big bear burial grounds


Big Bear City  Native American Serrano Indian Ceremonial Site



Big Bear City--Modern day Big Bear City was formed like its neighboring mountain resort communities after a dam was built, providing water and recreational opportunities for Southern Californians.


For thousands of years, however, it is believed that Big Bear Valley was occupied by the Serrano Indians who were given this name which means mountaineer, by Spanish explorers.  Artifacts trace their existence to approximately 3,000 years ago. Calling their home Yahaviat, meaning pine place, it is often joked that the many icons representing this tourist destination today would have a far different look, had the name Yahaviat stuck.  


The Serrano Indian people traditionally lived in the Mojave Desert and the San Bernardino Mountains as hunters and gatherers who relied on acorns and game in the foothills, where their settlements were more permanent.  The Spanish first used the word serrano as reference to unnamed Indians in the mountainous regions of southern California. Later the name came to refer only to that band of Indians whose territory extended roughly from Mount San Antonio in the San Gabriel Mountains to  the San Bernardino Mountains.

Traditionally, the Serranos were divided into two groups, or moieties, and marriage was only allowed across group lines. Communities were usually villages of 25-100 people. Few people still speak the Serrano language, and few ancestral rituals survive. Some continue to sing traditional Bird Songs on special social occasions. Today around 85 Serrano people live on the San Manuel Reservation. Many of the 1,000 or so residents who live on or near the Morongo Reservation are also of Serrano descent. And, other Serrano people live on or near the Soboba Reservation.


The Serrano often lived near rivers and streams in small settlements of 10 to 30 dwellings. Known as peaceful, gentle people, their communities contained practiced artisans who made beautiful baskets and potteryfar more decorative than what was necessary.

In the hills behind a residential neighborhood in Big Bear City you can see the holes or bowl-shaped indentations dug into rocks that were used for grinding nuts, herbs and other spices and non-perishables. Like the squirrels that now scamper through Big Bear Valley gathering acorns for their food supply, Serrano tribes likewise ate lots of acorns in their diet.  Other edible items found in the region included berries, sage, roots and tubers. The Serranos held the grizzly bear in deep reverence, and thought of these huge animals as great grandfathers. Bear meat was never eaten, nor was bear fur ever worn, even though the mountains were filled with bear and may have provided special challenges to Serranos who shared the mountains with the largest of animals for which Big Bear was named.

At one location in Big Bear City lies evidence of an ancient ceremonial ground. Petroglyphs on rocks in the area and excavations uncovered artifacts pointing to this type of use. The Serrano held important ceremonies, celebrations, and fiestas in the early winter months. The foodstuffs stored up from late summer and autumn gathering were still abundant. At the same time, people were freed from gathering activities during winter, with the exception of some hunting, and had time on their hands for social activities. Mourning ceremonies, held periodically to honor recently deceased villagers, brought people from villages far and wide to attend the fiesta. During these ceremonies food and gifts were exchanged, and ritual singing and dancing went on for days on end. Shown in the photos above are one such area in which festivities and ceremonies likely occurred. As you stand and gaze to the mountain tops across the valley, you gain a sense of the closeness to nature they saw and enjoyed during their celebrations in this location.

The Serrano cremated their dead, rather than burying them, as some other neighboring groups did. However, the practice of burning the possessions of the dead as offerings was shared by the Serrano and many other groups in southern California.


Serrano language belongs to the Takic branch of the Uto-Aztecan language family
Few people still speak the Serrano language, and few ancestral rituals survive. Some continue to sing traditional Bird Songs on special social occasions.


The house of the Serrano was a circular building from twelve to fourteen feet across. The house was constructed within an excavated area as much as two feet deep. Brushes or tulles were tied to a pole framework with yucca fiber or rawhide thongs. A pit lined with stones was dug in the center of the floor for the fire. The floors were at least partially covered with tulle mats. Their settlements are remembered today in towns that bear their names – Yucaipa , Cucamonga and Muscupiabe.


In 1845, while in pursuit of Serrano Indians, Benjamin D. Wilson discovered and named Bear Valleythe place alive with bears. In 1860 William Holcomb was hunting bear and discovered gold instead! What followed was Southern California's largest gold rush. 20+ years later the first dam was built in Bear Valley and Big Bear Lake was formed. The livelihood of the Serranos did not fair quite so well and their population dropped drastically as their hunting grounds disappeared and diseases were introduced through the steady influx of immigrants. While rough estimates of around 1,000 descendants have been reported, those numbers will likely decrease with the following generations.
























Artifacts exhibit from Big Bear Historical
Museum in Big Bear City.