of bird singing also want to experiment with drugs and alcohol with their peers.  The problem with this is what to do when a singer becomes involved with “small” infractions, like smoking marijuana.  For some members of the community, this is not seen as a “big deal” but others lose respect for the singers when they do these things.  Respect from the community is crucial for the songs and singers to have power in the community.  At all bird singing events on campus, the respect for the songs was maintained and emphasized.  Staff members and often other students would remind each other to remove hats and cease speaking as the songs begin.  The respect for the songs gives them the power and by holding themselves in a place of honor with a code of conduct helps to give those singers their respect within the community.

The future of bird singing is much brighter than it was thirty years ago but it is still a shaky future.  With high rates of death, incarceration, alcoholism, and drug use on the reservations it is easy for young men and women to stray from the cultural traditions.  I saw the young bird singers struggle with trying to stay on the path.  Even some of the older bird singers stray occasionally.  It is a difficult responsibility to hold the position of ceremonial bird singer.  Not only to keep a code of conduct but also to perform at so many functions all over southern California.  It is a daunting task that not many young men today are willing to attempt.  The songs may live on but the traditions and culture that are transmitted with those songs are still on shaky ground.    

It is important for the Cahuilla people to keep their songs alive but it is also important to humanity.  We are at an interesting time in history.  With technology and globalization, cultures are mixing and melding at a rapid pace.  This is at the same time wonderful and alarming.  It is amazing and wonderful the amount of information one can find simply by turning on the computer but what is the cost of this convenience?  Globalization can also be called assimilation into a larger world community and when assimilation occurs, often so does a loss of the original culture.  This is not always a bad thing, some cultures need change but they shouldn’t be forgotten.  By looking at the issues facing the Cahuilla and their attempts to revive their cultural tradition of bird singing, we see our own desire to connect to a larger cultural context and what that means in a society of instant information.  The transmission of stories, language, culture, and the mentoring to the younger generation are issues that face all of humanity not just the Cahuilla.

Works Cited

Green, Mary. “The Cahuilla People.” The Cahuilla People. Augustine Band of Cahuilla Indians. Web. 22 Mar. 2015. <http://augustinetribe.org/cahuilla.html&gt;.

Sing Birds: Following the Path of Cahuilla Power. No Special Ability Productions, 2009. DVD.

“Sing Birds: Following the Path of Cahuilla Power – National Film Network.” Sing Birds: Following the Path of Cahuilla Power – National Film Network. National Film Network. Web. 22 Mar. 2015. <https://www.nationalfilmnetwork.com/store/ProductDetails.aspx?ProductID=1110&gt;.

Tsyogal, Yeshe. Lady of the Lotus-born: The Life and Enlightenment of Yeshe-Tsogyal. Boston: Shambhala, 1999. Print.

Zolbrod, Paul G. Reading the Voice: Native American Oral Poetry on the Written Page. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1995.

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