Dr. Katherine Siva Saubel was a revered Cahuilla elder, scholar, and activist for the preservation of Native American cultures. She transcribed and translated traditional folklore, created the first Cahuilla-English language dictionary, and penned an ethnobotanical reference book on the medicinal uses of plants and herbs. Not only did her life’s work ignite academic interest in Indigenous traditions in the US, but her lectures from Germany to Japan also served to introduce the rich Cahuilla heritage to audiences around the globe.
Katherine Siva Saubel was born on March 7, 1920, at Pachawal pa, an impoverished, upper village of the Los Coyotes Indian Reservation in Southern California. Because the village was more isolated at the time, she spent the first years of her childhood completely surrounded by Cahuilla (pronounced ka-wee-yah) language and customs. The first dialect she picked up from her parents and eleven siblings was the Mountain Cahuilla dialect. When her family moved south to the Agua Caliente Reservation in Palm Springs in 1923, she also learned the Pass Cahuilla, and after her maternal grandmother moved in with the family a few years later, she was taught the Desert Cahuilla dialect.
Even as English became more prevalent in her life when she started attending school, this early immersion is what bestowed Saubel with a strong foundational knowledge of her native tongue. Her propensity for language was encouraged by her father during her childhood, who himself had learned English, Latin, and Spanish, and spoke several other Native languages, including Cupeno and Luisino.
By the time she started attending a segregated elementary school in Palm Springs around 1925, Saubel did not speak any English. At school, speaking her native language, or opposing the way her people were portayed in history lessons, were strictly punished. As most Native American students were treated in the 1920s, Saubel was seated in the back of the classroom and ignored, resigned to teaching herself English primarily through observing the teacher and other students.
“The reservation, when I came here, there were all these Indian people. They all spoke the language. They all understood one another. They all helped one another. They all talked to each other in their language. Now there’s nothing. No one to talk to now.”
— Katherine Siva Saubel in an interview on KPCC, 2001
Despite these trying early school experiences, Saubel was determined to continue her education after she completed primary school. She was active, self-motivated, and unafraid to stand up for what she felt was right. Because there was no established high school in Palm Springs at the time, she took a bus with white students to the school in Banning over half an hour away. According to her biography published on the Malki Museum’s website, she once noticed a small restaurant near the bus stop with a “whites only” sign in the window. She went in and told the owner that he had no right to discriminate against Native American people when his restaurant was on a reservation. He said nothing, but the sign was gone the next time she passed the restaurant.
Throughout high school, Saubel kept a notebook in which she recorded her knowledge of the medicinal and edible uses for various plants and herbs, which she had learned from her mother, a Cahuilla medicine woman. She became the first Native American woman to graduate from her high school in Palm Springs. Saubel initially wanted to continue her education to become a nurse, however, at the time, there was no funding provided to Indigenous people living on reservations to pursue a nursing degree program. Yet, even thoough she had to put her academic goals on hold, Saubel had already begun her groundbreaking work documenting aspects of Cahuilla life. Preserving her Cahuilla culture was important to her, and by extension, so was preserving and respecting the Earth and its resources.
In 1938, at the age of 18, Saubel met Wanikik Cahuilla Mariano Saubel at “the last Cahuilla ceremonial gathering on the Palm Springs reservation.” They felt an immediate connection and married two years later, having received permission from her father, a union which would last until Mariano’s death forty-five years later. But only a year and a half after they were married, Mariano was drafted to serve in World War II, and in 1943 he was deployed overseas to North Africa and Italy where he served for three years. Their only son, Allen, was born shortly before Mariano’s departure. Saubel and Allen lived with her in-laws on their small family farm and orchard on the Morongo Reservation near Banning during her husband’s years of service. There, she worked closely alongside her father-in-law, learning to operate machinery and work the land. Saubel enjoyed farmwork much more than housework, claiming she “worked like a man” in the fields and orchard.
In 1959, Saubel established her scholarly career when she started working as a teacher’s assistant at the University of California, Los Angeles. In the previous year, she had met Dr. Lowell Bean, a graduate student studying ethnology and anthropology, and together they embarked on a forty-year collaboration and friendship. Dr. Bean also introduced Saubel to Dr. William Bright who specialized in linguistics and anthropology at UCLA. Saubel embraced these introductions as a catalyst for her own academic work as she endeavored to preserve Cahuilla language and culture from being completely erased by the English language that had come to surround her people on the reservations.
“Among the Cahuilla, plants were not viewed simply as objects which might or might not be useful to man, but as living beings with whom one could communicate and interact … Plants, like any life form, were therefore treated with respect.”
from Temalpakh, by Lowell John Bean and Katherine Siva Saubel (Malki-Museum Press, 1969)
In 1962, at the age of 42, Saubel received the Kennedy Scholarship for Native Americans, and she traveled to the University of Chicago and the University of Colorado at Boulder to study ethnology, linguistics, and anthropology. From there, she started to lead seminars at UCLA with Dr. Bright’s guidance.
Her scholarly work had two distinct focuses: ethnobotany and preservation of the Cahuilla language. In 1972, Saubel published Temalpakh (From the Earth): Cahuilla Indian Knowledge and Usage of Plants with Dr. Bean, a book that documented the ethnobotanical knowledge of Cahuilla people. The volume presented much of the knowledge that Saubel had learned from her mother.
Saubel also worked to document Cahuilla grammar and language in a dictionary, a project on which she collaborated with the renowned German linguist Dr. Hansjakob Seiler throughout the late sixties and early seventies. In 1969, Saubel published the first recorded volume of writing in the Cahuilla language, I’isniyatam (Designs): A Cahuilla Word Book (Malki-Museum Press), a bi-lingual children’s book titled about Cahuilla basket designs.
“When you lose your language, you lose everything. You can’t interpret your songs, your stories — it’s gone.”
Katherine Siva Saubel in a Los Angeles Times interview, 2011
In addition to these volumes, Saubel also published several works over the course of her scholarly career, including Kunvachmal: A Cahuilla Tale in The Indian Historian in 1969, and contirubted to Journal of California and Great Basin Anthropology. Beyond transcribing the Cahuilla language and traditional tales for the first time, she also translated them into English.
Towards the end of her career in 2004, Saubel published her memoirs bilingually in Isill héqwas wáxish (A dried coyote’s tail), in collaboration with the linguist Eric Elliott. Her other accomplishments include the establishment of the Malki Museum on the Morongo Reservation in 1964, of which she was the president until her death in 2011. She founded the museum with her close friend Jane K. Penn, a descendant of a Cahuilla chief, and it was the first museum dedicated to Native American culture and traditions that was both created and managed by Native American people.
For her incredible work in advocating for the preservation of the Cahuilla language and traditional knowledge, Saubel was inducted to the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993, the first Native American woman from California to be recognized with the award. In 2002, Saubel also received her honorary doctorate in humanities and philosophy from La Sierra University in Riverside, California, and in the same year she was awarded the Chancellor’s Medal from the University of California Riverside. She passed away on November 1, 2011 at the age of 91.
Using the power
Of the stars
And the ocean
— one of Dr. Saubel’s favorite traditional songs, sung to honor the deceased
Text by Cassandra Bertolini