THE NATIVE AMERICANS OF
IV. THE SERRANO
A. Major Sources
Major sources on the ethnography of the Serrano include Lowell John Bean and Charles Smith's paper, "Serrano," in the Handbook of North American Indians, V. 8 in the Handbook of North American Indians, Vol. 8, California 1978; A. L. Kroeber's Handbook of the Indians of California 1925; William Duncan Strong's Aboriginal Society in Southern California 1929; Bean and Vane's "Persistence and Power: A Study of Native American Peoples in the Sonoran Desert and the Devers-Palo Verde High Voltage Transmission Line 1978"; Bean and Vane's "Native American Places in the San Bernardino Forest, San Bernardino and Riverside Counties, California" 1981; Ruth Benedict's A Brief Sketch of Serrano Culture 1924, and Serrano Tales 1926; Philip Drucker's Culture Element Distributions V: Southern California 1937; Edward W. Gifford's "Clans and Moieties in Southern California" 1918; the J. P. Harrington notes; and the C. Hart Merriam notes. The foregoing include some ethnohistory. Secondary sources on ethnohistory are Beattie and Beattie's Heritage of the Valley: San Bernardino's First Century (1951) and Paulina La Fuze's Saga of the San Bernardinos 1971. Some information given here is drawn from recent research by CSRI and others in the records of San Gabriel Mission. Some is also drawn from Bean's notes on his ethnographic research at Morongo Indian Reservation in the late 1950s and 1960s, which include information drawn from Sarah Martin and other knowledgeable Serranos.
B. Traditional Territory
The territorial claims of the different ethnic groups who occupied the Mojave and Colorado desert in traditional times in southern California overlap each other, and scholars' descriptions of group boundaries are each of them different. In fact, the boundaries appear to have changed from one time period to another; moreover, groups would sometimes share territory, or a group would invite its neighbors to share an abundant resource.
Boundaries at any one time may have been quite specific, even though they can no longer be delineated. Most southern California elders that Bean has interviewed have been rather specific about where clan territories were located. Boundary markers are commonly referred to i.e. that hill just north of such and such next to such and such as example. Within some areas there were places of common use that were well known to the people who used them, but little such information has survived. (See Francisco Patencio 1943).
1. Oral History. A version of the Serrano creation story told by elder Dorothy Ramon describes Mara as the first place the Serrano lived after they came to this world:
In a second narrative, Mrs. Ramon reiterated:
2. Claims Case Boundaries. Here we shall use the descriptions agreed to by the tribes themselves in suing for the reimbursement by the United States for depriving them of their traditional territory in the Claims Cases of the 1950s, even though these descriptions were and still are controversial.
In the Claims Case, the Serrano claimed the following:
The Maringa (Mariña) Serrano, one of the most visible of Serrano groups in the historical period, occupied the south easternmost reaches of this territory, and were the most important Serrano clan, at least in the 19th century, after many of the Serranos who lived nearer the coast were taken into Mission San Gabriel in 1811. After that, the remaining Serranos moved southeastward to escape the Mission system. The Serrano at Mara were members of this clan, probably a lineage thereof. Other members of the Maringa clan in the mid-nineteenth century lived at Yamisevul, also known as Maringa', on Mission Creek, and eventually joined Cahuilla relatives on the Potrero (on Section 36 of T 2 S, R 1 E, SBM, where the waters of Potrero Creek were used to irrigate fields.
From Mara Oasis, the Maringa probably traveled seasonally to harvest plants and to hunt over the vast ranges of the Mojave and Colorado deserts to the east and southeast, but the northeastern part of the territory described in the Claims Case was probably the territory of the Vanyume, a group encountered by Garcés in 1771, and after that not known to have been encountered by those passing through (Galvin 1967; Kroeber 1925:614).
C. Subsistence Resources
1. Plant Resources. The use of plants by the Serrano is covered in Bean and Vane's ethnobotany of the park, which remains to be published. Bean and Saubel's Temelpakh (1972), which pertains to the ethnobotany of the Cahuilla contains much information applicable to the Serrano as well. Lawlor's dissertation on plant use in the Mojave Desert (1995) also contains pertinent information. None of these sources, however, touches as well on the meaning of plants to the Serrano as does Dorothy Ramon:
2. Animal Resources. The use of animal food in the area now included in Joshua Tree National Park is to be covered in a proposed ethnozoology by Bean and Vane. Information on such use is scattered in the various ethnographies mentioned above under "Sources." Dorothy Ramon has provided information about how the Serrano traditionally went about procuring and using animals for food, and how they regarded the animals. For them, animals, like plants, are people who have let themselves be transformed. Ramon tells the story of the origin of deer in the following:
Small game animals like rabbits were an important part of the Serrano diet, but there were rules about hunting them. For example, neither young hunters nor their parents could eat such animals: Ramon tells of her young brother's hunting:
Large game animals were killed only after the appropriate rituals. As Ramon tells it:
D. Material Culture, Technology
The Serranos acquired the many species of large and small animals available in the area with throwing sticks, various types of traps, nets and snares, arrows, and sinew-backed bows. They also used poison. Baskets were the containers of choice for gathering plant products. These were used not only for transporting the plant products, but also for winnowing, cooking, and storing. Cooking in baskets was carried out by placing hot stones in food held in tightly woven baskets. While the adults and older children were carrying out their various tasks, babies lay or sat in baskets, sometimes carried by the mother, sometimes placed on the ground or a convenient rock. Although one might assume that pottery would have less use than basketry in a desert environment, a considerable number of pottery vessels have been found in the area, showing that pots were used for carrying and storage. Pottery vessels were useful for carrying water, the slight evaporation keeping the remaining water cool. Pottery was often used to cache precious or sacred property in caves when necessary.
The mortars and pestles, manos and metates, and hammerstones used for pounding, and for grinding food were made by grinding the quartz manzonite and other rocks that were plentiful in most parts of the area. Flaked stone tools served a variety of other purposes. They included fire drills, awls, arrow-straighteners, flint knives, and scrapers. Horn and bone were used for spoons and stirrers.
The Serranos kept warm in winter by wearing clothing made of animal hides, and sleeping under woven rabbitskin blankets. For ceremonial events, they used garments made or decorated with feathers, and made rattles made of turtle and tortoise shells, deer-hooves, rattlesnake rattles, and various cocoons. Wood rasps, bone whistles, bull-roarers, and flutes were used to make music to accompany the many songs and dances used in ceremonies.
Baskets were not the only thing they wove. Using fibers from yucca, agave, and other plants, they wove bags, storage pouches, cording, mats, and nets (Drucker 1937; Bean 1962-1972; Bean and Smith 1978).
Most Serrano houses were circular domes that had a central fire pit. The homes of several families tended to be clustered in small settlements, and included not only the houses, but also basketry granaries for storage of food, sweathouses, and often a ceremonial house. They were placed near springs or other water sources, and as near as possible to other resources (Bean and Smith 1978).
E. Trade, Exchange, Storage
The Serrano stored such foodstuffs as acorns, mesquite beans, screw beans, and other storable foods in large basketry containers sometimes mounted on poles out of doors. Other foodstuffs, such as dried meats, small seeds, and fruit, were stored in basket or ceramic containers inside their houses, along with other supplies (Bean and Smith 1978).
Their principal trading partners were the Mojave to the east and the Gabrielino to the west, but they also traded with their close neighbors, the Cahuillas and Chemehuevi. They constituted, in fact, a major nexus in a trade and exchange system that brought goods (and later, horses) from the Southwest to the coast. The finding of obsidian coming from long distance, i.e. Obsidian Butte and the coastal volcanic field (Warren and Schneider 2001: MS-ii) shows that people living in area now set aside as the Joshua Tree National Park had both direct and indirect contact with peoples many hundreds of miles away, both in the southwest and northeast directions. They would have gone from the coast to inland Arizona, probably to Nevada, and north of the Mojave Desert, as well.
Material goods, shells, sacred regalia (feathers and the like), were favored materials (Bean and Vane 1978).
Trade and exchange occurred informally between family members, at trade feasts, social events, and ceremonial occasions (Bean field notes 1958-1970).
F. Social structure
The territory of the Serrano, a non-political ethnic nationality (Kroeber 1925:615-616), was divided among a number of politically independent groups, which were patrilineal, patrilocal corporate clans, each of whom belonged to either of two exogamous moieties, Coyote or Wildcat. Each clan was composed of lineage sub-units, each of which had its own territorial base within the clan territory, the remainder of which was shared. It was, furthermore, forbidden that individuals marry anyone related to them within five generations. It follows that marriages across clan boundaries were necessary. The clans were divided into autonomous land-holding lineages. Each of these lineages had a chief, or ki'ka, with religious and political functions. His office was in general hereditary. His principal assistant was the paha, who assisted him in ceremonial, political, and economic affairs.
Throughout the year, individuals or groups left their communities as necessary to hunt, collect and gather, and process foods. They also collected whatever materials the environment or other groups could provide that were deemed necessary or useful (Bean field notes 1958-1970).
G. Religion, World View
Serrano world view, like its culture in general, is less well known than that of some of their neighbors, such as the Cahuilla. This lack is due to several circumstances. In part, it is because so large a proportion of the Serrano people were brought into San Gabriel Mission before or in 1811, after the failure of an attack on the mission. Disease subsequently further decimated the population. When scholars began to study Serrano culture, few remembered it as it was before the arrival of Europeans. It is known, however, that to the Serrano, as to other Native Americans, the plants, animals, and even rocks in the environment are sentient beings. As noted above, it is believed that they derive from human beings at creation time who were willing to be transformed into other beings.
The Serrano creation epic tells of two brothers in a story that is very similar to that of the Cahuilla and Luiseno. It tells of twin brothers, Pakrokitat and Kukitat, at the dawn of time. Pakrokitat created human beings and three beautiful goddesses on an island called Payait, to which he fled after disagreeing with Kukitat as to whether human beings should die, as the latter thought they should. Human beings divided into groups, and the groups warred with each other until it was decided that Kukitat, having done poorly by them, should be put to death. Kukitat's final illness, after Frog swallowed his excretions and thereby poisoned him, Coyote's theft of his heart, his death, and his subsequent cremation took place on the shores of Baldwin Lake in the San Bernardino Mountains. In a fight that erupted after the death, all the Mariña Serrano were killed except one man, from whose posthumous son all subsequent Mariña Serranos are descended2 (Kroeber 1925:619; Harrington Serrano notes; Bean and Vane 1981:158).
The story of Kukitat's death and cremation was sung until the 1960s at the Serrano's annual Mourning Ceremony, at which the Mariña as the oldest clan took precedence (Strong 1929:34; Bean field notes 1975).
In the earlier part of the 20th century, the Serrano and Cahuilla often joined forces to conduct their traditional ceremonies. When W. D. Strong was doing his field work in the 1920s, the Serrano Mariña and Aturaviatum and the Wanikiktum and Kauisiktum Cahuilla conducted their ceremonies jointly, being the last active religious organizations of their groups. It was customary for each group to hold its annual mourning ceremony once every two years, with the other three in attendance (Strong 1929:14-15).
Ramon speaks of an earlier time, when the ceremonial leader of the Serranos at Twentynine Palms, having no ceremonial house, came to Mission Creek to hold a feast:
1. Mission Period. The Serrano were a fairly numerous people when the Spanish arrived in 1769, but beginning about 1790, the westernmost of them began to be drawn into Mission San Gabriel. After an attempted Indian revolt in 1810, most of those in the San Bernardino Mountains and the western Mojave Desert were brought into the mission, some of them forcibly. Those in the easternmost deserts beyond the San Bernardino Mountains and Little San Bernardino Mountains were beyond the reach of the mission, but probably absorbed a number of those who fled the missions.
We have presented the oral history account that tells us that the Maringo Serrano were the original inhabitants of the village of Mara at the oasis of Twentynine Palms. It was probably early ethnographers who made the first written record that Mara near the headquarters of present-day Joshua Tree National Park was originally a Maringa Serrano village, but we have not learned from either written or oral literature how early this settlement may have been established-a question whose answer may lie in archaeological sites not yet examined. It is also not clear whether this was the main or "first" Maringa lineage settlement at one time, as the oral literature attests, or merely one of several places in a large area they used and occupied; however, the fact that it was near a major source of water with a valuable complex of biotic resources for food and manufactures argue for its use as a living place for Native Americans for a very long time.
2. American Period. It has been suggested that the Serrano left the area in the early 1860s when a smallpox epidemic struck the Indians of southern California, even though the isolation of the area should have protected them. Their fate may instead be described by Ramon, whose account derived from Serrano oral history tells a story that we have not found in any other published source:
Inasmuch as Ramon was in her 80s when she told this story, her grandfather might well have been at Twentynine Palms in the early 1860s.
The Maringa Serrano were living at yumisevul in the Mission Creek area, presumably before the 1870s (Strong 1929:11). According to some Cahuilla traditions, they replaced Cahuillas who had been living there. They intermarried with the Gabriel family (the ceremonial leaders of the Wanikik Cahuilla), and had moved to the Potrero, or Malki, by the 1870s. Here John Morongo, a leader of the group, played a leading role in the affairs of the newly established Morongo Indian Reservation. It is logical to assume that the Serrano left Mara because of pressure from settlers and miners, and better economic opportunities elsewhere. Mission Creek, and the Potrero, on what is now Morongo Indian Reservation, where many of them settled, were richer in plant and animal resources, being not so far into the desert, and closer to jobs.
3. Present Day Serrano. Morongo Indian Reservation probably has more Serranos than any other reservation, but since many of its members are mixed Cahuilla and Serrano, it is difficult to establish whether the majority are Serrano or Cahuilla. San Manuel Indian Reservation appears to be exclusively Serrano, but it is a very small reservation, and home to a relatively small number of Serranos. The recent success of casinos at both reservations has made them prosperous reservations, whose people are increasingly interested in their culture and history, and are generously devoting resources to recovering the available pertinent information.
Last Updated: 02-Aug-2004