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For Immediate Release
July 8, 2014

Faculty Spotlight: Larisa Broyles

 

Faculty Spotlight  Faculty Spotlight

 

When Larisa Broyles started working with her husband, Albert Chacon, on a series of videos documenting Native American culture in Southern California, she never imagined she would discover permanent kinships and make lasting friendships. Since 2000, Larisa and her husband, whose mother's family is Apache and whose father's family is Cahuilla, have recorded countless interviews, songs, dances and cultural events including a young girl's coming-of-age ceremony, which is rarely filmed. Broyles, a Moreno Valley College anthropology professor, first got interested in Native American research after moving to Riverside to pursue her master's and PhD in anthropology at UC Riverside. Having been raised in Northern California, she was surprised by the diversity of Native Americans in the region.

Her interest was sparked when her husband realized he was back in the place where his grandmother had come from.

Broyles' personal interest soon evolved into a professional passion when she found out that the Cahuilla language was almost lost due to the combined effects of boarding schools designed to assimilate Native American youngsters and two world wars that had erased the language from many Native American soldiers' memories.

"As an anthropologist, I'm really interested in cultural revitalization and preservation," Broyles said.

When the Agua Caliente tribe in Palm Springs started offering Cahuilla language classes, they signed up. Chacon, a photographer, volunteered to produce some short videos of tribal elders speaking Cahuilla combined with photos to illustrate the words' meanings.

Even though the tribal council supported the project, Broyles said there was not enough funding so the project ended. By that time, they had learned a lot of the language and made contact with many Native American's in the region including several of her husband's cousins.

"I'm interested in genealogy so it's been an unexpected pleasure to realize that quite a few people we worked with for years turned out to be family he didn't even know he had," Broyles said.

They spent some time creating a video series of Ernest Siva, founder of the Dorothy Ramon Learning Center in Banning, reading 182 stories compiled by Ramon, his aunt and one of the last fluent speakers of the Serrano language.

After Chacon was invited to join a Cahuilla bird singing group, they decided to do a documentary about the Cahuilla called "We Are Birds." The traditional Cahuilla bird songs reveal not only their language and culture, but they tell their history and things that are important to them.

"As an anthropologist I was really enjoying this," Broyles said. "I was getting immersion you don't normally get."

They started meeting with elders from all over Southern California, Arizona and the Colorado River area recording interviews and events. Broyles had to take a crash course in filmmaking because her husband was busy performing bird songs.

"We Are Birds" is a work in progress primarily because it is a true labor of love financed by Broyles and Chacon. They have applied for a few filmmaking grants but the grants are rare so competition is fierce.

Some of their work is available at http://www.nativeimagespg.com under "videography".

Despite the financial hardship, Broyles is determined to complete the documentary before many of the elders they have worked with pass on. One of them, Alvino Siva, became a close friend during the three years Broyles and her husband recorded him singing songs and telling stories. They would meet with him weekly often taking him out to lunch and on outings.

"He was a friend, he wasn't just a subject," Broyles said. "When he died in 2009, it was really a blow. Frankly, he was such a good friend that is has taken several years for us to get to the point where we can go back and listen to the tapes and see the films because it's so hard to watch."

For the past two years, Broyles has been combing through archives at Sherman Indian School in Riverside, working very closely with its curator and cultural traditions teacher, Lorene Sisquoc. Broyles is studying the everyday lives of students at what was the first off-reservation boarding school in California in preparation for an upcoming book project.

"I have done extensive historical research on the critical role that young Indian students played in the growth of Riverside in its early years, as laborers, athletes, musicians, and as unofficial ambassadors representing native traditions and values," Broyles said.

She has discovered that almost every Native American family she works with had a relative that attended Sherman. She's able to provide them with documents and photos to help them feel connected to their own history.

"When they first see the school records, photos, and other memorabilia of their grandparents or other relatives, it is a powerful moment that is a privilege to share," Broyles said.

The research, video projects and experiences have given Broyles a trove of information to share with students in her Native American Culture class.

"When my students go to the museums and events and say they are from Larisa Broyles' class, they are treated very well and receive additional help and care," Broyles said. "The students get to immerse themselves in Native American culture as well."

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