American Indian life: Real life comparisons
My early life must have been much like a Serrano Indian child 500 or so years ago. We lived in the country which belongs to them. The Highland foothills in southern California with the San Bernadino mountains in the background was my home, as it is theirs. Their lives must have been much like my own ancestors the Mohawks and the Cherokee. They Both gathered what the foothills and forest provided for them, hunted small game, and lived in huts made of wood.The Serrano Indians had the desert from the beginning where part of my people were put there by the white man many years after he arrived in America.
As young children, four to eight years old, they would help their mothers gather whatever they could find to eat. In their free time they played learning games which would have them prepared for later years. When times were hard they gathered firewood and the older boys set trap lines.
My early life
When I was four there were walks with my grandmother beside the river. This was near her home. Picking berries and carrying home whatever fish were on her bait lines was the order of the day. At home I followed my older half brother and tried to help him feed the animals.
Why I was raised the way I was
My grandfather had died when my mother was eight. My grandmother was fulfilling a promise made to him before he died. His wish and her promise was to have one of his grandchildren able to live the way of the people. He spent his last two years bed-fast and talked constantly about how “the people lived” and how they were able to survive with no need of what the white man brought with him.
At about age eight the Indian children would start learning to set traps. In my case this started at age 5. There was no man present in my life until age 8. Then on very few weekends and special occasions so grandmother showed me the way.
Serrano children must have learned to navigate the foothills and mountains with their fathers sometime before they turned ten. At ten it was expected for me to run about a mile through unmarked forest and return within fifteen minutes with the water my grandmother had put in my mouth before the trip still there.
Being raised in the old ways meant learning to make tools used by my forefathers. At age six I started working on breaking rocks. My first usable knife was completed when I was ten.
There is no way for me to know when Serrano male children received or made their first bow, for me it was at age twelve. My bow was made for my by my surrogate grandfather. There were so many talks about how to use it and what not to do, it’s a wonder it ever got used. Well at least that was my feeling at the time.
Once the Bow was my weapon it took even longer to learn how to hit anything. Traps kept us from going hungry while I learned how to use it. When we were in the forest from age five we lived off the land.
Running as a way to get around
At age twelve running four miles a day five days a week was part of my training. The pace was slow so it took about an hour a day. My Mohawk ancestors had run thirty miles a day and it was going to be expected of me at age fifteen.
Surviving the desert
At this time we started spending time on the desert too. It was part of where we were and survival there was as important as breathing. Since grandmother was not raised near a desert we did what the ancients must have done.
•We followed animal trails to find out what they ate and where they found water.
•We always trusted their water sources but there were a few times we found out what an animal can eat a human cannot.
•We never carried a canteen so didn’t stray so far we couldn’t reach a known water source quickly (about four miles) for the first month.
Grandmother said it wouldn’t do use white mans inventions (like a water spigot or canteen) when you are learning the ways of the people. The Serrano people knew how to weave baskets which would hold water, we did not. There were times we did find spigots as we lived in a white mans world. They were never used though.
Preparing for the Right of passage
At age thirteen time was spent alone on the desert and in the mountains. There were times when there was no one around for three and four days at a time. This was time to learn how to pass the right of passage into adulthood.
Right of passage into adulthood
Grandmother had found a few places that were rarely used and that is where my trials took place. There were specific instructions given for what to do when someone came into the area where I was becoming a man. It was to hide from anyone including her for the proscribed time.
She came into the area every hour the first day then slowly cut the time to twice a day, then not at all once she figured out she was being obeyed. I was in the wilderness "alone" for a total of seven days.
What an Indian needed to know to survive
During the thirteenth year, after the right of passage, she taught me
•To hide my trail.
•How to be so quiet no one could hear me.
•How to find a good place to hide and stay till danger had passed.
•How to watch the trail, both in front of and behind me.
•What to avoid so no footprints were left.
•How to run and walk with very little noise.
Let me tell you this is hard for a thirteen year old. It would have been harder though to handle the disappointed look on her face if I had failed.
My grandmother told me in the early spring of my thirteenth year, my right of manhood had been passed and she wouldn’t be returning for years. Life changed little for the rest of my 13th year after she left. Mother trusted me to go to the mountain and desert alone but never for days at a time. Running remained a part of my everyday life, however the thirty mile a day mark was never reached.
© 2011 Dennis Thorgesen