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Ilsa Setziol remembers Indian elder Katherine Siva Saubel

Katherine Siva Saubel, one of the last native speakers of the Cahuilla language.
Katherine Siva Saubel, one of the last native speakers of the Cahuilla language.
National Women's Hall of Fame
Katherine Siva Saubel, one of the last native speakers of the Cahuilla language.
Malki Museum is the oldest museum founded by Natives on a reservation in California.
Malki Museum

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Californians lost a cultural treasure when the California Indian elder Katherine Siva Saubel died a couple of weeks ago. As one of the last native speakers of the Cahuilla language, spoken by some tribes in and around the Mojave desert, Saubel spent much of the 20th century preserving her culture.

I met Saubel a decade ago, while doing a series on California Indians for KPCC. She told me on the phone that I could talk with her, but when I showed up at her house on the Morongo Reservation near Banning, she said she didn’t want to be recorded. She said she had a few errands she needed to run and asked if I would help. After a trip to the post office and some lunch, the then-80-year-old relented. I’d passed the test. Saubel didn’t suffer fools and she’d met plenty.

Driving around the reservation with Saubel was a lesson in California history, as well as Cahuilla culture. "All these trails were here before the missions," she said as we bumped along streets named after out-of-state tribes. "Even that Camino Real was an Indian trail. Seems like they should give us some kind of credit. A lot of us are still here."

At the casino, Saubel rolled her eyes over the plastic teepees and dream catchers in the gift shop — none of it had anything to do with California tribes. Back in the car, she said, "When I first came into Banning in 1925, there was nothing but orchards here: apricot orchards, almond orchards, a vineyard. Now it’s all gone. There's nothing there now, just homes and more homes."

Another thing that had changed was that so few people now spoke the Cahuilla language. "The reservation, when I came here, there was all these Indian people. They all spoke the language. They all understood one another. They all helped one another. They all talked to each other in their language. Now there’s nothing. No one to talk to now," Saubel said.

Saubel was born in the mountains near Warner Springs in 1920, a time when American Indians didn’t have the right to vote and when agents from the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs treated Indians with a heavy — often corrupt — hand. Saubel was a ceaselessly inquisitive girl and learned the old ways from elders. "My mother was a medicine woman," she told me, "We never went to the doctor because my mother would cure us with plants. That’s why I know the plants, from her." Her family survived the Great Depression by hunting and gathering.

In high school, Saubel demanded the owner of a restaurant on Indian land take down a “whites only” sign. As a young mother, she worked in the fields of her husband’s family farm. Then in 1958, she met anthropologist Lowell Bean and resolved to document the Cahuilla culture before it disappeared. In 1964, Saubel co-founded the Malki Museum to teach young Cahuilla and others about the culture. She wrote several books on Cahuilla life, lectured widely, was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame and served as the chair of the Los Coyotes Reservation.

Late in the day, Saubel toured me around her museum, a tiny brown brick building. She pointed out black and white photos of people she’d known, including an old man named Pedro Chino, one of the most powerful shamans. I asked her if there were any shamans left. She told me the last one died in 1989.

It was a day of laments, and Saubel rued a cultural shift among young Indians. "They're the experts now, you know. They don’t want to listen to old people," she said.

But some younger people did come to Saubel’s museum and lectures. And if future generations know how to find food in the desert or speak a bit of Cahuilla, they will have Saubel to thank.