Saving the Bighorn Sheep Songs


ACTA - Posted on 01 August 2008

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In early morning in the San Bernardino Mountains, a  Bighorn Sheep pauses amid feeding.Editor's Note: The following article is reprinted with permission from Heritage Keepers: The Newsletter of the Dorothy Ramon Learning Center. Master artist Ernest H. Siva and apprentice Isaac Horsman Rodriguez are current participants in ACTA's Apprenticeship Program, conducting an apprenticeship in Serrano Bighorn Sheep songs.  Siva shares his perspectives on Serrano songs and working with Horsman Rodriguez in the accompanying article, A Modern Old Journey.

The 71-year-old voice sings: He kwe ma to kai yu pe.

The 17-year-old voice repeats: He kwe ma to kai yu pe.

Ernest H. Siva is teaching his grand-nephew Isaac Horsman Rodriguez the Serrano Bighorn Sheep songs (Paa'chucham).  The Paa'chucham are a series of songs telling an ancient Serrano story about the creation of the Bighorns.  Mr. Siva is perhaps the only person who has been singing the songs and sharing them in recent years.  Now, he is teaching this fragment of the past to Isaac, for the future.

Their apprenticeship is supported by a contract from the Alliance for California Traditional Arts.  Recording of the songs is supported by an additional grant from the Fund for Folk Culture, in turn supported by grants from the Ford Foundation, the William & Flora Hewlett Foundation, and the San Francisco Foundation.  While three songs already appear, with musical notations and recorded, in Mr. Siva's book and CD, Voices of the Flute (Ushkana Press, 2004), a goal is to share more in future publications.

The songs tell the story of how the first Bighorn Sheep came to be.  "When we first came to this world and this world came to be, for us, there was a need for things that we have today, that we take for granted," Mr. Siva explained in a recent interview with Sherwood Chen of the Alliance for California Traditional Arts.  "The Creator asked his Creation, his children, who would help us by becoming the grass [or deer, or other plants and animals] or the Bighorn Sheep, in this case.  And the people who volunteered became those things.  But as they became, as they began to change, they realized what they were doing, that this is the way it's going to be... we're not going to be like this anymore.... We'll have different ground to walk on, suitable for our feet.  We'll have specialized feet.  Our bodies will fit where we're going to live.... So there is almost a kind of melancholy feeling."

He kwe ma to kai yu pe.  "...went into the mountain wilderness."

Before each Bighorn hunt, the Serrano would sing the Paa'chucham.  The singer would dance with a built-in rattle of bighorn sheep hoofs attached to his leg.  "So when they would sing the songs they would almost feel that transformation," Mr. Siva said, "and by the time when the songs and dances were finished those dancers were wild creatures and they'd leave the ceremonial house – I'm talking about how they would re-enact – and from then on they were wild beings.  That's how the connection was maintained, so you would remember it, appreciate it, give thanks.  As I said, when you sang the songs... the Bighorn Sheep each had a role to fulfill and that was to provide itself to serve mankind, so that instead of hiding and running away... he would be available and he'd become the game."

All that remain are 12 songs.  In the 1970's, Lloyd Marcus, who had learned the songs from his father, Louis Marcus, saved the Paa'chucham by recording them for Mr. Siva and teaching him.  The current teacher and apprentice are using the 1970's recordings for their lessons.  Lloyd's nephew, Kim Marcus, and his children plan to join them. "My intent is that we more or less sing them as closely as possible to the way that Lloyd sang," Mr. Siva said.  His background, including bachelor's and master's degrees in music education and choral music from University of Southern California, and a knowledge of Serrano language and culture learned growing up on Morongo Reservation, gives their lessons a systematic approach.  Each song must be learned so it always will be sung precisely.

Isaac Rodriguez said: "I hope to learn these in the time we have and retain them in my life and pass them down to the next generation."  He hopes to teach the songs first to his cousins.

Although Bighorn Sheep are in danger of extinction and no longer hunted, teacher and apprentice say there is much to explore together in the songs' deeper meanings. There is much to learn.  Isaac's mother, Carolyn Horsman, recalled seeing a map with the names of thousands of tribes across the North American continent.  "When you see that and when you see what exists now, how can you say that genocide didn't happen?  You know something very surely happened to all of these people and those who are in the greater society need to keep hearing our voice, and that we're still here. And that we create and craft our own story.  And that maybe we don't blend as well as people want us to blend, but we're still a positive influence on the world.  And the Bighorn Sheep Songs show that.  They show that appreciation that people should have for life itself.  That's what it represents.  Because that's what Indian belief systems show.  It's appreciation for life and showing people how they need to live and behave toward each other."

Several years ago, Mr. Siva taught a cultural workshop literally out in the field, to archaeology students out on a dig.  When he arrived he saw an old Bighorn ram watching the students.  He sang a Bighorn song to the ram, in his honor.  When he was finished singing, he turned around and saw the song had called in a herd of Bighorn.  While most people no longer remember how people once honored the Bighorns, apparently the Bighorn Sheep still do.

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