Many years ago, the Serrano people lived in the area, populating the Big Bear Valley and the area now called Twentynine Palms, living off the land, speaking their own native language and trading with other American Indians.
About 200 members of the tribe still live locally on the San Manuel Band of Serrano Mission Indians reservation in Highland, celebrating their traditions and sharing their culture with local students during school visits. In the old days, the Serranos were called the Yuhaviatam, or the “People of the Pines.”
Third-, fourth- and fifth-graders at Herk Bouris Elementary School in Lake Elsinore were the latest round of students to learn about the Serranos’ culture, thanks to a presentation the students attended at school earlier this month from Serrano tribe members Paakuma “Shorty” Tawinat and his younger brother, Albert Rodriguez. The men visited the school on Dec. 4 for a lively presentation about the Serrano traditions, culture and language.
With them was language teacher Michael Navarrete, who is helping the Serranos teach their native language to other tribe members. Together, the three visitors taught the Herk Bouris students how to count to 10 in the Serrano language and the words to a popular Serrano fishing song, which they practiced together.
“You are encouraging the fish to, ‘come to me,’ ” Tawinat told the children as he presented a slide show that showed the children the Serrano words for “fish” (kihuuc) and “water” (paac). The “c” sound is pronounced like a “ch” sound in the Serrano language.
Before the Spanish arrived in the area, there were 15,000 native fluent Serrano speakers; in 1860 the number had dwindled to 250. Today, only two Serrano elders are fluent in the language, said Tawinat, whose ancestors were respected Serrano leaders and elders.
“We’re certainly trying to bring it back,” added Navarrete, who teaches the Serrano language at the reservation.
The students enjoyed learning about the Serranos’ old ways, including the dome-shaped brush house, called a kiic, that the Serranos built from palm fronds and other natural materials; the plants and local game animals they hunted and ate; their songs, dances, and musical instruments; games and toys; and methods of adapting to their environment. The Serrano people traded with neighboring tribes and shared their resources with them, Tawinat said.
The students had questions for the Serrano visitors, who also have some Cahuilla ancestry. Is it true that only two people today are fluent in Serrano? one student asked. It is, Tawinat answered, adding, “Right now I’m learning.”
Another student asked how the Serranos wore their sandals that were made from braided and tightly woven yucca fibers. Tawinat brought a pair of the sandals for the students to see and touch.
Before they left, Tawinat and Rodriguez sang a lively song and invited the students to dance along with them. The children gathered around and many joined in, copying Tawinat’s and Rodriguez’s steps.
Fourth-grader Shawn Eggers said he enjoyed the presentation, and especially the fishing song.
“Actually it’s really fun. Everyone’s having fun,” Shawn said about the 90-minute presentation, which included an informative slide show.
When asked if he thought the Serrano words were hard to learn, Shawn said, “It’s hard but I’m progressing.”
Herk Bouris teacher Craig Gruber, who helped to arrange the visit and presentation, said the lesson about the Serranos is an important part of the social studies curriculum in which California students learn about local American Indian tribes.
When Gruber introduced the guests after their arrival, he told the group of students in the audience, “You’re going to learn the real deal from the real people.”