Saving Serrano

Andre Cramblit andrekar at NCIDC.ORG
Wed Dec 6 18:31:15 UTC 2006

SAN MANUEL INDIAN RESERVATION - A quiet battle is being waged to save  
the ancestral language of the Serrano Indians. The Serrano language  
was once spoken by indigenous people throughout the San Bernardino  
Valley and High Desert. Today, there is only one man whose ability to  
speak that tongue approaches fluency, said Kaylene Day, a staff  
linguist for the Serrano Language Revitalization Project. The  
ultimate goal of the project - an effort of the San Manuel Band of  
Mission Indians' Education Department still in its infancy - is to  
give tribe members the ability to use the Serrano language in daily  
conversation. "They want their children and future leaders to be  
versed in the culture so that identity is strong," education director  
Erin Kahunawaika`ala Wright said. The last person to be fluent in the  
Serrano language, Dorothy Ramon, died in 2002. With linguist Eric  
Elliott, Ramon compiled Serrano lore into the book "Wayta' Yawa',"  
the title of which
translates to "Always Believe." Ramon's nephew, Ernest Siva,  
remembers the sounds of Serrano from his childhood. "My mother, she  
and my older aunt, everyone in the family spoke it," Siva said. Day  
said Siva is the only person who is almost fluent in Serrano. There  
are times, Siva said, when he'll use Serrano phrases, though he  
acknowledged that his aunt's ability to converse in that old language  
exceeded his own. Siva said Day and others visit him every Thursday  
to work on the language project. He also teaches Serrano classes at  
the Morongo Indian Reservation near Cabazon. He is president of the  
Dorothy Ramon Learning Center - a nonprofit created to preserve and  
share knowledge of Southern California's indigenous cultures.  
Preserving the Serrano language, Siva said, "has to do with our  
identity and our culture. The traditions that we had. It's like  
living on our land. A lot of us move away, but as you notice, we  
return to our roots."
Historically, the Serrano language was spoken but not written, Day  
said. Written Serrano was not used until the 1990s, and part of the  
language project has been to craft a new Serrano alphabet that is  
different than the one used in Ramon and Elliott's book. Work to  
create a new alphabet began around September 2005, Day said. That  
effort has produced a 47-letter alphabet that uses many common  
letters as well as symbols not used in English. For example, the '  
symbol is used as a letter that symbolizes the sound of a "glottal  
stop" - much like the sound between "uh" and "oh" in the English  
phrase "uh-oh," Day said. A curriculum is being developed to teach  
the tongue to other members of the tribe. At this point, the San  
Manuels are not telling the public how actual words would be written  
in the new alphabet. Wright said tribal members are concerned that to  
do so could lead to the misappropriation of their culture. Wright, a  
native Hawaiian, said the
"tiki kitsch" that is often used as party decorations is an example  
of how the San Manuels would not want their culture to be  
represented. Wright considers the kind of island-themed  
ornamentations that can be purchased at party supply stores to be a  
bastardization of Polynesian ways. In Day's view, the most successful  
effort to revive a language was the reintroduction of Hebrew in  
modern Israel. The Torah and other Hebrew writings provided a wealth  
of knowledge for 20th-century speakers. The San Manuels do not have  
that much material to work with, but Day said there are 15 to 20  
hours of recorded Serrano to guide the study of an almost-forgotten  
language. Siva can also draw on notebooks that he compiled while a  
USC student in the 1960s. As a student, Siva studied music and  
traveled to Washington, D.C., to research Luiseno Indian music. While  
at the National Archives, he got sidetracked and found research on  
Serrano that he transcribed into his own notes. "I
realized I could read it," he said. Day was drawn to indigenous  
languages when she studied linguistic anthropology while a student at  
the University of Arizona and Northern Arizona University. "I  
discovered American languages when I was in college. They were so  
different from anything I'd ever seen," she said. "Language loss ...  
made me sad, how much language diversity we're losing. It's sort of  
like losing a species."
What's in a name? The word "Serrano" is actually not part of the  
Serrano language - it's derived from Spanish. The ancestors of  
today's San Manuel Band of Mission Indians lived in the San  
Bernardino Mountains before Europeans came to California. Spanish  
settlers called tribe members Serranos. The word is similar to  
"sierra," the Spanish word for mountains. In their own language, the  
Serranos called themselves Yuhaviatam, which translates to "people of  
the pines." Source: San Manuel Band of Mission Indians


-------------- next part --------------
An HTML attachment was scrubbed...
URL: <>

More information about the Endangered-languages-l mailing list