By Kate Gordon and Amanda Wixon
Bird songs are an integral part of the history and culture for many Native groups in the Southern California region. Cahuilla (kaw-ee-ya) and other indigenous peoples in Riverside have sung bird songs for thousands of years, to share and pass down their history and express their relationship to the land. Each group’s bird songs are distinct, reflected in the language, style and use of the songs. For the Cahuilla people, bird songs are a celebration of life and a way of reconnecting with Mother Earth. The Cahuilla also sing bird songs to reconnect with their ancestors and their past. They sing and dance for their elders and their families that are here today, while honoring their history and those who have come before them.
Traditionally, bird songs were sung at gatherings and at seasonal celebrations, like the winter and summer solstices. The solstices were two very significant events and solstice celebrations lasted for one to two weeks. As part of the celebrations, people held ceremonies, sang bird songs, danced, played games, and engaged in other festivities. Often, bird songs were sung at the beginning of an event and toward the end of the event, as a closing.
Bird songs tell of the historical migrations of Cahuilla people after creation. They document the great journey of the Cahuilla at the beginning of their life on earth, where they populated different parts of the world, and then returned to their homeland, in the Riverside/ San Bernardino regions. The Cahuilla creation story and other stories have counterparts that are songs. Thus, many bird songs are story songs that tell specific parts of Cahuilla history, from the origin of humanity to Cahuilla nationhood today. Through the songs, children learn values that will help them later in life, like patience, humility, protocol, and respect for knowledge.
When the citrus industry took over Cahuilla and neighboring Indigenous territories, Native people were forced to labor in the groves in order to support their families. Out of necessity, Cahuilla people brought their traditions to the groves. The groves became gathering spaces for cultural revitalization and ceremony, as well as language which was spoken and passed down while Cahuilla people labored. Bird singing adapted to this new environment, a testament to the dynamic nature of Cahuilla culture. No matter the difficulty of the circumstances, Cahuilla people kept their ways of life alive.
Today, bird singing is a social and fun activity for all ages to participate in, whether it be at pow wows, tribal gatherings, or off the reservation at educational and community events. Contrary to what many anthropologists and historians have written about the disappearance of indigenous cultures, Cahuilla bird singing demonstrates a cultural resurgence and commitment to cultural preservation. The songs are an expression of Cahuilla history and a way of passing down traditional knowledge.
“Red Tailed Hawk,” by Deborah Small, Deborah Small’s Photo Blog
“Traditional Cahuilla Bird Singers Group,” by Will Madrigal Jr.