By Ernest H. Siva
August 1, 2008

Master artist Ernest Siva (right) and apprentice Isaac Horsman Rodriguez in front of the Dorothy Ramon Learning Center in Banning where their Bighorn Sheep song lessons take place.  The Center is named after the late Serrano language and cultural activist Dorothy Ramon, aunt to Siva and great-grandaunt to Horsman Rodriguez.Ancient journey is probably a more fitting reference for our project: The Bighorn Sheep Songs.  Even though we acknowledge that these are ancient songs that served an ancient way of life, we are also mindful that the process of passing the songs from one generation to the next is wrought with innovations of learning and teaching.  Our lifestyles differ from the past.  No longer do we depend on the bighorn sheep and other natural offerings of the land for life.  Agriculture and modern industry has changed everyone’s lifestyles.  The Indians, perhaps, have experienced the most dramatic changes.

Long ago, it seems the tutoring of singing began in the womb.  Families of ceremonial singers were treated to special songs that would only be heard by the average individual on special occasions (Waka’ch in Serrano).  My cousin L. Marcus, rest his soul, learned the songs from his father Louie, who perhaps, epitomized the life of a traditional singer.  Mrs. Marcus related to me once, that she remembers hearing the senior Marcus sing while he made the fire and prepared breakfast for his grandson. The singing was just as much a part of the picture in her mind as the stirring of the oatmeal in the pot and the crackling of the fire.  Every Friday night father and son would sing the different song series.  The Bighorn Sheep Songs were among these.

Ceremonial singers were sometimes pressed into service at crucial times, regardless of age or circumstance.  Our neighbors to the south, the Luiseño (Waashkiam, from Rincon Reservation) have similar traditional practices in the training of their singers.  At the ages of 5 and 7 years, respectively, Alec and Raymond Calac were asked to help their uncle sing the funeral songs (the Noqwanish songs) at a wake.  “Uncle would say, ‘How does this song go?’, and we’d sing it right off.”  (Personal communication, c. 1980.)  This illustrates that these kids heard the songs on a regular basis.  This is to be expected of the families carrying ceremonial practices.  Women learned the songs in this manner, as well, although, the ceremonial office of leading the songs was for the men of the family.

In our situation, the Morongos (Maarrenga’yam) saw the need for ceremonial songs fade with each loss of ceremony.  This was the realization of what Kika’ (ceremonial leader) Francisco Morongo had told the people before the turn of the last century.  His advice was for the people to change with the times and the changing world.  Our younger brother, the white man, had arrived to take over.  No more were we going to live as we had, with the songs leading the way, pointing to the law governing our lives.  But, a new way was being laid before us, and the sooner the people realized it the better.  This was based on prophecy, in our songs.

Captain John Morongo, Francisco’s younger brother, converted to Christianity.  He became a Protestant, while others in the tribe became Catholics.  John died in 1898 and Francisco in 1906.  Other relatives carried on the traditional ways, that is, conducted the feasts until 1976, when Sarah Martin, daughter of Captain John, died.  Upon her death, the ceremonial house was subsequently burned down, marking the end of an era.

At Mrs. Martin’s funeral, the ceremonial beads were displayed, at which time my mother, Katherine Ramon Howard, sang the special songs for that ritual, the displaying of the beads (Ngetqat).  It was a very special moment, because it meant that the ceremonial bundle was extant, since the beads are kept in the bundle along with other ceremonial items.  It was our understanding at the time that the bundle was missing.

This was our religion, the last vestiges of it, perhaps making a final sigh.

How did my mother know the songs?  Her father, Pete, was a Paha’, and handled the ceremonial bundle.  He too knew and sang the ceremonial songs.  When the need presented itself, she was ready.  This is how our tradition was.  There always seemed to be someone who arose to the occasion and served the people.

R. Calac, whom I mentioned above, recalled how special it was when my mother sang. He said those beads are called Kenxat in their language and was very “big” to their people, too.  (He also recalled seeing and hearing the Bighorn Sheep Songs sung and danced at Morongo.)

A Modern Turn

At this time we have started Isaac, a teenager on this ancient journey, of singing these special songs.  Just what this means to all of us, will unfold as time goes on.  I think it is momentous.  It is fun for me and also serious at the same time.  Serious, because of what the songs are.  They represent ancient practice and a reality that still lives.  The songs still appear to effect a reaction from the Bighorn Sheep.  (See Saving the Bighorn Sheep Songs.)  That is the serious and mysterious part.  We know that respect for life and thanksgiving for this world needs to be keen in our thoughts.  This is our tradition.

The fun part is in the teaching of the songs.  A young voice is treated with the notion that range will develop in time.  Maturation has its own schedule.  In our rehearsals, I raise the key to suit Isaac’s voice.  Our recording of L. Marcus serves as a model even though it is in a lower key.  We copy the repetitions, the pronunciation, style, etc.

We proceed part by part, or as needed, I correct a part that requires adjustment.  This is somewhat foreign to traditional practice, which sees things in the whole.  In past experience when working with the traditional singers, I would ask about a certain part, it was difficult for them to conceive this.  It had to be sung from beginning to end, because that is how the song went.  There seemed to be a natural flow to the music that couldn’t be interrupted at will.  To be sure, music does flow and have a natural shape, even with its stops and starts that make it distinctive.

In our rehearsals, we always end with the complete rendition of each song.  The modern dictates of time and requirements of active lifestyles have us pretty well locked in.  The use of a recording for Isaac’s personal use is helpful.  He has a chance to practice on his own, at his own pace.

The requirements for learning and producing for this project are geared for modern life styles.  We have an arbitrarily imposed deadline.  Whereas, in traditional practice, one may be required to sing and be of service when the time came, which was usually later in life.  It is true however, the start of the journey was early in life.  Perhaps, however, the natural order being one of routine, a routine of regular practice is something that is timeless.

It is generally accepted that if you don’t practice, you don’t sing.  A keen memory is required since the songs are not generally written down.  As A. Calac once said to me, “If you don’t sing the songs every day, you’ll forget them.”  There is a story of a singer’s rattle (musical instrument) making a sound by itself, as it hung on the wall.  This served as a reminder to the singer that it was time to practice.

Isaac has started on this journey.  It may take him a relatively short time to become familiar with the songs.  However, it will take more time to really know the songs.  To recall them instantly will come with living with the songs.  As soon as they occur to him through out the day, then they are his, to be kept fresh with practice.  That is the natural order of things.