Just before dusk on a Wednesday, children gather at the tribal hall of the Torres-Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indian reservation in this unincorporated area just north of the Salton Sea.
They giggle and run, playing in the hall’s large all-purpose room. Soon, teacher Michael Mirelez calls them to attention, and the children’s mood shifts to intense focus on Mirelez’ voice and movements. All begin to create a beat with their feet, swaying side to side. There are no instruments – just the stomp of their feet and the song that emerges from sounds their ancient ancestors created in a language few know today.
The children, who range in age from 2 to 17, are learning the Cahuilla tradition of Bird Song, which Mirelez says uses music and dance to tell the story of Cahuilla Creation – the beginning of life. The Cahuilla Indians are an indigenous tribe of the Southern California desert.
Today, many native people grow up speaking English or Spanish, so few know the original Cahuilla language. The loss of the language, along with those who knew it, also has hurt the continuation of accompanying customs rooted in Cahuilla words, like Bird Song. Mirelez, who grew up on the reservation, started this small, free class for all ages in 2014 with the aim of bringing Bird Song to new generations.
“It’s a social song – it was made and designed to bring people together,” Mirelez said. “I want it to be a living, breathing thing within us.”
Mirelez first discovered Bird Song at age 17 in the 1990s when he heard it at a funeral on the reservation. The music drew this self-described introvert to want to learn more about the ritual.
That was not easy.
“We’ve lost a lot of our customs and traditions,” said Mirelez, noting the government-run boarding schools where American Indian children were sent in the 1800s and early 1900s and not allowed to speak their native language.
Mirelez began seeking out the handful of elders who knew Bird Song, listening to recordings and participating in song gatherings. He started teaching others, like Myeshia Smith when she was 12. Now 29, she helps Mirelez teach the class.
“It’s a way of life,” Smith said. “It’s a way of caring and loving and being there for the ones who need us the most. ... I dance for those who want to dance and those who can’t.”
The children maintain their own rhythm, lifting their arms and bending their knees in a half-twirl on each side. Mirelez stomps his foot. “Huh. Huh. Huh,” the children grunt to protect those behind them.
Nancy Morreo, 8, sways her arms back and forth with grace and precision. She wears a long red, black and white skirt with a matching sweater and beaded necklace.
“I practice at home,” she said.
Her grandmother, Lupe DeAnda, started bringing Nancy to honor a promise to the girl’s late grandfather.
“I want her to learn her tradition,” the grandmother said. “If I’m not here later and she has children, I want her to teach her children her culture.”
Saryanna Gonzales, 15, joined the class to build on some traditions she knew.
“When I was younger, they would sing around me so I knew the rhythm,” she said. “I wanted to learn the dance.”
Despite the name, the stories told through song are not about birds.
According to Paul Apodaca’s “Tradition, Myth and Performance of Cahuilla Bird Songs” – his 1999 dissertation about the ritual – each song cycle is part of a larger story that tells a migration myth. Through repetition, the words create a rhythm, uniting the participants through music, dance and spirit.
The disruption to Cahuilla life by the arrival of European settlers and the loss of native language has created barriers, but the songs endure and help instill a sense of cultural identity and history for many Cahuilla, said Apodaca, associate professor of sociology and American Studies at Chapman University in Orange.
Lead singers, traditionally men, used to learn their role from family elders and were conversant in the language, Apodaca said. Today, many singers use sound recording or video equipment to help them learn.
Bird Song connects people to their ancestors and culture – a basic human need, said anthropologist Lowell J. Bean, who has studied Native American culture among tribes in California and Arizona for nearly 60 years.
“It has a great deal to do with contemporary identity,” Bean said. “It’s a continuity between the present and the past.”
As the November sky turns dark outside, the singing inside grows louder. Two more boys have joined the group, now about a dozen. Mirelez, in Cahuilla, sings, “This is the end of the story.”
But they will sing and dance again next week and beyond.
“When we’re born in this world, we feel like we’re alone,” Mirelez said. “With this dance and song, we’re all moving together in unison. It’s saying even in the darkest times, we’re not by ourselves. ... We’re creating something beautiful.”
Journalist Marisa Agha is based in Southern California.