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Dr. Katherine Siva Saubel, One of the Few Fluent in Cahuilla, Walks On

Cahuilla elder Dr. Katherine Siva-Saubel walked on in November. She was fluent in Cahuilla, one of many endangered Native American languages.

On November 1, Dr. Katherine Siva Saubel, Ph.D., a Cahuilla elder, scholar and co-founder of the Malki Museum—and one of the few fluent in the Cahuilla language—walked on. She was 91.

Born in virtual poverty in Pachawal pa, a village located on the mountainous Los Coyotes Indian Reservation in Southern California, Saubel was one of 11 children born to her parents, who taught her Mountain Cahuilla. Before turning 10, she spoke the two other Cahuilla dialects, Pass Cahuilla, which she picked up when her family moved to the Agua Caliente reservation in 1923, and Desert Cahuilla, which she learned when her maternal grandmother moved in with the family, according to her biography on the Malki Museum website. Saubel spoke no English until she went to elementary school in Palm Springs.

Saubel apparently understood the value of her culture at a young age. In her high school years, she started keeping notes on native plants and their uses, something she would later be an authority on. It was not until the early 1960s, when she was in her 40s, did she pursue a scholarly understanding of the importance of culture and language. With a Kennedy Scholarship for Native Americans, she went to the University of Chicago and the University of Colorado Boulder and studied ethnology, anthropology and linguistics. She received an honorary Ph.D. in humanities from La Sierra University in Riverside, California, in 2003.

Saubel dedicated her life to preserving the imperiled Cahuilla language and culture. Documenting them was one way she strove to save them, and she did so by collaborating with several anthropologists, linguists and scholars, like ethno-linguist Eric Elliott, Ph.D., and Cahuilla scholar Lowell Bean. She co-authored several books with these people. With Elliott, for instance, she wrote I’sill He’qwas Wa’xish: A Dried Coyote's Tail, a 1,385-page, two-volume biography of Saubel, written in English and Cahuilla, that took 12 years to write, and Temalpakh: Cahuilla Indian Knowledge and Usage of Plants with Bean.

Elliott met Saubel more than 20 years ago and was with her in the weeks before she passed. He said of losing his mentor and friend, 'Ísill Sí'va' Yáwish Sáwvel Pá' Kík (her real name in Cahuilla), “It is 10 times worse than losing an incredible encyclopedia, because this woman—she would crack jokes in Cahuilla.”

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Saubel co-founded the Malki Museum in Banning, California, which opened in 1965, and served as president until her death. In addition to holding art, artifacts and historical documents of the Indians of the San Gorgonio Pass, the museum has an ethno-botanical garden and an academic publishing company.

“She wasn’t there on a daily basis, but she made herself available any time they needed her. She also made herself available to anybody who came to the museum and was interested in listening to anything she had to say about the Cahuilla people, especially children,” said her nephew, Kevin Siva, who took care of Saubel over the last 15 years.

Saubel was well-respected and received plenty of recognition. To note a few, in 1987, she was named “Elder of the Year” by the State Indian Museum in Sacramento; in 1993, she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame; in 1994, the National Museum of the American Indian in New York presented her with one of their first awards for cultural achievement; and earlier this year, she was awarded a Certificate of Congressional Recognition by Congresswoman Mary Bono Mack.

In addition to her cultural and language preservation work, Saubel served as chairwoman of the Los Coyotes Band of Cahuilla and Cupeno Indians from 1997 to 2007. “She was a true leader and a true warrior. She wasn’t intimidated,” Siva said. “She was the person that brought them into this century. It was through her that the reservation got electricity. It was through her that they had a community water system.”

Although Saubel accomplished much in preserving the Cahuilla culture and language, there was one thing she wanted and did not get to see in her lifetime: a school where the young people can learn the language and culture. She shared this desire with Elliott, who hopes to help make it a reality. “I have no clue how this is going to happen, but I have great faith,” he said.