"Faith Keeper" Guards Native American Songs, Knowledge

John Roach
for National Geographic News
April 22, 2004

Funding for this Earth-systems science story was provided by the National Science Foundation.
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When Patrick Orozco was a young boy, his grandmother Rose Rios taught
him a song about a Native American man from a village called Cupakuwa
who fell in love with a woman from another village known as Rumsen.

The couple met at a river between their homes. Those villages lie in the coastal rgion of what is now northern California.

The song includes many details of the landscape and the wild animals that lived there, according to Orozco. He says the song, which his grandmother learned from her elders, taught him about his people and the land they call home. The song also inspired his life's work.

Orozco is a faith keeper for the Ohlone, descendents of the original Costanoan Native American tribe that lived in an area stretching from just north of what is now San Francisco to Monterey, California.

Orozco said his grandmother told him: "You have learned all that was taught to me. Now you must go and ask other Indian elders that may know more. And after you have learned, you must go and teach our own, and then go and share with the non-Indians, so that they may know we are still here."

People of the Land

Following the direction of his grandmother, Orozco says he traveled throughout California to visit reservations, meet with tribal elders, witness sacred ceremonies, and learn the songs and stories that his people have told for millennia.

"There were songs for everything we had in life," he said. "We had great respect for the Great Spirit's creation. It all belonged to him. He is the creator. We had songs of coyote, deer, eagle, bear, bird."

Now, as he has for the past 18 years, Orozco—together with a song-and-dance group he put together called Ama Ka Tura, or "people of the land,"—shares this collected knowledge of the Ohlone with his own people and schoolchildren throughout California.

The songs serve as a reminder that the Ohlone are still here. "[I] am teaching our young and old all what I have learned," Orozco said. "And I can see that my elders and ancestors are smiling, for we are following their directions."

Song Survival

Orozco says some of the songs he has collected, and that he now shares, may date back to as long ago as 10,000 years—songs that the singer notes were nearly lost forever.

Beginning late in the 17th century Spanish missionaries began their sweep up the California coast. Indigenous Indians were enslaved, displaced from their homes, and forced to work in mission-run fields. Tens of thousands of them were killed by diseases such as smallpox and measles.

The enslavement, death, and disease continued when Mexico won independence—and California—from Spain in 1823 and through the early years of occupation by the United States, which began in 1846. In the gold rush years miners killed Indians with abandon, according to historical accounts.

Troy Johnson, a professor of American Indian studies, said the impact on the California Indian population from Spanish missionaries and early U.S. settlers was devastating.

"If the numbers are correct, and I feel they are greatly understated, the Spanish period saw a decline from 330,000 to about 130,000 [Indians] and the early American period saw a decline from 130,000 to under 13,000," Johnson said.

Native Americans had no written history during this period, but events were committed to memory. The responsibility was often held by a few tribal elders, who would pass the stories, songs, significant events, and other key bits of information onto the next generation.

With the deaths of so many Native Americans, some of the songs and stories—and their recorded oral history—were inevitably lost. Yet, as evidenced by Orozco's work, many of the songs survived. "It was a matter of honor and necessity to remember such things," Johnson said.

According to Johnson, many of the songs were kept by Indian women who would sing them while working in the fields of Spanish missions and in their homes outside of the mission walls. "As Indian culture has begun to renew itself, those songs have come back, many largely intact," Johnson said.

When Orozco began collecting the songs from elders throughout California, he found that many of the songs were only partially known, and oftentimes nobody knew their meaning. Through his work, he has pieced them back together.

"It has been a struggle," Orozco said, "but it was worthwhile."

For more Native American news stories and Web sites, scroll down.

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