Serrano (Native Americans of California)

Serranotmp106_thumbis a name taken from the Spanish term for "mountaineer" or "highlander."

Location In the late eighteenth century, the Serrano lived in small, autonomous villages, near water sources in the San Bernardino Mountains and Mojave Desert. Today most live mainly on two reservations in Riverside and (especially) San Bernardino Counties, California.

Population Serrano population stood at roughly 2,000 in the late eighteenth century. In 1990, 56 Indians lived on the San Manuel Reservation, and 526 Serrano and members of other tribes, mostly Cahuilla, lived on the Morongo Reservation.

Language Serrano belongs to the Takic division of the Uto-Aztecan language family and includes languages such as Kitanemuk, probably Vanyume, and possibly Tataviam.

Historical Information

History The Serrano may have encountered the Spanish as early as the 1770s, but the latter exerted little influence until 1819, when they constructed a settlement in the area. Most Western Serrano were removed by force to the missions between then and 1834; at that point, too few remained to carry on a traditional lifestyle. The Vanyume, a group associated with the Serrano and possibly living just to their north, became extinct well before 1900.


Religion The Serrano recognized a hierarchy of supernatural beings and spirits. Shamans conducted their ceremonies. They acquired their powers through dreaming and datura-induced visions.

Government Autonomous lineages, the main political unit, claimed specific local territory. Larger social units included clans, headed by kikas who provided political, economic, and religious leadership. Kikas also had assistants.

Customs All people belonged to one of two divisions, Wildcat and Coyote, each of which was composed of a number of patrilineal clans. In addition to conducting religious ceremonies, shamans also interpreted dreams and cured both by sucking out disease objects and by administering medicinal plants.


Both young men and women undertook puberty ceremonies. Waxan, the female ceremony, was public in the case of wealthy families and included dietary restrictions and instructions on how to be good wives. During Tamonin, the boys’ ceremony, initiates ingested a datura drink and danced around a fire in the ceremonial house. After they experienced their visions, they learned special songs. The ceremony was followed by feasting and gift giving. A new mother and child lived in a heated pit for several days, observing food taboos. The dead were cremated, and most of their possessions were burned. A month after the death, a second burning of possessions was held, accompanied by singing and dancing. There was also an annual seven-day mourning ceremony.

Dwellings Parents, unmarried daughters, married sons, and sometimes extended family members lived in circular, domed tule-mat houses built around willow frames. Most household activities took place in nearby ramadas. Other structures included granaries, semisubterranean sweat houses, and a large ceremonial house where the kika lived. Men, women, and children all sweated and bathed together.

Diet Women gathered acorns, pine nuts, yucca roots, and mesquite and cactus fruit. Men hunted deer, antelope, mountain sheep, and small game using bow and arrow, traps, and curved throwing sticks. They also hunted birds, especially quail, and occasionally fished. Meat was baked in earth ovens, boiled in watertight baskets, or parching in trays with hot coals. The people also ate bone marrow. Blood was either thickened and cooked or eaten cold.

Key Technology Food utensils included flint knives, stone or bone scrapers, pottery trays and bowls, baskets, and horn and bone spoons and stirrers. Most tools, including awls, arrow straighteners, bows, arrows, fire drills, pipes, and musical instruments, were made of wood, bone, stone, shell, or plant fiber.

Trade Desert and mountain villages traded with each other for foods unavailable in the other’s area.

Notable Arts The Serrano made fine decorated coiled basketry. They also carved petroglyphs, beginning perhaps as early as 1000 B.C.E., that depicted big game hunting. Pictographs, consisting of geometric designs, straight and wavy lines, and people, were painted as part of the girls’ puberty ceremony as early as 1400 C.E.

Transportation Goods were carried in baskets.

Dress Serrano Indians wore little clothing except for some rabbit and otter fur blankets.

War and Weapons Their traditional enemies included the Mojave and Chemehuevi.

Contemporary Information

Government/Reservations The San Manuel Reservation (1893; San Bernardino County; 658 acres) had an early-1990s population of 25 Indians (out of 85 enrolled Serranos). Serranos also share the Morongo Reservation with other tribes, particularly the Cahuilla. Serrano descendants also live on the Soboba Reservation.

Economy People on the San Manuel Reservation work primarily at bingo facilities and other wage-paying jobs. Many Morongo people are cattlemen and farmers. They also have a bingo facility.

Legal Status The San Manuel Band of Mission Indians is a federally recognized tribal entity.

Daily Life Today’s Serrano participate in pan-Indian ceremonies and events. Many residents of Morongo are Moravian. A very few people still speak Serrano. Although their culture has largely disappeared, the few people who claim Serrano ancestry remain proud of their heritage and identity. Some sacred and secular songs are sung on social occasions.

Next post:

Previous post: