The Indigenous Serrano language was all but gone. This man is resurrecting it

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Ernest Shiva, 84, is one of the last remaining oral historians of the indigenous Serrano language.
(Christina House /)

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When Ernest Shiva was a boy on the Morongo Reservation in Riverside County, he heard the music and stories of his ancestors, who lived in Southern California long before the land was called by that name.

He remembers running around a ceremonial fire on the reservation at the age of 5 as a week-long ceremony to honor those who died the previous year, with images burning in their likeness. ended. Dollar bills and coins were thrown into the fire in tribute as Aboriginal elders sang songs reserved for special occasions. Shiva and his cousins ​​followed the sung money flowing through the flames, mainly ignoring the traditional songs in the background.


The distinctive words and rhythm are now distant memories for 84-year-old Shiva, a Cahuilla/Serrano Native American.


“My memory is listening to those songs, but … I didn’t learn any of those songs because they’re only sung for a specific occasion,” he said. “Once those celebrations were over, and they stopped being held, we no longer had those songs.”

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The following year, the ceremony was held by another tribe, but over the years, those who knew the indigenous songs died without passing them on.

Shiva is working to change that. For the past 25 years, the Banning resident has been a tribal historian with the Morongo band of the Mission Indians.

For thousands of years, the Serrano language was passed down through oral tradition. The word “serrano” comes from the Spanish word for “highlander”, which 18th-century explorers called the Marayam people.

The stories were passed down by elders over generations, but Shiva thinks that by the 1950s, some oral history – as well as the indigenous language, which has many dialects – had already begun to fade.


Dorothy Ramon, Shiva’s aunt, was the last “pure,” or fluent speaker of the Serrano language.

In the 1920s, Ramon was forced to attend the Sherman Institute in Riverside, a boarding school aimed at assimilating Native American children and stripping them of their indigenous traditions and languages. But Ramón and his siblings were encouraged by their grandfather Francisco Morongo to keep their language alive or risk losing their heritage.

During the past 100 years, linguists have conducted research on the Serrano spoken word. When Ramon was in his late 70s, he collaborated with a white man, linguist Eric Elliott, on a 12-year project that translated his stories into the 2000 book “Wayata ‘Yava’ (Always Believe).

“It was a big surprise that she even worked with a linguist because she was shy and kept to herself,” Shiva said. “If it weren’t for him, we wouldn’t have had the volume of his stories.”

But when Ramon died in 2002 at the age of 93, the language died with him. Revitalization efforts by the Morongo and San Manuel bands of the Mission Indians over the past three decades have served to revive the language that was once spoken by people across the region.

Two students walk on a college campus.
Cal State University San Bernardino has a full-credit course on the Serrano language that counts toward a general education requirement.
(Christina House /)

Earlier this month, San Bernardino County formally recognized the language for the first time, even though the Serrano people have lived in the area before the arrival of Spanish missionaries in the 1700s.

It has been a major part of Shiva’s work. He spends most of his time and energy sharing the Serrano culture and language.

Through an arrangement between Mission Indians and the University’s San Manuel Band, Shiva contributes to Cal State San Bernardino’s language program. A class on the Native American language was introduced a decade ago, but today, it is offered as a full-credit course.


Carmen Janney, coordinator of the California Indian Language Programs at Cal State San Bernardino, said Shiva’s instruction has been instrumental in keeping the Serrano language alive.

“I believe that his sincere desire to preserve and pass along the language and traditions of local native cultures – his generous gifts of time, talent and knowledge – is clearly a driving force behind these efforts. ,” Jenny said in an email to Shiva’s work.

After the death of their aunt, Shiva and his wife, June, opened the Dorothy Ramon Learning Center in Banning, where they host indigenous works of art, including theatre, poetry and music. They also offer regular Serrano lessons.

One dedicated student at the learning center is Mark Araujo-Levinson, a 25-year-old Latino who found the classes through a Google search.

The Riverside native’s great-grandfather was the Mixtec, a Mexican indigenous group, and Araujo-Levinson’s fascination for languages ​​began as a child. But by the time he graduated high school and a few friends told him about Native American dialects in the region, he began to wonder why he hadn’t heard of them before. That curiosity led him on a journey to learn more about California’s indigenous languages—and led him to Shiva in 2017.

Mark Araujo-Levinson, who is studying the Serrano language, stands among the bookshelves.
Mark Araujo-Levinson, 25, a student at Cal State University San Bernardino, found Ernest Shiva’s Serrano classes via the Internet.
(Christina House /)

A book is sitting on the table.
Mark Araujo-Levinson is the owner of Dorothy Ramon’s book “Vayata ‘Yava’ (Always Believe).” The book was the culmination of a 12-year project with linguist Eric Elliott, a white man, who translated his stories.
(Christina House /)

“At first, Mr. Shiva was a little wary of the situation, just because I’m not from the reservation. But as our friendship grew, it got more encouraging,” Araujo-Levinson said. “These past years have really been a blessing for me. It means a lot to me that he taught me the language and how he holds me up so well.”

Araujo-Levinson, a math student at Cal State San Bernardino who looks at grammatical rules like equations or theorems, shares his love of languages ​​— including Serrano dialects. Youtube channel and even earned a job with the Morongo Cultural Heritage Department as a language conservation specialist.

Shiva takes pleasure in being such a natural – if unconventional – student.


“He amazes everyone with his ability and ability to understand and write everything that is needed,” Siva said. “Not many people can do that.”

About two years earlier, Araujo-Levinson translated a story told in 1918 by Yuhatviatum leader Santos Manuel to anthropologist J.P. Harrington. The story, titled “What Owl Said” and initially written in English and Spanish, was translated into Serrano with the help of Shiva.

It starts:

Quenewu ‘Kesha’ ,Avernagiva. , (There was a bad storm.) Hakupavu ‘Verangatu.’ (It was raining a lot.)

The story describes four boys playing in the dark sky and rain. Just then an owl approaches an old man who was sleeping. The owl asks him to sing and play his rattle in the morning. The story ends with the music of the old man chasing the rain.

Puyu ‘Taktam hihiin tamiti.’ Puyu ‘Pihun’ ,Ayak ‘Amay’ Nyay Kwana.’ (Everyone looked at the sun. They were all happy.) there is ,Apia ‘puyu’ taktam poi’ku ‘chatu’. (After that, everyone started singing.)

,but’ ,NS.’ (That’s all.)

The end of such storytelling – in the native Serrano language – is what Shiva fears. He never set out to become Morongo’s tribal historian. As a teenager, he wanted to play the saxophone, but after decades as a teacher, from elementary schools to universities, he understood the responsibility of preserving his language.

He said his family struggled for the right words in Serrano and rarely came.

“They’ll say, ‘Oh well, so long, language,'” he said.


“It was the end of our ways, you know,” Shiva said of the much earlier celebrations on the reservation. Without those things…without the ceremonies, they were gone,” he said of the indigenous culture, language and songs.

A man stands for a portrait and closes his eyes.
Ernest Shiva at the Dorothy Ramon Learning Center in Banning. After the death of his aunt, he and his wife, June, opened the center, where they host indigenous works of art, including theatre, poetry, and music.
(Christina House /)

Shiva regularly promotes the Serrano language online and with the linguists of San Manuel, who are part of the Serrano Language Revitalization Project, an effort aimed at revitalizing the language. Although Araujo-Levinson is a natural speaker when it comes to Serrano, Shiva thinks that one day he will lose his star student to mathematics.

“We would hate to lose him,” said Shiva. “He’s just one of those geniuses. It’s great to see him teach it. It’s so important to teach it now.”

Shiva recounts telling a story to his aunt about how his grandfather was once approached by a neighboring tribal community, who admitted that it had lost its songs to honor the dead. That said, it was a humbling experience, and Morongo offered to teach Serrano songs to the community.

He explained that the songs belong to the producer and are for all God’s children. But the experience left a mark on the family – especially on them, Shiva said.

“My great-grandfather told his family: ‘You have to remember your culture and language, or else you will be a wandering tribe.'”

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