Support for LAist comes from
We Explain L.A.
Stay Connected

Share This

Climate and Environment

Amid The Climate Crisis, A Southern California Tribe Works To Preserve Nature and Tradition

A man wearing a green shirt crushes a green plant blade with a rock.
James Ramos prepares yucca to be made into rope and soap.
(Erin Stone
Before you
Dear reader, we're asking you to help us keep local news available for all. Your financial support keeps our stories free to read, instead of hidden behind paywalls. We believe when reliable local reporting is widely available, the entire community benefits. Thank you for investing in your neighborhood.
Amid The Climate Crisis, A Southern California Tribe Works To Preserve Nature and Tradition

The San Bernardino Valley is home to the Yuhaaviatam clan (pronounced yuh-HAH-vee-uh-tahm) of Maara’yam (pronounced MAH-ree-ahm). Today, tribal members also call themselves the Serrano people (the Spanish name for “highlander”) or the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians.

The unceded Serrano territory stretches from the southwestern Mojave Desert to the Inland Empire.

Every spring — except for two years during the pandemic — tribes from all over California come to their reservation to celebrate the harvest of the whipplei yucca.

Support for LAist comes from

The yucca’s tall woody stock can be used for quivers and arrows, the leaf blades crushed to make soap. The sweet flower blossoms can be eaten, and the strong fibers used for basket weaving and rope.

For millennia, the Serrano people relied on whipplei yucca. But like many other traditions, the climate crisis is a threat to this way of life. The yucca is harder to find in the wild.

Keeping Traditions Alive

The celebration starts with songs.

“So we’re gonna sing a couple Serrano songs and these are songs welcoming you to our territory,” James Ramos said to a small crowd of Serrano, Cahuilla, Miwok and Mojave families. Ramos is a former chairman of the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians and the first California Native American to be elected to the state legislature.

Older and younger men stand in a line holding gourd rattles and singing into microphones.
Men sing Serrano and Cahuilla songs to open the Yucca Harvest Festival at the reservation of the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians. James Ramos, former tribal chairman and current state Assemblymember, stands at center.
(Erin Stone

A line of men, younger and older, start a steady beat with gourd rattles filled with palm seeds; some types were traditionally made with the hooves of desert Bighorn sheep. The animals, once plentiful from southeastern California to northern Mexico, were an important food source and subject of Creation songs of the Serrano people, who see the plants and animals as relatives.

Today, habitat loss from development has left desert bighorn sheep federally listed as endangered. Increasing temperatures and drought further threaten their survival.

The first song is about the sheep — it rings out across the lawn outside the community center on the tribe’s reservation, near what’s today called Highland in San Bernardino County.

Support for LAist comes from

A Yucca Feast

After the songs, everyone gets food at the potluck. There’s yucca bread, yucca blossom chili, boiled yucca, yucca and beef, yucca and vegetables, and more. There’s a station where children learn to make soap and rope from the yucca fiber, the sudsy water staining bright green on a foldout table. There are elders making quivers from the dry yucca stock and yucca skirts twisting in the breeze.

Food in a large container with a tag reading "ground beef and yucca"
Yucca and ground beef.
(Erin Stone

Ramos grew up with the ways of his ancestors. Every spring, when tall stocks of whipplei yucca burst into white blossoms, he would go with his uncles to harvest them. They made sandals and soap from the plants’ stock and fibers. His grandmother boiled the blossoms and cooked them with eggs.

A man stands on a ladder next to a bloomed yucca plant that is taller than him.
James Ramos harvests a bloomed whipplei yucca.
Courtesy of San Manuel Band of Mission Indians)

“When two people talk about Indian culture, a lot of times their minds go to the museums and prehistoric times,” Ramos said. “Nah, we're still here practicing our culture.”

But Ramos said there was a time when the old ways were almost forgotten. So in 1996, he established the tribe’s cultural awareness program. They started hosting Yucca Harvest celebrations every year, inviting tribes from all over the state. This year, Miwok came from the north, Cahuilla from further south, and Mojave families from the east.

“With everything that's gone on for us, when we're able to come to sing and eat together, it's powerful for our people to be able to have that,” Ramos said.

A black plate with food on it.
A vegetarian yucca blossom dish.
(Erin Stone

Resilience Amid A History Of Violence

Every spring for millennia, the Serrano people gathered yucca from the valley floor. When spring turned to summer, they followed the yucca blooms up to cooler elevations in the San Bernardino Mountains.

“You can imagine the people following the plant life would start to make their way up to the mountaintop,” Ramos said.

They would gather piñón pine nuts up near Baldwin Lake in Big Bear, a place that gives them their name, Yuhaaviatam, which means in the Serrano language “People of the Pines.”

“You'll see on the reservation there are pine trees everywhere,” said Ken Ramirez, who recently completed his term as tribal chairman and also grew up learning traditions from his grandmother. “I was taught at an early age from my grandmother that they were our relatives and that they would take care of us.”

 A man wearing a blue paisley shirt and a beaded necklace looks into the camera.
Ken Ramirez grew up harvesting yucca and other culturally significant plants with his grandmother. Ramirez recently served as chairman of the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians.
(Erin Stone

When winter arrived, the tribe descended from the mountains to harvest acorns from oak trees at lower elevations, eventually returning to the valley floor as winter settled.

Colonization nearly destroyed their way of life. In the 1780s, the Spaniards arrived. Disease swept through the tribe. Survivors were forced into labor at the San Gabriel Mission. Others were forced to an outpost in Redlands, where the citrus industry boomed, decimating oak and yucca forests and changing the landscape forever.

After the Spanish and Mexican governments, in the mid-1800’s, came the United States. Mining and logging exploded in the Serrano summer home of Big Bear. In 1866, a U.S.-sanctioned militia massacred nearly the entire clan. Fewer than 30 people survived.

A closeup of hands crushing green fibrous plants.
Turning yucca plant into rope.
(Erin Stone

The Impact Of A Changing Climate

The survivors were eventually forced onto the present-day reservation, which was established in 1891. They started to build a new life in the valley, where the yucca first bloom.

But now, the climate crisis is yet another threat to their cultural traditions.

“We're seeing areas now because of climate, lack of water, drought, where there would have been abundant growth that it's not growing there anymore,” said Ramos.

It’s harder to find yucca in the wild, he said. Many desert plants, adapted to uniquely extreme environments, are declining as the climate crisis pushes them beyond their limits.

A man stands center next to a young child watching him comb the fibers of a green plant.
James Ramos shows his granddaughter Madison how to comb yucca fibers before letting them dry to later be fashioned into rope.
(Erin Stone

Much of the yucca for this year’s celebration came from a conservation area — part of the tribe’s partnership with the local water district.

“But is it really going to take that for Indian people, for people in general, to enjoy traditional plants?” Ramos asked.

His ancestors dealt with devastating droughts. But the modern combination of overdevelopment and the driest three-year-period in more than 100 years is an unprecedented challenge.

Ramirez said that’s why mainstream society needs a paradigm shift in how it relates to the environment.

“When I would be outside with my grandmother, we would be talking to the animals or talking to the plants or talking to the dirt … just talking to everything around us,” Ramirez said. “Because for us, everything we're connected to.”

“If we look at everything as being related to everything, I think we have a different perspective of how to treat the environment,” Ramirez continued. “So to this day, I think the biggest thing that we can do is have a relationship with Mother Earth and everything around us.”

If we look at everything as being related to everything, I think we have a different perspective of how to treat the environment.
— Ken Ramirez, former chairman of the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians

Ramos and Ramirez hope preserving more land for Native plants and animals is one remedy. And as the climate crisis escalates, passing on the old ways is even more essential, they said.

“Learning from my uncle and my grandmother and then starting the program and then to see so many of the young people coming and getting engaged,” Ramos said, “It really is a testament to our elders and our ancestors that the knowledge that they passed down is going to keep living.”

At a table nearby, Ramos showed children how to comb through the yucca fiber before laying it out to dry to be braided into rope. He got their small hands, sudsy with green yucca juices, in rhythm as they rubbed the yucca blades against the rim of a plastic bucket to make soap.

Laurena Bolden, Ramos’ niece and recently elected councilmember of the tribe, looked on. She grew up participating in the Yucca Harvest celebrations and now her children are doing the same.

“It shows us who we are as a people,” she said, “keeping these traditions alive, seeing the younger generations being able to continue that.”

For now, everyone will eat yucca bread and yucca blossom chili to celebrate the plant that has helped sustain their people and culture for so long.

Climate Emergency Questions
Fires. Mudslides. Heat waves. What questions do you need answered as you prepare for the effects of the climate emergency?