Rock Camp

Not very long ago, California Indians lived right here in Lake Arrowhead. We know these early people of the mountains the Serrano Indians. It is a Spanish word meaning “mountaineer” or “highlander.” The Indians called themselves by a similar name in their own language, Yuhaviat, or “people of the pine place or pine trees.”

Meadow at Rock Camp, site of Serrano village

The Serranos lived in and around the San Bernardino Mountains, from the Cajon Pass to Big Bear, including the San Bernardino valley and over the mountains to the Mojave River in Victorville. They are part of a group of Native Americans known as Shoshonean. Serrano groups were divided into clans. There were six clans in Southern California. The Lake Arrowhead clan was known as the "Kaiweim." (Fincher-Reichardt, p. 5) It is believed that they came to this area at least 2,500 years ago from the Great Basin area of Idaho.

Standing about five feet tall, the Serranos had brown skin and coarse black hair. Their faces were round, with high cheekbones. They were a quiet, friendly, and gentle people, and became warlike only under the greatest necessity.

Explorers first came across the Serranos in 1776, when Father Francisco Garces journeyed from the Colorado River to Mission San Gabriel, near Los Angeles. Some of the Indians were brought to the San Gabriel, San Fernando, and San Buenaventura missions and the San Bernardino Rancho to learn agriculture in the 1800’s. But the Indians were not happy, and many revolted. The government finally set aside reservations for the Serranos to live on. On of these, San Manuel, is in hills near the city of Highland.

Like all Native Americans, the Serranos used their environment to provide food, clothing, and shelter. Food was divided and shared equally. They gathered oak acorns, grass seeds, pine nuts, many types of roots, and wild berries. Mesquite beans, chia, and sage were also collected. Deer, antelope, birds, small rodents, lizards, and insects were all eaten as food. (Fincher-Reichardt, p. 10)

Bedrock metates at Rock Camp, near Lake Arrowhead

Serranos wore very little clothing. During the warm months. Usually, men wore a loin cloth made of deer, rabbit, otter, or beaver skins. Women wore grass skirts or a dress made of two skins, sewn together and decorated with painted designs. Women also wore many, many necklaces made of shells, stones, and seeds to cover their chest. Both men and women tattooed their faces and upper bodies. Sandals were made of yucca fiber, and buckskin leggings were worn if needed. In the cooler months, capes made of skins or feathers were worn. (Johnston, p. 9)

Typical bark strip dwellings (Courtesy Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History)

Serrano houses were shaped like an upside-down basket or dome tent, and were covered with long grasses or strips of bark. The poles were tied together at the top, leaving a smoke hole. There was a low door and woven mats on the floor. Often, the house was built over a pit dug into the ground about two feet deep and about 12 feet across. This gave greater warmth and protection from the weather. There was a fire pit in the center, but cooking was usually done outside.

Villages consisted of about 25-100 people led by a chief called a kika. He had an assistant called paha who was in charge of special ceremonies. When a chief died, his eldest son usually took his place. Tribes also had a medicine man, or shaman, who told stories, cured the sick, and performed rituals. (Johnston, p. 5)

Everyday life was very spiritual for the Serranos. They believed that everything was connected, and one’s actions affected the world around them. Special music, songs, and dances were part of many activities. Most Serrano villages also had a special ceremonial house, a sweat house, and a granary for storing seeds, nuts, and acorns. Other living spaces were caves or rock overhangs with extensions made of rocks or brush.

Oak acorns

Every member of the village had a share of the work. Women took care of the babies and cooked the meals. They gathered oak acorns and ground them up like cornmeal in small, deep holes called metates. After they were mashed, the acorns were soaked and rinsed in water to remove the bitter tannic acid so they could be cooked and eaten.

Serrano women were very skillful basket weavers. Using the branches, twigs, and fibers of local plants such as stinging nettles, yucca, willow, and native grasses, they created baskets for every imaginable use in a wide variety of sizes and shapes. Baskets was skillfully woven with beautiful patterns. Some baskets even have feathers woven into the design. Rattlesnake and bighorn sheep designs were often used.

Pottery bowls and jars were also made by the women. Like the baskets, these were highly decorated with patterns of circles, wavy lines, dots, and triangles. Serrano pottery is known as Tizon ware. It is a very fine, thin, clay desert ware. Pots were used to store seeds and acorn meal. Water was stored in large jars called ollas (oi-yas), which kept the water cool during the hot summer days. (Fincher-Reichardt, p. 13)

Men did the hunting and trading. They also made rope, tools, and their bow and arrows. Using a supply and demand system, the Serrano men would travel long distances to trade animal skins, pine nuts and minerals for dried fish, tar, and otter skins from the coastal Indians.

Children would help by gathering firewood and plants to eat. Boys would climb the oaks trees and shake the branches so that the acorns would fall down where they could be easily gathered. Girls would make little baskets and pots, and help their mothers with the babies and cooking.

Serranos enjoyed games and stories in their free time. Playing dice made of acorns was especially popular, as was a type of ring-toss and a football game played with a small stone ball. Sorytellers told legends of scary Water Babies, crafty coyotes, and myths of the beginning of the world. These stories were passed down from generation to generation. Serranos also enjoyed music and dance. (Fincher-Reichardt, pp. 18-22)

The Serranos did not have horses before the arrival of the Spaniards. Despite this, they traveled quickly - sometimes involving up to forty miles in one day on foot. Although the Serranos had no written language, they used art as a form of communication. They created beautiful rock art called “petroglyphs.” Larger works were chipped out of boulders and caves. Some are painted on rock walls. We are not sure of the meanings of their art, but some seem to represent animals such as bighorn sheep, turtles, and lizards. Other designs show geometric shapes.

Over the years, many Serranos moved away from the San Bernardino Mountains. Some married with people from other Indian tribes, the local Mexican population, and other non-Indian people. Today, many have Hispanic names like Chacon or Martinez. (Fincher-Reichardt, p.24)

While it may be hard to recognize them, the Serranos keep their ancient traditions alive with annual ceremonies and special activities. In past years, many have become active on their reservations. In this way, they are helping to preserve their heritage and strengthen the qualities that have helped their culture survive.

Questions to Think About

1. Do you think the Serranos liked living in the mountains? Why?

2. How do you think they celebrated special occasions?

3. What do you think the Serranos thought of the first white men? Later settlers?


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