Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly version Share this

By Miriam Raftery

Bird dancers demonstrate hand-made gourds at Warner Springs Native American museum.

--A broken song beneath the snow, the echo of a soaring joy, a shape in the mist, a touch, in the rain in wilderness you come again. You tell us what we used to know. You speak for all the free wild things whose ways were ours when the world had wings.—Bev Doolittle

April 20, 2009 (Warner Springs)- Inscribed on a wall in the new Outdoor Academic Experience (O.A.E.) Native American Museum in Warner Springs, the quote above reflects the rich cultural heritage and traditions of local Cahuilla, Luiseño, Cupeño and Kumeyaay tribes preserved and displayed here. To commemorate the museum’s grand opening on April 13, a trio of Native American bird singers performed traditional songs for visiting Girl Scouts from Troop 3125 and demonstrated gourd rattles which they crafted by hand.

“Our bird songs tell the migration of the Cahuilla people,” said Brent Robbin, who performed with his brother, Brian Robbin and his cousin, Vincent Nelson. “The people migrated like birds. This tells of their search for the promised land.”

The brothers are members of the Southern California Intertribal Bird Singers, an organization dedicated to preserving the ancient songs. “What’s cool about it is that we’re from different reservations, but we come together under one name,” said Nelson, noting that some meanings have been lost over time as bird-singing faded from popularity. “Now the youth are into it again. Before, songs were almost lost.”

Lyrics of one song in the desert Cahuilla language include this refrain:

It was raining. It was muddy and cold. Blackbird and bluebird were crying. People were cold.

Sandra Stoneburner and her daughter, Theresa, demonstrate basket weaving skills

It takes a full week to sing all of the Southern California group’s 325 bird songs, which also describe tribal members’ journey through life from cradle to grave. Songs may also have helped to guide tribal members on seasonal migrations from mountains to desert.

Brent and Brian are Cahuilla tribal members who live on the Los Coyotes reservation. Their cousin, Vince, is a Luiseño tribal member on the La Jolla Indian reservation. In May, they will join with other bird singers to commemorate Kupa Days at the Pala Reservatiion, where Native Americans from Warner Springs were forced to relocate back in 1903. The three learned the songs from Wayne Nelson at the La Jolla Reservation, who in turn was taught by Robert Levi from the Torres Martinez reservation on Coachella Valley.

“When I first came here, I didn’t know a lot about the culture here,” said Sherri Freemans, an agriculture teacher at Warner Springs School who established an Outdoor Academic Experience Program with grant funding, including establishment of the new museum. “We have a rich Native American culture here. I’ve grown to have great respect for it.”

Sherri Freemans, organizer of the Warner Springs Outdoor Academic Experience program

The bird singers described how they make rattles from gourds of various shapes and sizes, scraping away pulp, filling with palm tree seeds and adding handles made from cottonwood or willow sticks shaved with sandpaper for a perfect fit. Some gourds are decorated with basket designs, others are lacquered or adorned with wood burning. Still others have holes drilled to vary the sound. Their handiwork is on display in the museum.

Sandra Stoneburner and her daughter, Theresa, demonstrated the art of weaving baskets from juncus dyed with elderberry, black walnut shells, black mud and rusty metal. The weavers also use deer grass bunches. “You run your fingers down to the first knuckle of the stem,” Stoneburner said, describing how she picks the grasses to leave enough for future growth, assuring a continuous supply of materials. “The older ones are better.”

The center of her baskets are made from knotted and dried yucca fibers, followed by juncus and deer grass, said Stoneburner, acting environmental director at Los Coyotes reservation and a member of the Cahuilla tribe.

Birdsingers Brent Robbin, Brian Robbin and Vincent Nelson demonstrate gourd rattles that they crafted.

Following a demonstration of basket weaving and refreshments, the bird singers performed several traditional songs and dances. Bird singers by tradition are all men, who also engage in the most exuberant dances. Women participate with dances consisting of soft swaying and rhythmic steps. Visiting Girl Scouts from San Diego and Warner Springs were invited to participate.

“I don’t know how to do Indian singing and dancing,” Melissa Sanchez, 6, protested at first.

But her friend, Nitasha Drake, 7, assured her with a broad smile, “It’s not hard. You just move your feet back and forth!”

Afterwards the youngsters trooped into the museum’s showroom for a close-up look at exhibits including gourd rattles, acorns, arrowheads, baskets, a grinding stone, animal pelts and an assortment of other treasures.

Freemans elicited more smiles when she informed young guests, “In this museum, you can touch everything—just put it back where you found it when you’re done.”

The museum is located across the street from Warner Springs High School (30951 Highway 79).

Error message

Support community news in the public interest! As nonprofit news, we rely on donations from the public to fund our reporting -- not special interests. Please donate to sustain East County Magazine's local reporting and/or wildfire alerts at to help us keep people safe and informed across our region.