Teaching Culture at Soboba
Being able to have your students share with the public what they have learned is the sign of true success for any teacher. It especially means a lot when the subject being taught is the student’s culture that spans many generations.
Soboba Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program instructors Tekla Diaz and Mike Mirelez were invited to bring their students to the 20th annual Payomkawichum (People of the West) Soboba Inter-Tribal Pow Wow to perform recently.
Diaz started teaching the Fancy Shawl Dance through the program about five years ago and has a regular group of 15 to 20 participants of varying ages at the weekly lessons.
“If you can walk, you can dance and you are never too old to dance,” said Diaz, 26.
Mirelez has been teaching bird singing since January for the TANF program and has about 15 students that attend on a consistent basis. He enjoys seeing families participate together.
“With the curriculum and method I came up with, anyone of any ability or age can jump in and learn,” he said. “My youngest student is 2 years old, but I also have adults.”
At one time the Bird Songs were almost completely gone, due to the loss of some of the traditional singers who served in World War II and didn’t return. A revival in the 1980s was due to the efforts of the Cahuilla elders Mirelez learned from. They taught younger students who in turn taught others and brought back the Bird Songs.
Robert Levi, Alvino Siva, Saturino Torres, Katherine Siva Saubel, Anthony Biff Andreas and John Andreas are the singers Mirelez got to sing with and learn from.
“Bird Songs are about creation; how life began, how we struggled and how we triumphed in the end,” Mirelez said. “It’s how we demonstrate our culture.”
He said the different Bird Singers at the Soboba Pow Wow came from all over Southern California and parts of Arizona and each group was given the opportunity to enter the arena and sing their own style of songs.
Diaz said her dancers learn the meaning of everything she teaches and shows them.
“I feel that I never teach them enough in the time that I have them—but it’s a lot of fun,” she said. “It’s a huge honor to teach these young ones and pass it down. It’s very rewarding to see it all come together.”
Both teachers have taken students to other public events. Mirelez and his group performed at the Soboba Fiesta. He said the pow wow is the epitome of why the bird songs and dances exist—to bring people together in a social gathering.
Diaz’s students recently danced at Cal State, San Marcos and have been invited to Morongo TANF.
“I love seeing the smiles on the girls’ faces as they go out into the arena to dance and their excitement to come out and do it again and again,” Diaz said.
Diaz has danced at the Soboba Pow Wow since the beginning, but has only competed for one year.
“I enjoy feeling all the powerful energy when I enter the arena,” she said. “It puts you in a different place.”
Diaz and her dancers were showcased at the pow wow’s annual preview for fifth graders. More than 3,500 children and teachers were at the two-hour morning program on September 16.
“I have danced at the preview for 4 or 5 years now, but this is the first time the TANF kids have been invited to dance in the opening and we are very grateful and thankful to be a part of it,” Diaz said.
The Soboba Band of Luiseño Indians started offering the living history lesson to schools so students could interact with the culture they were learning about in their textbooks. The local field trip gives students an insight to Native American cultures from throughout the country.
“I try to teach them a little bit about us; that we are not the stereotype out there, like living in teepees,” Diaz said. “What I really want to inspire in everyone, especially those in my community, is be fit and healthy; keep moving. Yes, this is a fun way to embrace, celebrate and pass on our culture and tradition but it is also a great way to take care of ourselves. I know firsthand of the struggle with being overweight and unhealthy and I lost 120 pounds.”
San Jacinto Unified School District Superintendent Diane Perez said her schools are grateful to Soboba for providing such a wonderful opportunity for their students to become culturally aware of the history of the San Jacinto Valley.
“I am thrilled Soboba has continued the tradition of hosting all our fifth grade students at the pow wow,” San Jacinto Unified School District Board Member Trica Ojeda said. “They generously provide busing, ensuring our students have this educational opportunity to witness the rich heritage of our Native Americans.”
Hemet Unified School District Superintendent Christi Barrett is appreciative of the relationship her schools have with Soboba and is thankful for the annual invitation.
“This gives our students a valuable opportunity to participate in something that is very meaningful and important to our valley,” she said.
The Women’s Fancy Shawl Dance is inspired by the movement of butterflies and is somewhat new to the pow wow circuit, starting in the 1950s and 1960s. The dance has intricate footwork and spinning that show the fringe on the shawl as well as the colors of the dancer’s outfit. This style is said to have arisen when women wanted to have a dance that would attract attention, much like the Men’s Fancy Dance has done.
The Bird Songs are an oral history of all Southern California Natives. The Bird songs are strictly social songs and not used in ceremonies. They tell the story of migration of the people. The cycle starts from the beginning of existence to the time when they find their promised land.
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