Southern California (San Bernardino County, eastern Los Angeles County)
Language: Uto-Aztecan family
1770 estimate: 1,500
1910 Census: 100
The Serrano were a small group, though their name is sometimes used to include several other groups whose languages were close to the Serrano language. The Vanyume, who lived along the Mohave River, may have spoken a dialect similar to the Serrano. Little is known about the Vanyume.
The Serrano called themselves Takhtam, which meant men or people in their language. The name Serrano is from the Spanish word for mountaineers or highland people. The place where Serrano settlements were located ranged from about 1,500 feet elevation to over 11,000 feet, and included desert and mountain areas. More of the villages were in the foothills of the San Gabriel and San Bernardino Mountains, where there were streams and small lakes. There were just a few villages in the desert area because there were only a few places where water was available all year round.
Each Serrano community (which usually consisted of one village) owned a creek or a water hole and the land around it. The village was often located at the point where a stream came out of the foothills. Each small band of people belonged to one of two totem (symbol) groups, the Wild Cats or the Coyotes.
The leader of each clan was called the kika. A man usually inherited the position of kika from his father, though sometimes the wife of a kika carried on for him after his death. The kika was in charge of the ceremonies and religious life of the community, in addition to settling quarrels and advising the people on matters of daily life. The kika was assisted by another man called the paxa, who helped with important ceremonies.
Serrano families built houses that were round and dome-shaped, made with a frame of willow branches bent together and fastened at the top. The frame was covered with bundles of tule reeds. Each family had their own house, which was used mostly for sleeping and for storing their belongings.
Although each house had a fire pit in the center, much of the cooking and other activity took place outside the house. In order to have shade, the people built ramadas, which were thatched roofs supported by poles.
The largest house in the village belonged to the kika. This house also served as the place for ceremonies.
Each village had a sweathouse, usually located near the stream or other water source. The sweathouse was a large round building, partly underground. It was framed with willow poles and covered with tule reeds and earth. A fire was built in the center of the sweathouse. Men, women, and children gathered in the sweathouse. After the hot air made them sweat, they went into the stream to wash off the sweat.
The food that the Serrano gathered depended on whether they lived in the foothills or the desert. The desert people had honey mesquite and piņon nuts, yucca roots, and cacti fruits. Those in the foothills had acorns as well as piņon nuts. The desert people often traveled into the foothills to gather acorns and other nuts. Nuts were stored in granaries built of willow poles and covered with tule reeds.
In the foothills and mountains there were many animals that were used as food. Special hunting parties went out to find deer, mountain sheep, and antelope. Smaller game such as rabbits and other rodents were caught in traps or with curved throwing sticks. Some birds were taken for food; the quail was the most important of the game birds for the Serrano. They did not do much fishing.
Other roots, bulbs, and seeds, including chia seeds, were important to the food supply. The food was cooked either in earth ovens, or by boiling it with water in baskets heated by hot stones. Some of the meat and vegetables were dried in the sun and stored for use in the winter.
The climate was warm much of the year and the Serrano did not need many clothes. They used tule reeds fastened to a cord to make short aprons or skirts. Pieces of mesquite bark may also have been used to make skirts. They also had the skins of deer and antelope to use as coverings when they needed them for warmth. Rabbitskin blankets were made by sewing together strips of rabbit skins. When traveling across the desert areas or into the mountains, the Serrano probably wore sandals made from plant fibers and strips of deerskin.
Baskets made by the Serrano were used for carrying, storing, and cooking food. The coiled baskets were finely done using grasses and reeds, and decorated with colors of yellow, red, brown, and green, and with seeds. Some pottery bowls were made from the clay in the area, but the pottery was not decorated.
Pieces of bone and stone were shaped into tools by the Serrano. A sharp-pointed bone served as an awl for making holes in deerskin, and for sewing together reeds or strips of rabbit skins. Stone was shaped into knife blades, scrapers, and arrowheads. The Serrano used bows and arrows when hunting larger animals. Their bows were made of wood and backed with sinew (animal tendons).
The yucca plant which grew in Serrano territory provided the fibers from which they made cord and string. Cord was then used to make bags, as well as nets and snares to catch small animals and birds.
Trade for the Serrano was mostly between villages in the desert and in the foothills. The desert people went once a year to the mountains to get acorns and other food that wasn't available in their own area. In exchange they traded desert fruits and seeds. The Serrano probably also had trade with the Cahuilla, who lived to the south of them.
The shells that the Serrano used as money came from the Chumash, who lived on the coast. Pieces of clamshell were shaped into disks, holes punched in them, and then strung on strings. The more the shells were handled, the more polished they became and that made them more valuable.
Ceremonies were held to celebrate the birth of a child, and the coming of age of both boys and girls. The ceremony following a death lasted for seven days. Each community had a bundle of objects used in the ceremonies. This bundle was considered to be sacred, and was very important. Taking care of it was the main task of the paxa, or assistant leader of the village.
A part of some ceremonies was the killing of an eagle which had been raised in the village just for this purpose. The eagle feathers were used to make a costume for a dancer, whose dance was like the flight of the eagle. After an eagle dance, which was held in the ceremonial house, singing and dancing went on all night long. The family holding the ceremony gave gifts and shell money to their friends.
The Serrano used several musical instruments with their dancing and singing. Rattles were made of turtle or tortoise shell, or of deer hooves. Whistles and flutes were carved from bone and wood. Bull-roarers made of a piece of wood attached to a string made a roaring noise when whirled around.