Cultural Overview

Traditional Weave Basket

Traditional Weave Basket

The homelands of the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians has shaped their culture, traditions and present lives. The people of the San Manuel reservation are the indigenous people of the San Bernardino highlands, passes, valleys, and mountains who the Spaniards collectively called the Serrano, a term meaning highlander. The Serrano looked to nature and the land to provide the necessities of life including shelter, clothing, food and plants used for medicine.

The Serrano people embraced the pine forests and flowing water of the high country. Their creation story tells of the first people who tended to their creator Kruktat as he laid ill and dying high in the mountains. When the creator died, the people began to mourn and in their grief turned into pine trees. The nuts and acorns these trees scattered became food for the Serrano clans who would follow these first people. Those Serrano who lived at Yuhaaviat, an area of pine trees near present day Big Bear Lake where the creator died, were called the Yuhaaviatam or the People of the Pines. Members of the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians are the Yuhaaviatam clan and like their ancestors they maintain a special connection to the land.

Today many of the plants and trees traditionally used for food continue to grow in the area surrounding the reservation. The region is home to pine trees that provide an abundance of edible pinõn nuts; the black oak tree from which the people made their traditional food called Wiic; and the yucca plant whose blooms and stocks are harvested annually.

Traditional Serrano Territory

Traditional Serrano Territory

The village played an important role in the Serrano clans. The Serrano clans constructed their homes with the resources they gathered from the immediate environment. They used willow branches and yucca fiber (or willow thongs) to build their dome-shaped homes, called a Kiic, that measured approximately 12 feet to 14 feet across and were located in small villages near lakes, streams, springs and other water sources.

The people of the San Manuel reservation are renowned basket weavers and take great pride in the imaginative and creative patterns of their basket weaving. These baskets continue to be made in the traditional way using juncus plant, deergrass, and yucca fiber. Baskets can be woven so tight they can carry water and are durable enough to hold hot stones to cook Wiic, a staple made from the acorns of the black oak. Acorns are still gathered by tribal members to prepare Wiic. Families from the reservation make seasonal trips to the mountains to gather acorns as well as pinõn nuts in annual celebrations of renewal.

Singing has always played an integral role in the lives of the Serrano people. Unlike other American Indian musicians, traditional Serrano musicians do not use drums for rhythm but instead they fashion gourd rattles with palm tree seeds inside to make percussive sounds. In the past, songs of the Serrano people were used to prepare for hunting the bighorn sheep roaming their ancestral land. These songs reminded hunters that if the natural systems were in order, the sheep would be there and they would not come home empty-handed. The San Manuel Band of Mission Indians has been successful in preserving many of these songs. To this day, songs are sung to describe social customs, creation stories and history of the region's indigenous people.

In recent times, elders from the neighboring Cahuilla tribe have taught bird songs to tribal members at the San Manuel reservation. Bird songs are sung throughout the southern California area as well as the Mohave Desert and along the Colorado River. Bird songs are not directly about birds; rather the songs derive their name from the migration of birds that parallel the movement of people through their territory, telling the story of the creation, animals seen along the way, and sacred places.

Today, the San Manuel Cultural Awareness and Tribal Unity Program, with a mission to "recapture our past to preserve it for the future," endeavors to pass on Serrano heritage to future generations. Each year, the program holds classes on the Serrano language, basketry and pottery, games, gourd making, and bird singing. Activities such as the Yaamava' spring celebration, Yucca Harvest, and California Indian Cultural Awareness Conference, regularly bring together the families of the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, members from local tribes, and noted American Indian scholars to educate people on and off the reservation about factual California Indian culture.

Children, parents, and elders share in their culture through education and demonstration of the Serrano way of life. Above all else, the San Manuel Band of  Mission Indians believes that the Serrano language plays a central role in maintaining their culture. By introducing the language early, tribal children develop a deeper understanding of their living heritage. Today, the Serrano language is being preserved in part by the Serrano Language Revitalization Program who work with native speakers to pronounce the words in Serrano creating lesson plans developed to teach carefully chosen words including the names for plants, animals, and numbers.

In an effort to educate the greater community on factual California Indian culture, the annual California Indian Cultural Awareness Program, draws together tribal elders, leaders, and academics to share their expertise and life experience with area school children and teachers. Since 1999, the tribe has partnered with the San Bernardino City Unified School District, California State University, San Bernardino, and the San Bernardino County Superintendent of Schools to conduct this highly successful conference at California State University, San Bernardino. During the weeklong event, students and teachers from area schools learn about the histories, cultures, and governments of the California Indian nations.

The San Manuel Band of Missions Indians believes the past is the foundation for their future. With a community rich in culture and tradition, the tribe continues to share its heritage with a firm belief in the importance of utilizing natural resources. Each component of nature: such as water, trees, and the protection of animals and their habitat as well as the importance of the Serrano language, song, and bird songs, all play a defining role in their unique culture.