Viewer’s Guide to We are Birds: A California Indian Story (2016)

Using this Guide

We are Birds:  A California Indian Story is an award-winning visual anthropology project that tells the story of Birdsinging, a Native American cultural tradition in southern California that has persisted and flourishes despite over a hundred years of assimilation policies that at one time almost eradicated it.  Through its examination of the importance of Birdsinging to the peoples that practice it, the film aims to promote and support indigenous cultural preservation and revitalization efforts. The project in general also teaches students and educators the value of creating and maintaining trusting relationships with cultural consultants, having a strong sense of ethics in research practice, and taking the time to engage in cultural immersion for a nuanced understanding that eliminates stereotyping and oversimplification of indigenous communities, beliefs, and practices.  


Film Synopsis

The Cahuilla people of Southern California, along with their immediate neighbors such as the Serrano, have practiced a tradition called “Birdsinging” for at least 10,000 years.  As part of a complex web of cultural practices, Birdsinging brings people together from different tribes and is an integral part of social gatherings, seasonal rituals, mourning practices, and cultural teaching.  It is indeed the very foundation of the culture itself and carries within its practice the values, protocols, and historical memory of the Cahuilla people.  We Are Birds is a documentary film project focusing on the Head Bird Singers who are currently leading the tribes in their cultural traditions.  The Head Bird Singer fulfills a critical role not only as a cultural leader, but also as a preservationist of songs and the traditions that go with the performance of these songs.  In a time where Native American languages are critically endangered, traditions such as Birdsinging are vitally important because they keep the language alive.  We Are Birds examines a variety of perspectives from leaders of different Cahuilla bands and neighboring tribes, as well as the people who sing with them or support the related traditions in a variety of ways.  This film aims to not only highlight the important cultural revitalization movement that has developed around Birdsinging, but also to share this culture with a broader audience.


Anthropological Principles

The research and fieldwork that went into the We are Birds project followed anthropological principles throughout.  It may be helpful for students who have not studied cultural anthropology to know these before watching the film and/or beginning their own fieldwork/research projects.


Emic and Etic Perspectives:  Anthropologists work to understand the “emic” perspective of a culture, which is the point of view of a cultural insider.  Anthropologists know that their own “etic” (outsider) cultural perspective prevents them from truly understanding the emic view, so they rely on lengthy and ongoing cultural immersion in order to really “soak in” the culture, and build rapport and trust with cultural consultants (sometimes referred to as “informants”) to “translate” cultural beliefs and practices that may be hard to grasp. 


The anthropologist’s job, in a way, is to try to balance out both perspectives:  work to achieve an emic view for better understanding while still remembering the etic view present amongst the public or the world of academia, and address the views held there that may be overly-simplistic or stereotypical, both of which are unfortunately the norm when it comes to peoples’ perceptions of Native Americans.  For example, people may have seen images of powwows and thus imagine that all “real” Indians typically dress in full regalia all the time, or that they all have long braids.  It is common for people to talk about Native Americans as if they all lived in the past and are essentially extinct today.  People may not even recognize Native Americans living among them, because they do not fit the preconceived notions that they have learned their entire life.


Cultural Relativism:  Every culture has its own particular history, norms, and values, and the people of that culture should be understood from their own perspectives and using their own categories.   


Holistic Perspective:  Anthropologists try to look at a culture from a “big picture” perspective that takes into account the culture’s own particular history, norms, values, and perspectives.  We realize that this big picture is made up of all of the intertwined parts of the culture that make up the whole, and that studying one aspect of a culture alone (such as its language, religion, economics, foods, childrearing, or song traditions) cannot really be done without understanding that this one aspect is tied to all other elements that make up the cultural whole. 


Participant Observation:  This is the primary method of fieldwork for anthropologists engaged in cultural study, and is just what it sounds like:  the anthropologist not only conducts “observations” of a culture, but finds ways to get involved and “participate” in the daily life of the culture as much as it is possible for an outsider to do.  This research method necessitates an often-lengthy period of preparation that involves meeting people in the community, gaining trust and building up a relationship, and finding ways to collaborate with cultural consultants. In the case of We are Birds, this period took several years, in which the filmmakers were observing at events, making some friendships, networking to meet the appropriate elders and gain their trust, and finally start getting invited to take part in events and gatherings. 


Participant Observation is important because it takes the researcher from an “etic” to an “emic” perspective over time and requires cultural immersion, all of which alleviates biases and stereotyping.  In southern California, for example, the abundance of reservations means that everyone has travelled past or through Native land at some point or another, and it is common to see advertisements for casinos, resorts, and concerts at these reservations.  What outsiders wouldn’t realize, however, is that the shiny casino buildings and resort facilities are a business, and serve as the “public interface” between the tribe and outside people.  These do not at all represent the traditional culture and peoples’ actual everyday lives.  These also give the false impression that all Indians in southern California are “rich” and thus their very real struggles are often diminished or overlooked.  And what about all of the tribes that don’t even have casinos or businesses?  Right here in Riverside County, California, there are very wealthy Natives, and also ones that are economically-challenged or living in poverty.  We cannot tell one story about any people, and cultural immersion, participant observation, and collaborative research give us a fuller and more nuanced understanding that is true-to-life.




Official “We are Birds” Website.  This site includes background information on the project itself, and has resources including many short documentary videos highlighting various participants in the film, local events, and performances and presentations that have been part of the ongoing visual anthropology project.  Visit


Podcast:  USC Bedrosian Center/Price School of Public Policy Roundtable with “We are Birds”.  This podcast aired on 10/15/2018.  Listen to “We are Birds” Director/Producer Albert Chacon, Head Birdsinger Derek Duro, and Birdsinger Frankie Morreo, all of whom were in the documentary, talk with USC Assistant Professor of American Studies and Ethnicity Chris Finley, Host Jonathan Schwartz, and Joanelle Romero, Founder of the Red Nations Celebration Institute.  Visit


Official “We are Birds” Facebook.  Posts highlight upcoming screenings, presentations, and other film-related activities, as well as community events.  Visit



Classroom and Teaching Resources

American Anthropological Association (AAA).  Professional anthropologists have a code of ethics referred to as the “Principles of Professional Responsibility”.  These principles are: (1) Do No Harm, (2) Be Open and Honest Regarding Your Work, (3) Obtain Informed Consent and Necessary Permissions, (4) Weigh Competing Ethical Obligations Due Collaborators and Affected Parties, (5) Make Your Results Accessible, (6) Protect and Preserve Your Records, and (7) Maintain Respectful and Ethical Professional Relationships.  These principles are critical when embarking on a visual anthropology project like We are Birds, because no filming, recording, or interviewing could have happened if the cultural consultants did not have full trust in us.  At the very beginning, we approached the elders, who gave the necessary permissions and made introductions for us.  They were our first interviews, out of cultural respect and protocol, and they were the ones who controlled when and where we could bring our cameras and recorders.  In that way, they essentially helped to produce the project along with us.  Except for people who were filmed at public events, everyone signed consent forms, and by working with event coordinators, we ensured that public events also had signage indicating that filming would be taking place.  We have shared everything via the internet and social media, so that the cultural consultants could share their work within the community right away without waiting for the entire documentary project to be finished.  As such, the shorter documentaries, some of which can be found at the We are Birds website, are a historical record of the work as it progressed.  For more information on the AAA or on the Principles of Professional Responsibility, please visit  For more information on Visual Anthropology, visit the Society for Visual Anthropology (a specific section of AAA) at


Malki Museum.  The Malki Museum is located on the Morongo Indian Reservation in Banning, CA.  Founded in the early 1960’s, it was the first museum in California founded by Native Americans and it today hosts Birdsinging and cultural gatherings throughout the year, lectures, and other events.  The museum has books about the Cahuilla and other local peoples for sale, as well as books about other Native American tribes.  Visit


Tribal Nations Maps.  Do you know where the Cahuilla and other southern California tribes are located?  Tribal Nations Maps is a Native-owned business that specializes in producing cartographic materials that showcase pre-contact indigenous identities and place names.  These can be used for research purposes, for classroom projects, and as display materials.  Visit


Critical Thinking Questions for Discussion and/or Projects

What is Birdsinging and what are some of the tribes that participate in it?
What are some of the most important protocols that Birdsingers must follow?  How do you think that these protocols impact the larger Native community and the norms and values of the people?
What changes have happened in the Cahuilla community with regard to how Birdsingers learn today? 
What are reasons given in the film for why Birdsingers and dancers participate in singing and dancing?  What seem to be the most important reasons why they made the choice to be culturally involved?
The filmmaker, Albert Chacon, did not grow up with Birdsinging and found his way back to it in his adult years, and making the film was one of the ways that he was able to study it and get personally involved.  Based on what you have seen in the film, what do you think might have been some of the most important impacts on his own life as a result?
The filmmaking team followed the anthropological practice of cultural immersion to learn the most possible about Birdsinging culture.  If you were going to do the same, what steps might you take to establish contact with people and gain the appropriate permissions/invitations?  Are there any possible difficulties that might arise, and is so what? 
Aside from Birdsinging, what are other traditional cultural practices that are discussed in the film?  In what way are these practices interwoven with the singing of Bird Songs?
Imagine that you are given the opportunity to conduct follow-up interviews with some of the cultural consultants who participated in the film project.  What questions would you want to ask them and why?
If you had a chance to spend time with any of the people featured in the film, who would you want to meet and why?  What is the reasoning behind your pick?
If you cannot see Birdsinging in person, watch some videos online.  How is it performed and how do men and women participate?  Are there any rules/protocols that seem apparent?
Anthropologists have a code of ethics that dictates that we never do harm to the people in the community that we are working with.  What are some of the ways that a careless researcher or filmmaker could “harm” these people?  How can we avoid that harm?
What are some of the potential benefits, do you think, to the people who participated in the We are Birds project?
Identifying and challenging stereotypes is an important part of visual anthropology.  Think about what you thought you knew about Native American peoples before watching this film and what your expectations were.  In what ways is Birdsinging culture different from what you expected? 
In what ways can a visual anthropology project like this one aid Native communities with their cultural preservation and revitalization efforts?
What was one thing you learned in this film that was most surprising or impactful to you personally?  Why?



Course Project Ideas

Attend a Native American cultural event (such as a powwow, gathering, performance, food tasting, film festival, or other celebration) and do a detailed observation of what happens there as well as the site itself.  Students can focus in on specific topics, such as song/dance/drum traditions, regalia, foods, protocols, or anything else of their interest.  Students can detail the site itself with a diagram or ethnographic map (ethnographic maps are visual diagrams of a specific site that allows the researcher to convey information on how people are utilizing the space, where activities happen, and social interactions).  If there is adequate time, a student may try to conduct short interviews on-site (make sure to do so respectfully and following the rules of Professional Responsibility). 
Research local Native American communities.  What tribes live in your area?  Where are their reservations (if applicable) and traditional homeland?  What specific cultural data can be found about these tribes?  (Hint:  a good first place to go is the official tribal website!)  Now, after having looked for cultural information online, what information is NOT available?  What other resources would need to be utilized to get a fuller picture?  [For example, try to look up the Cahuilla people online.  Go to any of the Cahuilla reservation tribal websites – Morongo, Torres-Martinez, or Agua Caliente would be some examples.  What kinds of things CAN you learn about the tribe from these sites?  Compared to the We are Birds project, what kind of cultural information did we get that is different from what tribes will share with the public?  Why is that, and how, as a researcher, do you then gain access to traditional cultural practices?]
Survey local museums to see which have information on Native American cultures.  Visit one or more of these to determine whether their installations are culturally-sensitive or problematic in any way.  Is everything seemingly current or is it very dated?  Do you have any ideas about how to improve their displays?  Who would you want to consult or collaborate with in order to be culturally-relevant and respectful?
Create a museum exhibit based on the specific Native American topics you find most interesting.  Design/build a museum diorama or model to highlight the exhibit’s design and features. 
Conduct a life-history interview or oral history interview with a tribal elder.  Make sure to follow the Principles of Professional Responsibility!  What questions would you ask?



Questions? Send feedback, questions, and ideas to

Recommended Books:

Bean, Lowell John.  Mukat’s People:  The Cahuilla Indians of Southern California.  University of Southern

               California Press, 1974. 

Brumgardt John R. and Larry L. Bowles. People of the Magic Waters:  The Cahuilla Indians of Palm

Springs.  Palm Springs, CA:  ETC Publications, 2007.

Dennis, Yvonne Wakim et al.  Native American Almanac:  More than 50,000 Years of the Cultures and

               Histories of Indigenous Peoples.  Visible Ink Press, 2016.

Dozier, Deborah (editor).  The Heart is Fire:  The World of the Cahuilla Indians of Southern California.

               Heyday Press, 1996.

Murrillo, Pauline.  Living in Two Worlds:  The Life of Pauline Ormego Murillo.  Highland, CA:  Dimples

Press, 2001.

Nolasquez, Rosinda and Jane H. Hill.  Mulu’wetam:  The First People.  Cupeño Culture, Mythology, and

               Cupeño Language Dictionary.  Banning, CA:  Malki Museum Press, 1973.

Patencio, Francisco.  Myths and Legends of the Palm Springs Indians.  Literacy Licensing LLC, 2012.