Although the lead time was too short to publish a story about Dr. Ernest Siva before his lecture, the stories he related about his time at the Idyllwild School of Music and the Arts (now Idyllwild Arts) from 1953 to the present are valuable historic information.
Ernest, a Cahuilla/Serrano Indian, was a saxophone player in the Banning High School band. In the 1950s, the band was asked to come to ISOMATA to play for a school dance. He had never been up to the mountain even though he grew up on the Morongo Indian Reservation nearby. He knew he had musical talent. As a child he sent his saved cereal box tops off to get a harmonica, his first instrument.
In the summer of 1953, he was enrolled as student on a scholarship. “This was an eye opener,” he said. “I was considered a pretty good musician at Banning High, but suddenly I was with students from all over, including Hollywood. Many of their parents were musicians so the kids were already classically trained.”
He remembers the summer when Pete Seeger came up. “We were at ‘Hoot,’ a musical gathering, when Seeger came up to me. I was just this Indian kid lying on my back looking at the sky. He asked me, ‘Do you sing?’ I didn’t know if I could, I had never sung before. It was in my bones, but I hadn’t grown into it yet. Then Bob Holmes heard me speak and recognized the tenor sound from my voice. He needed a tenor as part of his choral group. I gave up the sax and became a singer.”
He began to record and teach others his native family songs such as “Little Bear” and “Dragon Fly.” His family was the last of the traditional practitioners, and he didn’t want to lose the songs or the language. Later, he was able to teach these songs to his students during his practice teaching at Beverly Hills High and then as a music teacher at Raymond Cree Middle School in Palm Springs.
Something miraculous happened when Ernie was in Idyllwild. He knew his Siva ancestors had walked from the desert to somewhere in the mountains to get away from the hot summers. While on a hike with Archaeologist Dan McCarthy, he was able to retrace his ancestors’ steps to their original desert village 11 miles from Pinyon Pines.
The insight gained from his experience at ISOMATA led to furthering his education at the University of Southern California where he obtained his bachelor’s degree in Music Education and his master’s in Choral Music. Later, he was presented with an honorary doctorate of Fine Arts from the University of California, San Bernardino.
He and his wife, June, founded the Dorothy Ramon Learning Center in downtown Banning. This center offers lectures and once-a-month concerts. Interns from UCSB are working in the library and researching the cultures of all Southern California tribes, thus enhancing Ernest’s dream of revitalizing his own Native American culture. He continues to teach Native American flute making as part of the Native American Arts Festival held at IA each summer. He serves on the IA Foundation Board of Trustees. He gives back by providing scholarships to students on the reservation to continue with music.
Ernest shares his knowledge through story telling and music. He sings and dances with the Mt. Cahuilla Bird Singers. Bob Krone, son of the school’s founders, and member of the first graduating class in 1950, said, “Ernest is one of the best we ever had.”