Katherine Siva Saubel

When we first publicly announced to colleagues and friends by email our intention to produce a book on contemporary Native American life, we asked those we contacted, as an aide to our research, for any referrals in the Native community they could offer us. The response was great and gratifying. In a culture at large in which the general conversation has so little to say about Native life and community, it turns out that many non-Natives – as, of course, should be so – do, in fact, have experience and relationships with Native Americans.

Among the many leads we were given was one from our friend, artist Karen Florek, who pointed us to a documentary film by her sister-in-law, Leigh Podgorski, entitled We Are Still Here. The film offers the story of 88 year old Cahuilla Indian Katherine Siva Saubel and her effort and work to reclaim and preserve Cahuilla culture. We watched the film and knew that Saubel was a woman we had to meet.

Katherine Siva-Sauvel
Katherine Siva Saubel

The Cahuilla live in the area of the San Jacinto Mountains in California and the surrounding desert and passes. Saubel, in fact, grew up as a “mountain” Cahuilla, though she has lived for the past forty-plus years on the Morongo Reservation in Banning, just beyond the Morongo Casino and the 10 Freeway, among the “pass” Cahuilla. She did not speak English until she was seven, when she was sent down from the mountains to be educated, and the long, typical assault on her identity began. It was not until she was in her forties that Saubel helped found the Malki Museum at Morongo, the first museum of Native American life and culture administered by Natives. It was at that time, also, that Saubel met Lowell Bean, a budding UCLA anthropologist and ethnologist who changed her life (as she changed his). Only then did she go on to the University of Chicago and the University of Colorado at Boulder to begin her studies in ethnology, anthropology, and linguistics.

In the years since, Saubel has become the guardian of Cahuilla history, language, botany, and more. She has written the primary works of Cahuilla ethno-botany, collaborated with more than one generation of anthropologist in recording for posterity the Cahuilla language, and lectured throughout the U.S., as well as Germany and Japan. She is often present, even now, when there is a battle to be waged in defense of Native spiritual lands and the environment.

It is the environment that is Saubel’s final and abiding concern, and she hopes that the world at large can be brought to understand what the Cahuilla and other Native peoples perceived, that the earth is a living thing with which to be in intimate and respectful relation.

They swerved at me as they passed, loony smiles lighting their faces, just for the testicular high of it.

Otherwise, though she has helped to preserve what she could of the culture, she is not sanguine, beyond that academic legacy, about the vitality of traditional Cahuilla life. Like many old people in any culture, she barely knows those who live around her, and the young show little respect or appreciation for what was taken from them even before it was theirs. Young men anywhere, without the proper grounding and guidance, live on a reckless edge. Leave them alone amid the wreckage of a civilization, to live out what MariJo Moore has termed a “genocide of the mind,” and the way is that much harder.

Puttering around the paved roadways of the reservation on our motor scooters on the day we interviewed Saubel, Julia and I were fortunate to be just short of the intersection when a young Cahuilla male blew past the stop sign on an ATV at a speed of what had to be 80 miles per hour. He was tall and bulky, and he straddled the vehicle raised high on his legs, his long hair trailing in the wind. Later, we passed another ATV chewing up the roadway, this one with two young males on it. They swerved at me as they passed, loony smiles lighting their faces, just for the testicular high of it. Then there is the casino money.

by AJA

Banning, November 2008