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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
revival of bird songs has brought some mixed feelings about the future of bird
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Green, Mary. “The Cahuilla People.”
The Cahuilla People. Augustine Band of Cahuilla Indians. Web. 22 Mar.
Sing Birds: Following the Path of Cahuilla
Power. No Special Ability Productions,
“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
Tsyogal, Yeshe. Lady of the Lotus-born:
The Life and Enlightenment of Yeshe-Tsogyal. Boston: Shambhala, 1999.
Zolbrod, Paul G. Reading the Voice: Native American Oral Poetry on the Written Page. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1995.