Imagine a sequence of storytelling songs so elaborate it takes more than seven hours to sing them all and you have some idea of the intricacy of Native Southwestern Bird Singing. They are some of the earliest songs sung by human voices in the American Southwest. And, as Bird Singing master Michael Mirelez explains, they have nothing to do with birdsong.
“Bird Singing is a song that the native born people of Southern California and parts of Arizona share,” Mirelez says. “For the Cahuilla, the reason why they’re called ‘Bird Songs’— it was a slang name. There’s a part in the story where the people were lost, they didn’t know where to go, where to turn, what to do. So at that point they looked up into the sky and they saw the birds flying—migrating, in unison. And they decided to follow.”
“The one thing true to its nature are the animals and the plant life. It’s human beings who veered off from their design," Mirelez says. “Bird” is the sacred communal music of the Southwestern desert’s original peoples. According to those who sing them, ‘Bird’ songs are as old as time itself.
Among the original people of the desert Southwest, "Bird" is a shared legacy, and a living tradition that came perilously close to extinction. “[The songs] tell us our history. The history of creation. Of the human race. How everything in the world came to be.”
Michael Mirelez is a member of the Torrez-Martinez Band of Desert Cahuilla people, and a "Bird" singer since his late teenage years in the 1990s. He says back then, there was minimal interest in old ways. “On my reservation there was none of the culture that was left. There were no cultural events. And what we call ‘Bird Dances,’ they’re the social dance? There was none of that going on. And you had to wait, hoping you’d hear about something where they were gonna be.’
Mirelez’s journey with traditional tribal song mirrors the decline and resurrection of Bird Singing itself. Because fatefully, the dying music Mirelez now works to revive is something he first heard at a funeral. It’s strange because culturally those songs are taboo to sing at funerals. [But] Native culture—so much of it has been wiped out. So the little pieces we have left, we cling on to.”
Before the funeral ceremony, Mirelez had felt disconnected from his heritage. Afterward, he was changed—filled with cultural pride and purpose. It helped that a larger shift was underway. Not only among the Cahuilla, but nationally, and within the other Southwestern desert tribes.
Longtime Native organizer Carol Ray remembers how things changed when the baton of the Civil Rights Movement got picked up by Native activists. “All over the United States, but particularly in California, the tribes had been through some very bad times,” Ray says. “The California Natives were held back. And you KNOW what happened during the Gold Rush.
Ray says, “But thinking about history and what’s happened since was a relief of spirit. I think it was somewhat of the beginning of the Native personalities being able to express themselves again.”
Mirelez went looking for the most authentic voices of that expression. He found them in four aged mentors who were among the last authentic embodiments of the bird singing tradition: Mr. Robert Levi, also of the Desert Chuilla from Torrez-Martinez; Mr. Anthony Andreas, lead singer for the Agua Client Band of Cahuilla; Mr. Alvino Siva, a Mountain Cahuilla singer; and Ms. Katherine Siva Saubel—the Desert Cahuilla’s “last ceremonial singer” according to Mirelez.
These four taught Mirelez the origin story of his own desert heritage. “It kind of coincides with what happens in the Bible, where Adam and Eve were kicked out of the garden,” Mirelez says. “Well we were kicked out. The people had done something horrible. But they say the Creator had told us that he has created a place for us. A paradise. But we have to go find it.”
Asked what the people had done to bring on this indigenous Exodus, Mirelez draws an intriguing parallel. “Again it almost coincides with what happened with Jesus. The people had killed the Creator. There are so many things that coincide with one another. And to me, the truth is the one thing that connects everybody from all sides of the planet.”
Mirelez and others of his generation discovered Bird Singing just in time. All four of Mirelez’s mentors are dead now. He chokes up when he speaks about it. “It was a relationship. It wasn’t just student and master. I became a part of their lives, And I stayed with them. I buried every single one of them. You never leave your teacher. I am who I am because of them. They gave me something to sing about.”
Mirelez is still living out the legacy entrusted to him. He is the founder and emcee of “Singing the Birds,” an annual cultural event sponsored by the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians which brings together Bird Singers from all over the Southwest.
And Mirelez is also mentoring another generation of young Bird singers, including Daniel Vega. who is just eight years old, and who made the rattle he uses when he joins in group singing way back in kindergarten. Bird Singing, Vega says, "shows me my culture from my Dad’s side. Like how the beginning of time was created, and how we circled the Earth three times to find our homeland—and hope.”
It’s a hope for the future Mirelez shares. “We’re still on shaky ground,” Mirelez says, “because we’re still trying to hold onto the traditional. Today, nothing’s real. But with us, with our music, it’s still our voices. Our human voices.”