Long before explorers made their way west, the Serrano people lived amid the mountains, valleys, passes and highlands of San Bernardino County.
For music, they used rattles fashioned from gourds filled with palm-tree seeds. They used branches and yucca fiber to craft homes near lakes and springs.
They told their children about how the first people turned to pine trees as they mourned the death of Kruktat, their creator. They explained how those trees bore nuts and acorns, nourishment for Serranos who came later.
"The first disciplines of the Americas are Native American studies," said Clifford Trafzer, director of UC Riverside’s California Center for Native Nations.
"California Indians were the first people here," he said. "And the various things they did in surviving for so long and thriving in California, through their literature, through their history, through their languages, through their economies, their knowledge of biology, plants, animals, geology, hydrology … I just think it’s rich."
Trafzer is among local academics and other experts who say interest in American Indian studies is climbing.
At UCR, doctoral candidates can concentrate on American Indian dance, literature or history, Trafzer said. The California Center, which promotes and conducts research on American Indian people, was founded several years ago, he said.
A three-year-old UCR Extension department now averages seven or eight courses per quarter, said program coordinator Leanna Mojado.
Local tribal leaders gave a guest lecture at San Bernardino Valley College this spring in a class on Serrano history.
And the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians is partnering with Claremont Graduate University this fall to run a new program teaching tribal employees about American Indian history and laws and other rules that apply to tribal governments.
The rise of reservation casinos and the high-profile politics associated with gaming have made Californians in the general population more aware of American Indians.
Tribes have reached out to outsiders in recent years, sharing their cultures through educational programs and conferences, Trafzer said.
"There’s been a growing need for it, from the tribe’s perspective," said Jacob Coin, a spokesman for the San Manuels. "How could we expect local governments to better understand us unless we provide an opportunity to learn about tribes?"
The Claremont program will launch with eight to 12 students, said Michael Uhlmann, a professor of American politics and the program’s coordinator.
Talented individuals whom the tribe snags from corporate America often have a poor grasp of laws governing tribal operations, said Deron Marquez, a formal San Manuel tribal chairman and a Claremont doctoral candidate who collaborated with Uhlmann and others on the new program. Enrollees will dabble in such topics as managerial techniques, government structures and American Indian history.
The tribe wants employees to learn about "who we are, how we relate to state and local government, how we partake in American culture and how our business relates to the broader pattern of activities in California," Uhlmann said.
Carol Richardson, a payroll specialist who works for the tribe but is not a member, took classes in a pilot for the Claremont program last year.
She said the courses helped her understand tribes’ status as sovereign nations and how gaming was meant to boost American Indians’ economies and standard of living. Richardson said she leans anti-casino and believes tribes should diversify their income sources.
"When we hear of the Indian tribes," Richardson said, "a lot of the time we just think `casino.’
"There’s a bigger picture here."
UCR Extension expanded its American Indian studies offerings in response to suggestions of participants in previous courses, Mojado said.
For Mojado, of Paiute and Navajo heritage, the program is a way to share American Indian culture and preserve tribes’ histories. Courses often draw K-12 teachers who pass on what they learn to area children, she said.
Most instructors are of American Indian descent, able to offer firsthand information, she said. Opportunities in the past have included classes on basketry, shamanism, storytelling, toys and games and gourds and dreamcatchers.
The American Indian story is the tale of California’s past, Trafzer says.
"Most people don’t know about the great killings that took place, the genocide against California Indians in the 1850s and ’60s, during the gold rush period, and how militia groups moved against Indian people and there were outcries in newspapers for the extermination of all Indian people," he said. "I think we ought to know about that."
The gold rush days are long gone, and thinking "California" today conjures images of Hollywood and Silicon Valley. Vegas-style poker and blackjack tables, a 2,500-seat bingo hall and 2,000 slots festoon at the San Manuel casino near San Bernardino.
But through growing American Indian studies programs, here and elsewhere, the sagas and histories of the state’s first people live on.
Contact writer Charlotte Hsu at (909) 386-3882 or via e-mail at email@example.com.