The San Manuel Band of Serrano Indians

In San Bernardino County, California, there is a federally recognized tribe known as the San Manuel Band of Serrano Indians. The band has spent a significant amount of time in California, more specifically in the San Bernardino Mountains. The band's headquarters are in Patton, and its ruling council is made up of seven members who were chosen by their respective clans. The band has consistently demonstrated tendencies of being a self-directed institution that manages itself and provides for its members throughout time. In this essay, we'll examine the band's path to success as well as the historical circumstances that contributed to it. I will focus on seven areas that will provide an argument for the success of the band. The areas of focus include World view, Cultural differentiation, Institutional differentiation, political colonialism, economic market incorporation, cultural exchange and the community consensus in support of institutional change and continuity. The arguments provide an analysis of the band and an explanation about the continuity of the general council government and the rise of tribal capitalism in the form of casino gaming in San Bernardino. The seven areas can be viewed from two perspectives, before western contact, and after western contact.

Before Western Contact

The worldview of the band before western contact. The Serrano band has been recognized by many people as a village community or ‘tribelet,’ and it is the largest of the American Indians in California. It is the largest group in the world with an autonomous, independent and self-governing principle (Bean 1977). The band stands independently, and even in the past, it has fought hard to maintain its political reign until today where it stands on its own. Secondly, the band is the largest group of which any person, chief or leader had recognized authority. In the past, the band was led by elected members from each clan, and they made a council of governance. The head of the council will then exercise full control of the community. From the chief’s perspective, the actual following was limited to his tribe but he was respected and listened to by the neighboring tribelets. The last view is that the band is the largest unit to ever own a territory and the only one in the entire California.

Governance of the Serrano band has been recognized worldwide because they have a unique system. It is viewed as a big house religion where power comes from a central place, and the members are submissive to the rule (Bean 1977). Just as in the modern Europe where the state has more power than the federal nations, yet they are submissive to the state; the same applies to the band where superior authority is recognized. The band is worldly, holistic and lineage based. They have maintained the lineage of their ancestors, and that is the reason as to why the current governance follows the tradition of electing seven members from each clan and appointing an overall ruler of the band.

The cultural differentiation of the community has been explored by many scholars. The Serrano band lineage was a universal political unit and where there was no lineage, disintegration had occurred (Gifford 1926). The community was composed of varying types of family groups comprising of the parents, children, relatives and sometimes non-relatives. The average family size was five to ten people. The cultural and social beliefs of the band were diverse. For instance, women married shortly after puberty but they maintained the rights in their natal lineage. There was a central town which was used as a political, ritual and economic center. Among the rituals performed in the center included healing and circumcision. Oaths by the elected leaders were also taken at the center, and it remained respected throughout. The traditional Serrano recognized exogamous marriage where one could marry outside the community. It is also seen that they practiced a culture where members of the village could gather for singing and dancing and also telling stories to keep the community together. Hunting and gathering was their culture (Bean 1977). The members who inhabited the San Bernardino Mountains could go to Apple Valley in winter and Big Bear Lake in summer. They did not hunt the grizzly bears because they believed they were reincarnations of their ancestor’s spirits. The cultural belief on the origin of the people is traced back to the mountains where they believed ‘Kruktat’ their creator died. The Serrano never ate bear meat nor used their fur because it was held in deep reverence and regarded as an ancestor. The dead were honored, and their bodies were cremated and their possessions burnt.

The settlement of the ritual center was controlled, and those who stayed there were under a chief, usually a wealth man. Occupation of the settlements was permanent. Meetings of the council were only held at the principal village, and large foods were maintained there. The communities from the Lower Klamath River are said to have shared a common cultural tradition that suggested an alliance. Just like other communities, possession of property (usually inherited) was the source of prestige. The north and southern California area practiced slavery as a cultural prestige (Bean 1977). The ritual obligations and kinship required that relatives and other people could be invited whenever a ritual was to take place. Morality was highly encouraged, and those who broke the rules in the society were punished by the chiefs. Talking about the culture of the Serrano people, it is important to note that they practiced art. Basket weaving and crafts making were their fields of specialization. The singing of the Serrano people had a different approach. Their culture does not provide the use of drums, but the use of rattles made from guards and filled with seeds to produce a percussive sound when shaken.

Institutional differentiation. Institutional differentiation is the period through which the organization of the Serrano people was disrupted leading to the division of the practices and normal way of life in the community. The plan for differentiation is traced back in 1769 where a Spanish expedition moved into the lands of northern California. The Spanish spread through the central region and then reached the Serrano plains where they establish missions and churches. Some of the Serrano people converted but a majority formed a resistance. The Spanish kidnapped many people are forcing them into their missions thus resistance started. Over the years of 1810-1850, the Serranos coped with the life of the Spanish military. However, in the later periods of the 1860s, military men began hunting down the Serrano and other native people who visited the mountains. In the 1860s, most Serrano people abandoned their homes and went to live in the lower parts of the mountains.

The strong resistance against the Spanish was formed in a small village above the highlands, and their ruler Santos Manuel guided the people. It is speculated that the families in the highland survived and they are the ancestors of the current Serrano lineage. It is the ruler who formed the great resistance that we get the name ‘San Manuel Band of Serrano.’ The Indians lost their land, wealth, and health as they fought the Spanish. From the three major events that happened to the Serrano community, I will expect less from the development of the community. First, we have observed that a small population survived the Spanish attack making it impossible for such a community to thrive. Secondly, the people lost their identity with the property being destroyed. It is difficult for the community to rise with such an environment. However, because of the strategic location of the community, I will expect improvement and reorganization of the community once again to rise and fight for their independence and self-rule.

After Contact

Political colonialism. The political colonialism of the native communities of California is said to have lasted for five hundred years. Political competition is used in this context to mean the strategic and diplomatic bargaining between nations to ensure their protection and also the protection of their strategic interests. The political colonization that affected the Serrano Indians came from a wide range of colonial powers. The Spanish introduced colonialism and several other powers like the British, Dutch, Swedish and the French followed (Bean 1977). The political colonialism on the native leverage contenders ended in 1820 where various treaties were signed.

The Indian communities experienced long periods of exploitation as they were not recognized by the treaties signed. During the US period, the increasingly powerful United States government redefined Indian treaties, and they were denied the status of recognition as foreign nations. Irrespective of the treaties, the Indian communities, the Serrano Indians being inclusive, did not give up their right to serve a self-governing government. As seen in the contemporary world, the Serrano Indians exercises the right to self-governance and it protects its territories from the political colonization by other powers. The Indians have fought hard on the issue of preserving political governance irrespective of the limited power that they have. The need to preserve land is a challenge, and as seen, the Serrano Indians had a land of about 600 acres, but of current, it has increased to 900 due to the political fights for their rights.

Economic Market Incorporation. Apart from the political changes that have pushed the San Manuel band this far, the economic market incorporation has given them a push. The economic market can be viewed from the perspective of the world whereby the economists argue for an autonomous economic market or system based on material interest. An argument from the book suggests that if the indigenous communities are going to engage in trade, then the price they must pay is increased economic dependency and loss of self-sufficiency (Bean 1977). Global market incorporation is also one of the new forms of economic relation for indigenous nations. Results from the past have revealed that economic marginalization of many indigenous communities has increased.

A conclusion has been made that for the survival of any indigenous community, the available local market should be available. Other features that can lead to the survival include labor organization, skills, resources and the economic culture of the people. Currently, the Serrano Indians are independent, and they employ people in their firms. The establishment of bingo in 1986 showed a great improvement of the economic status irrespective of the rules. In 1994, a 100,000 square foot casino was built to improve the economic status of the people. The current employee rate at the casino is 2,500 people. The Serrano Indians have also made movements to improve the health sector and the education system. In 1970, a small clinic was established on the Morongo Reservation, but up to date, the health sector has expanded to include fitness facilities.

Cultural Exchange. Cultural exchange refers to the transfer and internalization of the symbolic codes between the colonized nations and the colonizers. The Serrano Indians are victims of the cultural exchange because they were colonized. The symbolic codes for culture include the language, economic ethics, worldviews, norms, information and religion among many others (Bean 1977). The new incorporations of the western culture into the indigenous communities have two outcomes. The communities can reject them or can be rejected. A good example is the Christian-pagan conflict that has existed since the 1820s. As observed earlier, the indigenous Indians incorporated the Christian way of life brought by the Spanish military. However, some rejected it leading to forced services.

The Serrano band has incorporated a wide range of cultural exchange with the whites. Christianity is one of them. The second one is the constitutional way of life observed in the western nations. Initially, the chiefs had the constitutional rights to decide what was wrong and good but it does not apply to the current San Manuel band. The idea of wealth possession in the past was a sign of prestige and respect. People were respected by the number of things they had. Western civilization has changed the culture of the people by instilling the mind of business and profit making (Bean 1977). From the new changes in the after contact context, I expect to see the Serrano community ahead because of the experience they have had. The idea of profit making and the political colonization is an opportunity for success. Cultural exchange, on the other hand, is important but I will not expect to see the people being drawn away from their culture because culture is the way of life that makes a community unique.

Community Consensus. The community consensus explains the political and the social progress of the Serrano band. We have seen that the community was initially organized in clans and they were headed by chiefs who executed the governance power. Politically the band has maintained the rule of the general council whereby there are seven elected leaders to rule the community (Bean 1977). The social progress is not attached much to the traditional way of life because of the western civilization. The role of the traditional healers has been replaced by hospitals and the activities to generate income have changed. Establishment of the Casino is one of the sources of food and income for the people thus replacing the hunting and gathering of the ancestral times. Few people today speak the Serrano language, and only a few traditional rituals have survived. A spring of celebration, Yamaar’a is celebrated each year to remind them of the tradition.

There has been a major change in events in the San Manuel Band of Serrano Indians. The seven areas discussed to provide a series of events that have driven the community to the world it is now. The worldview of the community is tremendous. It is the largest community to have self-governance so far. The different cultures that they had in the past have however been swept away, but they still practice some of them. The culture of togetherness has kept them close and unshakable over the past years. Irrespective of the institutional changes in Christianity and colonization, the community has survived to emerge as a self-governing community in California. The political colonialism of about five hundred years has not shaken them but given them the power to govern themselves. Cultural exchange has been the greatest impact on the community because they have adopted the western culture, but it has helped them significantly to become independent. In general, the seven arguments provide a strong pathway through which the Serrano Indians have emerged to become successful.


Bean, L. J., & Blackburn, T. C. (1977). Native Californians: A theoretical retrospective. Socorro, N.M: Ballena Press.

Hoppály, M., & Von, S. O. (2008). Shamanism: Past and present. Budapest: Ethnographic Institute, Hungarian Academy of Sciences.

Shoji, K., Coin, J., Paresa, J., Trafzen, C., KVCR (Television station : San Bernardino, Calif.), & San Bernardino (Calif.). (2008). People of the pines: A new beginning. San Bernardino, CA: KVCR.

In Allmendinger, B. (2015). A history of California literature.

Rawls, J. J. (2006). Indians of California. The changing image. Norman: Univ. of Oklahoma Pr.

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