Katherine Siva Saubel was born March 7, 1920 to Cahuilla Indian parents. Her mother only spoke the Cahuilla Indian language so it was the first language Saubel learned. Her father was able to master Spanish, Latin, English and bits of other Indian languages.
Saubel loved her native language and learned it with enthusiasm as she accompanied her mother to gather plants and herbs for medicinal purposes. Saubel documented the plants and herbs, the Cahuilla definition of each along with their uses in cooking and medicine.
By the time Saubel entered elementary school in Palm Springs, California she was still only able to speak Cahuilla. However, her powers of observation and astute intelligence allowed her to learn English mostly by watching and paying attention to figure out what was being said. Even so, Saubel was afraid the native Cahuilla language would become lost and began putting into writing everything she knew about the Cahuilla language.
Saubel attended high school at Banning until a high school was built at Palm Springs. She waited for the bus in front of a restaurant on the reservation where she lived. She noticed a sign in the restaurant window which read “Whites Only.” Unafraid, Saubel marched into the store and insisted the storekeeper take down the sign, especially since the business was on reservation land. Although the owner said nothing at the time, the sign was removed a few days later.
Saubel was the first Native American woman to graduate from Palm Springs High School.
It was at the last Cahuilla ceremonial gathering on the Palm Springs Reservation that Saubel met her husband. She noticed a man across the fire and asked her nephew about him. Her nephew introduced her to Mariano Saubel. The two dated for two years before marrying when Katherine was twenty years old.
When Mariano was drafted for World War II, Saubel was carrying their first, and only, child. Mariano was able to take a little time from training to meet his son before he was deployed to serve his country.
In Mariano’s absence, Saubel learned to drive a tractor and irrigate the crops on their land. She had the help of her elders, her father-in-law with the farmwork and her mother with watching the baby as Saubel worked in the fields and orchards.
Saubel met Lowell Bean in 1958 and the two began a lifelong friendship based on mutual respect. Bean was a student of ethnology and anthropology at UCLA as well as a scholar on the Cahuilla. By way of Bean, Saubel was introduced into the life of academia and devoted her life’s work to preserving and documenting the Cahuilla culture and language.
Saubel received the Kennedy Scholarship for Native Americans in 1962 and traveled to the University of Chicago and the University of Colorado to study the fundamentals of ethnology, anthropology and linguistics.
Saubel has published a number of books including “Chem’I’vullu: Let’s Speak Cahuilla” published by UCLA in 1981. She also published her own Cahuilla dictionary, “I’sniyatam Designs, a Cahuilla Word Book,” and she has translated Cahuilla folklore into English. Saubel and Bean worked together on “Temalpakh: Cahuilla Indian Knowledge and Usage of Plants.” It was published in 1972 by Malki Press.
Her extensive knowledge of Cahuilla ethnobotany has been used as testimony by state and federal government. Her expertise on Native American culture and history has also been used as testimony for the California legislature, U.S. Congress and other agencies.
Creation of the Malki Museum
Jane Penn was in possession of artifacts, crafts and other items left to her by relatives for safekeeping. When she told her friends, namely Lowell Bean and Katherine and Mariano Saubel, that she wished to display these items in a museum to preserve the culture and heritage of the Cahuilla, the four of them set to work. They obtained non-profit status for the Malki Museum on the Morongo Indian Reservation in Banning, California. Malki was the original name for the reservation until the U.S. Government changed the name to Morongo.
Saubel, related to Penn by marriage, was asked to be the president of the museum. Not only for her relation but also for her extensive knowledge of the Cahuilla language and culture.
Saubel has worked tirelessly to preserve sacred Native American sites, to prevent the dumping of hazardous waste on reservation lands, preserving the sanctity of burial grounds and sites, and the reburial of Native bones and sacred artifacts.
She also served as a member of the Governor’s California Native American Heritage Commission to preserve California Indian culture and historical sites.
At the age of 87, Saubel continues as president of the Malki Museum, with no plans to stop in the foreseeable future. She also continues to travel around the country, with some help, in the interest of cultural preservation.
The awards and honors bestowed upon Saubel are many. Here are but a few:
* Appeared in the movie “Tell Them Willie Boy is Here” (1969) as a minor character.
* Served over 14 years on the Riverside County Historical Commission; she was named County Historian of the year in 1986.
* Named Elder of the Year by the State Indian Museum in Sacramento in 1987.
* Has translated Cahuilla oral literature into English for National Public Radio.
* Received Honored Elders Award in 1993 from California Indian Health Board.
* First Native American woman from California inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993.
* National Museum of the American Indian in New York gave her one of their first awards in 1994.