Saturday, November 22, 2008

In the News

This week's Banning-Beaumont Record Gazette includes a community profile about Dorothy Ramon Learning Center. Read it here.
Or here:
Community profile: Dorothy Ramon Learning Center
By Pat Murkland
People once called Banning “The Center.” The word in Serrano was Ahunika'. When people had a need, they would go to The Center. In that spirit, Dorothy Ramon Learning Center, Inc. is transforming a building in the heart of downtown Banning into a Center featuring the Native American cultures and arts of Southern California.

Since 2003 the 501(c)(3) nonprofit public service corporation and its publishing arm, Ushkana Press, have been partnering with tribal nations, museums, schools of all levels, and community groups to save and share Southern California's Indian cultures, languages, history, and music and other traditional arts. The Learning Center works with tribal nations to revive and restore these endangered cultures and languages, and also works with the greater public to share an integral part of America's national heritage.

The Learning Center has now found its future home in a building at the corner of San Gorgonio Avenue and Hays Street, in the center of Banning's fledgling Arts District.

To become a Center, the building needs major restoration work. Under plans submitted to the City of Banning, the interior walls of four separate storefronts would disappear. The building itself would expand both up and out.

Inside, the building will include amenities such as a gathering hall and exhibit area; a children's center; a library; a kitchen; a recording studio and listening area; and a Native Arts gift shop. Outside, two neighboring lots will become a parking and gathering area surrounded by an educational garden of native plants. Altogether the Center will be more than 6,000 square feet.

While the architectural plans hurdle through City Hall and the non-profit fund-raising has begun, the building already is growing into a Center. Workshops, lectures, and classes in the cramped, current space and on the sidewalk outside already have drawn eager crowds of all ages and from all races and walks of life. The activities also show what's to come.

For example, instead of merely looking at a group of traditional musical instruments in a display case, people can connect personally. At the 2008 spring Art Hop, a crowd learned from knowledgable culture bearers about clappersticks, flutes, rattles, and other first Southern California music instruments, and their appropriate use. They trekked beyond merely holding the instruments; they learned how to make them, how to play them, and how to respect their place in native cultures.

More recently, at On Board for Stagecoach Days in October, people visited a replica ancient Southern California Indian village and explored first-hand how the First People lived.

That's because the Learning Center is not going to be a museum. It will be a regional Center where the past and present meet; where both Indians and non-Indians alike come to save and share the living cultures of Southern California's First People. Dorothy Ramon Learning Center is working to invite the people of Southern California's diverse Indian nations to the Center to tell their own stories, in their own words and songs.

To make it all happen, the 501(c)(3) nonprofit is raising money in a capital campaign, but also seeking the energy and enthusiasm of people who will attend programs, join the nonprofit community of volunteers or offer other kinds of support. For more information, visit, and check this nonprofit blog for news.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Serrano Bighorn Songs at Banning High

You're invited to Native American Cultural Night.
The details:
Who and what:
Singers, storytellers, workshops, frybread, family fun
Special event: Ernest Siva and his apprentice Isaac Horsman Rodriguez, a Banning High senior, will sing some Serrano bighorn sheep songs. Learn more about our project to save the songs here.
When and where:
5:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 20
Banning High School auditorium, 100 W. Westward Ave., Banning, CA
This event is FREE.
Co-sponsors: Banning Unified School District and Dorothy Ramon Learning Center.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Making and Playing Elderberry Flutes

Southern California Indian men of all nations made and played wooden flutes in traditional times. 
We're exploring how to make flutes similar to those that once mingled their voices with the nighttime winds, skies, and stars of ancient California. 
Some detective work has included tracking down old flutes in museums and studying them in detail. Flutemakers Marvin and Jonette Yazzie made replicas of several early 1900s DiegueƱo flutes in Riverside Metropolitan Museum's collection.
Our adventures continued with Saturday's workshop, led by the Yazzies. 
The star of the day was our local elderberry.

Pick Your Own Flute
While some places offer you the opportunity to pick your own fruit, our flutemakers literally picked their own flute. That is, they chose their own elderberry wood, plentiful in the back yard of our hosts, the Sivas. The flutes-to-be were about a foot or so long*. They were at least one inch wide. Some chose already weathered and seasoned fallen wood. Others chose green. We shall compare how these choices fare. 

To Begin
Since ancient times, elder has been a mystical and music-making shrub around the globe, providing good flutes wherever it is found ...
Once you hollow out the pith, the elder's equivalent of marrow, that is. 
Anthropologist Jan Timbrook, in her 2007 book, Chumash Ethnobotany: Plant Knowledge Among the Chumash People of Southern California, describes how toyon sticks became sharp tools for drilling out the pith from the heart of elderberry.
We had modern tools, however.
We also had in our participants the equivalent of a precision drill team.

Making the Flute
Timbrook shares what anthropologist J.P. Harrington learned from his Chumash informant Fernando Librado about preparing, drilling, and curing the flute-to-be: 

"The shoot was roasted in a pile of embers with sandy dirt placed at each end to reduce respiration. After "sweating" the stick in this way, the flutemaker extracted the narrow pith with a reaming rod of toyon (Heteromeles) that had been straightened with a grooved stone. He inserted the rod into the elder stem repeatedly, twisting and pulling it out frequently. Then he dried the shoot for two or three days before removing the bark. He would typically drill four, or possibly six, fingering holes into it and paint the flute or decorate it with inlay of carrizo and shell." (p. 196)

(We didn't roast the green sticks, and we didn't wait a few days for them to dry out, either. We'll see what happens. Maybe we'll figure out a way to sweat the sticks in our next go-around.)

Hand Made
With the modern tools, the drilling of the elder flutes went quickly enough. But some folks had better luck with sharp hardwood sticks. Each flute was measured to its player's hands. The holes or stops were drilled accordingly.  The size of the holes and the thickness of the wood between the holes do matter; over time we shall explore the possibilities. 
People sanded their flutes and soon, the sticks of early morning were flutes of the afternoon.

Now, To Play Them.
Easier said than done!
These flutes are open-ended. To even the best flute player, they seem a challenge. Some achieve success in playing the flute at a diagonal angle. Witness Antonio Flores, who makes the smaller wooden Pomo-style flutes from weathered, downed elder:
Larry Parks photo

Ernest Siva doesn't play these flutes at a diagonal angle. He holds them straight and then blows gently, finding and connecting with the flute's voice almost intuitively.
It was fascinating to watch him take every flute from its maker and then find the flute's voice.
It was even more fascinating to hear the variety of music found in just one elderberry bush.
Some flutes were low, others high.
The music defies description, forcing one into cliches such as haunting and mystical.
Ernest Siva suggested that being still and relaxed, such as in late night or in early morning, helps one find a flute's voice.** It seems these elderberry flutes are powered more by the soul than by the lungs.
Most people were able to find sound in their new flute.

What's next
Some collected more elderberry to experiment more with these replicas of traditional Southern California Native American wooden flutes. We're planning to continue our methodical study of flutes found in museum collections. Sadly, these flutes cannot share their most important knowledge: their music. Because in early museum days they often were doused with arsenic and other poisons to protect them from bug infestations, today they must remain unplayed and mute. — P.M.

UPDATE, Nov. 18:
*Corrected the description of length of flutes to reflect that they were made according to each individual's body measurements, starting from the person's elbow. 
** Ernest credits this advice to flutemaker and player Jim French. — P.M.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Great Elderberry Flutes

A great day in the Canyon.
A great turnout for the Elderberry Flute Workshop.
Lots of great elderberry wood, seasoned by weather, wind, and time.
Lots of great food for the hungry flutemakers, too.
In a word, this workshop (ongoing as we post this) is great!

The Yazzies help a flute maker. Pat Murkland photo.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Elderberry Flute Workshop

Master flute-makers Marvin and Jonette Yazzie will lead you as you make a traditional-style flute like those made and played by Indian nations in all parts of California.
The Yazzies will provide the materials and instruction.
The details
When: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Saturday, November 15
Where: A workshop in a beautiful canyon near Banning
Information, reservations, directions:
Call 951.849.4676 (before 7 p.m. PST)
Cost: $25