California Indians dispel stereotypes at cultural conference

SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. - Jacob Lopez looked confused when the Indians began to dance and play rattles made of gourds.

''I thought they'd have drums. You see them in the movies with drums,'' said the 10-year-old student from San Bernardino's Parkside Elementary School.

He wasn't alone. Many of his classmates attending the California Indian Cultural Awareness Conference on Thursday thought the same.

It's that reason the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians hosted the weeklong event at California State University, San Bernardino, which ends Friday during the state's Native American Day celebration.

''Everybody knows about the Plains Indians, but they don't know anything about the California Indians,'' said James Ramos, a tribal member and conference coordinator. ''At the conference, we can teach them about our culture and traditions and dispel some of the myths that are out there.''

The conference, which was expected to draw about 2,000 elementary, middle and high school students, grew out of a one-day session last year.

In 1998, then-Gov. Pete Wilson signed legislation designating the fourth Friday in September as California Native American Day. Although not celebrated as a state holiday, the law authorized the state Board of Education to outline lessons that public schools could teach about the state's Indians.

But without requiring instructions and little material available for teachers, many schools have struggled to create a program.

In response, the San Manuel Indians created a computer program to help teachers with their lesson plans.

In addition, they also offer copies of maps and instructions in some of the tribe's more unique traditions, such as birdsinging and basket weaving.

''You can initiate legislation and make a law, but if you don't educate people about it nothing will be done,'' Ramos said.

California has 107 federally recognized tribes, accounting for nearly 20 percent of the nation's more than 500 tribes.

Parkside fifth-grade teacher Olivia Johnson attended the conference with her students as part of an ongoing lesson about Indians.

Her students gathered around Bill Madrigal, a member of the Cahuilla Band of Mission Indians, as he explained the tradition of gourd-making and birdsinging.

''Each song tells a piece of our story, kind of like a piece of a puzzle,'' he said. ''We'd sing hundreds of these songs in a certain order, and together they tell the history of our people.''

As part of the lesson, he and his son, William, sang a song telling the story of the Great Spirit's creation of the Cahuilla tribe. The Great Spirit, Amna'a, took dirt from Mother Earth and water from the ocean to make mud, which he then formed into people, Madrigal said.

When all the Indians were created, they made their way in the world and were guided by birds, he said.

But 11-year-old Jerry Wiley had a hard time believing the story.

''How did you learn that?'' he asked.

When Madrigal told him the story was passed down grandfather to father, father to son, the youngster shook his head.

Nearly all the children were intrigued with the gourd rattles, the principal instrument used in birdsinging, and clamored for a turn to use them when they were taught a song about tu-chil, a hummingbird.

Across campus, middle school and high school students watched a one-act play about the history of the California Indians told through the life of Catherine Siva Saubel, the first Indian woman inducted into the national Woman's Hall of Fame.

''I hope they walk out with an awareness of who we are and the role we play in this country,'' said actress Alex Kawisenhawe Rice, a member of the Mohawk tribe from Quebec, Canada. ''I hope they learn who we are and where we come from and how we are a part of history.''


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