Yaamar'a celebrates Serrano customs and traditions


HIGHLAND, Calif. - Each spring, members of the San Manuel Band of Serrano Mission Indians, in conjunction with the band's Cultural Awareness and Tribal Unity Program, enlighten guests about their culture during Yaamar'a.

''That's the thing about cultural awareness: if no one does anything, it will fade away and never be done again,'' said tribal member George Murillo.

The invitation-only, one-day event was held at the San Manuel Community Center Park on the tribe's reservation March 31. The Serrano word yaamar'a means ''spring celebration.''

Serrano, Cahuilla and Mohave bird singers shared songs that tell stories about their people's migration. Instead of using the drum, bird singers use rattles made from gourds. Palm seeds are commonly used to give the rattle its beat.

Additionally, the daylong event modeled how the Serrano people lived.

Abel Silvas, Juaneno, spearheaded the live construction of a Serrano home, called a kiich (keech), made primarily from willows. Tall grass and willow branches are used to thatch and completely blanket the dome-shaped structure.

''Bugs don't like willow, so you wouldn't have any bugs in your house,'' Silvas said.

Willows were also used to make a ramada or yaanjic (yahng-ich). Similar in construction to a modern outdoor canopy, families would use it to cook, craft and lounge.

While growing up, tribal elder Pauline Murillo's family used the yaanjic to beat the heat. ''You go out to your patio during the summer, and we would also sleep outside,'' she said.

Murillo is the author of ''Living in Two Worlds,'' an autobiography that is full of photos and stories about the struggles and happy moments of her life, family and tribe. It was published in 2001.

Several of the booths set up at the event aimed to teach guests about the Serrano way of life.

At one booth, tribal members demonstrated the use of acorns, a major staple in the Serrano diet. The acorns are dried, then shelled, ground in a mortar and then leached to remove tannic acid. After it's cooked, it resembles oatmeal or mush, also called wiich.

The same booth displayed a large bow and deerhide quiver bag and a traditional woven Serrano basket.

Nearby, children and adults alike learned how to weave miniature baskets. According to tribal literature, baskets continue to be made in the traditional way using juncus plant, deergrass and yucca fiber.

Another booth held one of the keys to Serrano language preservation via capturing the interest of children.

Employees of the Serrano Language Revitalization Project encouraged children at the event to draw pictures from a Serrano story about seven young female wolves. In short, the wolves try to sever their ties with their father after the death of their mother. The father follows them everywhere, watching their every move, and despite the efforts of his daughters to elude him, all eight end up back together as stars in the sky.

The children first listened to it told in English, then Serrano. ''We're trying to make a book about the story, so we're hoping we can get kids to draw something from the story,'' said Kaylene Day, a linguist for the tribe.

Thanks to gaming revenue and business ventures, the San Manuel people have bolstered the necessary financial resources to revitalize and preserve their culture like never before.

''It's not just about the gaming, it's about our culture and we can't lose sight of that,'' said James Ramos, Serrano and awareness coach for the Cultural and Tribal Unity Awareness Program. ''The kids see the culture and they know it's more than the casino.''

The San Manuel Band has about 200 enrolled members and the reservation spans 820 acres.