Cal­i­for­nia’s Cahuilla na­tives try to keep tra­di­tions alive


In the mid­dle of the dusty Cal­i­for­nia desert, a group of Cahuilla Na­tive Amer­i­cans gather, as they have for gen­er­a­tions, for the an­nual agave fes­ti­val.

Leaves from the steely, light green plant are cut, roasted over coals and passed around by a tow­er­ing young man with a long black braid trail­ing down his back.

“Be care­ful, they’re fi­brous!” he warns the crowd gath­ered at the Morongo reser­va­tion near the city of Ban­ning for the an­nual agave roast, a pil­lar of Cahuilla cul­ture.

The fes­ti­val is one way the Cahuilla peo­ple are keep­ing their cul­ture alive — from lan­guage to culi­nary tra­di­tions, to song and dance — amid en­croach­ing in­flu­ences from main­stream Amer­i­can so­ci­ety.

The agave plant is passed around at the fes­ti­val, as at­ten­dees suck the flesh from the slightly bit­ter leaves.

“It’s an ac­quired taste,” said Sharon Mat­tern, a re­turn vis­i­tor to the Malki mu­seum on Cahuilla cul­ture, which is lo­cated on the reser­va­tion 160 kilo­me­ters (100 miles) east of Los An­ge­les.

Some 200 peo­ple joined for the lat­est agave roast, held ev­ery April at the mu­seum in honor of the agave plant, which is cher­ished by the Cahuilla for its hy­dra­tion and nu­tri­tious prop­er­ties.

Tra­di­tion­ally, it was ground into a pow­der and stored for pe­ri­ods of food or wa­ter scarcity.

“It’s a small cel­e­bra­tion, but very mean­ing­ful for us,” said Cahuilla el­der Ernest Siva, 76.

“It’s just a piece of our life, it’s im­por­tant for us to com­mem­o­rate, to re­mem­ber ... this is a way to show yes, we’re here and we re­call some things about our tra­di­tions,” he said.

Keep­ing Tra­di­tions Alive

Sev­eral thou­sand mem­bers of the tribe sur­vive, and around 1,000 of them live on the Morongo reser­va­tion.

Their num­bers have dwin­dled since Euro­pean set­tlers ar­rived in 1776, when there were about 10,000 Cahuilla in the re­gion.

Siva laments the en­croach­ment of mod­ern in­flu­ences, es­pe­cially when it comes to agave.

“To­day you can go to the su­per­mar­ket — ev­ery­thing is there. There is no work, some­one else does it,” Siva said.

In his day, ev­ery­thing from the point of cul­ti­va­tion to con­sump­tion was done by hand.

“This re­quired a lot of work to gather, first know where th­ese plants are, roast­ing them, cut­ting them,” he re­called.

Most peo­ple to­day are familiar with agave in its com­mer­cial form: blue agave is used to make tequila, while other forms are used to make a nat­u­ral sweet­ener, com­mon in health food stores.

Siva is not the only one em­brac­ing tra­di­tion. Malki cu­ra­tor Nathalie Colin said it is part of an over­all trend. “At the be­gin­ning of the 20th cen­tury, the na­tives seemed doomed to dis­ap­pear along with their cul­ture. Many left the reser­va­tions to as­sim­i­late into main­stream Amer­i­can so­ci­ety,” Colin said.

“But we see a real re­vival now — peo­ple are proud again, and they tell their kids ‘this is who we are.’”

Bird Songs and Rab­bit Stew

The an­nual agave fes­ti­val is part of that pride.

A few me­ters from where Siva speaks, Blos­som — a woman with long black hair and a wide smile — teaches vis­i­tors and chil­dren to weave bas­kets.

In a nearby gar­den, bloom­ing with fra­grant sage, 48-year-old Aaron Saubel sings a bird song, a repet­i­tive, trance-like rhythm about na­ture’s cy­cles.

Near the mu­seum en­trance, a group of teenagers dance to a drum­beat, punc­tu­at­ing their move­ments with hand-held tam­bourines.

Af­ter the dance, join tribe mem­bers fes­ti­val-go­ers for a tradi- tional meal.

On the menu: grilled agave leaves, pureed acorns, rab­bit stew, fried bread, bean soup, deer and wild turkey, all served with agave lemon­ade and chia seeds.

The Malki mu­seum, in op­er­a­tion for more than 50 years, is both a cen­ter of preser­va­tion and ed­u­ca­tion.

It was the first mu­seum to open on a Na­tive Amer­i­can reser­va­tion in Cal­i­for­nia and at­tracts scores of tourists ev­ery year — both na­tive and non-na­tive.

Colin said cul­tural preser­va­tion is a mat­ter of sur­vival for the tribe.

“Shar­ing their knowl­edge, singing, danc­ing, pray­ing, eat­ing tra­di­tional foods, mak­ing bas­kets, al­lows them to main­tain their iden­tity,” Colin said.

“They need this to coun­ter­bal­ance the ef­fects of mod­ern so­ci­ety.”

The mu­seum also has a gallery of an­cient ob­jects, a li­brary of vin­tage books and its own pub­lish­ing house.

One of the mu­seum’s founders de­vel­oped a main­stay project to de­vise a writ­ing sys­tem to pre­serve the tribe’s an­cient oral lan­guage.

There are only around 20 peo­ple who speak the lan­guage flu­ently to­day, in­clud­ing Siva, who said he has few peo­ple to con­verse with in his tra­di­tional tongue.

“You talk to your­self be­cause there is no one to talk to,” he said.

Ray­mond Huaute teaches Cahuilla cul­ture and said the need for preser­va­tion is ur­gent as the lan­guage dies off.

“Peo­ple used to live to­gether three gen­er­a­tions — grand­par­ents, par­ents, chil­dren. Now we’ve lost that struc­ture, it’s hard to teach the kids. Plus, the English lan­guage is so dom­i­nant — you have TV, In­ter­net, so much tech­nol­ogy,” Huaute said.

“There’s a resur­gence in learn­ing among young peo­ple, but we need more.”


Wil­liam Con­tr­eras serves his tra­di­tional bread made of the dates of na­tive desert palm trees on the Tor­res Martinez Reser­va­tion, dur­ing the an­nual tra­di­tional agave roast at the Malki Mu­seum on the Morongo In­dian Reser­va­tion near Ban­ning, Cal­i­for­nia on April 11.

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