My name is Amara Siva and I am the grandniece of the Cahuilla elders Alvino Siva and Katherine Siva Saubel.
As a child, I knew that my aunt Katherine was widely respected, and that she had “some business” to do with the little museum on the Morongo Indian Reservation. I went there every year for Fiesta, but what I really liked most about it were those tasty frybread tacos. I later came to appreciate that Katherine is a co-founder of the Malki Musuem, the first museum established on an Indian reservation.
Katherine and Alvino were always talking about preserving the Cahuilla culture. But as I looked around at the other Indian people, no one was living that lifestyle anymore. The last Cahuilla medicine man had come and gone long before I was born, and maybe the powers of medicine men were all just stories. Few people spoke the Cahuilla language, except for some of the elders. When I was ten years old, Katherine gave me her book Chem’ivillu’, in which she inscribed,
“To Amara, May you study this book, and try to learn some of the Cahuilla language. With love and best wishes, Auntie Katherine. March 23, 1983.”
I was proud of Auntie’s book, but Cahuilla seemed much harder than English so it went into my bookcase.
During college, I became so enticed by modern medicine that I later went to graduate school, and received my Ph.D. in Biological Chemistry. As I learned about natural compound drug development, I was reminded of Uncle Alvino’s stories. He said that the “old people” had medicines for everything, all of which were found in the animals and plants in their surroundings. He told me how the medicine man had sent him as a little boy to fetch a certain type of lizard to cure a life-threatening infection in a man’s leg, and that a few days after wrapping the dead lizards’ bodies around the man’s leg, the infection had been cured. Would anyone know what to do with these lizards now, even if they knew where to find them? What will we do, even with our Ph.D.’s and antibiotics, now that everyday bacterial strains like Staphylococcus aureus have become drug-resistant and difficult to treat? It sure would be nice now to have some of those lizards.
It is not too late for us to make a difference in our future. Our generation is fortunate in that we are still able to learn some of the Old Ways from the elders living throughout the nation. I believe in the importance of preserving our culture; to allow its death is to allow the death of ourselves.
Am I entirely to blame for not being able to speak the Cahuilla language when it was not spoken to me as a child? Maybe not, but today I have no excuse for not taking Katherine’s book off of the shelf and trying to learn as much as I can while the elders are still here to teach me.
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