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Who are the Serrano Indians?

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  • Written By: Niki Foster
  • Edited By: Andrew Jones
  • Last Modified Date: 28 November 2016
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The Serrano Indians are a Native American tribe of present day California in the United States, originally living in the San Bernardino Mountains. Serrano is a Spanish word meaning "highlander" that was used to refer to the Indians by Spanish missionaries in the 18th century. Members of the tribe refer to themselves as Taaqtam ("people"), Maarenga'yam ("people from Morongo"), or Yuhaviatam ("people of the pines").

Traditionally, the tribe inhabited an area ranging from the Mojave River area to the Mojave Desert, including the San Gabrial Mountains in the north, and the Sierra Pelona and Tehachapi Mountains in the south. They lived in simple community lodges made from willow branches covered with woven mats, and each family had its own fireplace or hearth. The Serrano Indians migrated seasonally for milder weather, and subsisted on hunting small game and gathering wild plants.

Traditionally, Serrano women wore the animal furs, while men did not wear clothing. The members of the tribe are expert basket weavers, using their products for a wide variety of purposes. Their baskets are so tightly woven that they can be used to carry water and are durable enough to cook in. Men hunted small animals using arrows and traps, and women prepared food including a flat bread made from the pinon nuts of the pine tree, and a porridge made from acorns.

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The Serrano language is a member of the Takic branch of the Uto-Aztecan language family, which includes the other California languages Cahuilla, Cupeno, Kitanemuk, Luiseno, and Tongva. Serrano is most closely related to Tongva and Kitanemuk, which are both extinct, and the Serrano language itself is recently extinct or near extinct. A study dating from 1994 noted a single surviving speaker.

There are some language revitalization efforts, and many of the traditional songs have been preserved. Serrano musicians use gourd rattles for percussion. There are traditional songs about hunting, history, and creation stories, and a genre of bird songs in which the migration patterns of birds serve as a metaphor for Serrano history.

Serrano Indians first encountered Europeans in the late 18th century, when Spanish settlers founded the Mission San Gabriel Arcangel near the southern border of the San Gabriel Mountains. Though they initially resisted the encroachment of the settlers, members of the tribe were forcibly moved to reservations in 1834. In the decades to follow, smallpox devastated the population. The first Serrano reservation was established by the United States in 1875. Today, there are two Native American tribes with Serrano members, the Morongo Band of Mission Indians and the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, both in California.

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