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All Ears for Ringing Rocks and Indian Bingo

October 25, 1998|DEANNE STILLMAN

I'm a sucker for natural wonders that talk, or otherwise make sounds. Whispering elms, barking sands, babbling brooks, rivers of sighs--whether they really happen or are simply the dream of an overamped real estate agent is of no concern; I was sold long ago, when someone told me that the big, shady tree in my front yard was a weeping willow. Which is why I recently embarked on a quest to visit the ringing rock of Riverside County.

I first heard about the rock on the desert grapevine. "You really wanna see something cool," Mojave Bob told me over a beer at the casino in Cabazon, "go check out this rock. It sings. It's in the Menifee Valley, maybe."


"I don't know. It's sacred. Ask around."

So I started asking around about the singing rock, visiting the usual search engines. I asked at the Chevron in Desert Hot Springs. I asked at the library in Banning. I checked with the regulars at the Downtown Josh Lounge in Twentynine Palms. Forced to resort to the empty ease of the Internet, I typed in www., and then tried with ringing. I came up with nothing. But I was determined to commune with this natural wonder. How many notes did it hit? I pondered. Were they in a minor or major chord? Would the rock transport me far away and then back to myself, as does a certain Joshua tree whose profound silence speaks volumes? *

Finally, I overcame my squeamishness at calling Indian reservations and saying, "Hi, I'm a white person, and I've been wondering about one of your sacred rocks." My first call was to the curator of the Malki Museum on the Morongo Reservation, and I lucked out. "Hi," I said, "I've been wondering about the singing rock."

"You mean ringing rock," said curator Catherine Saubel, who invited me to her house to talk of rocks and other things.

The Morongo Reservation, near Banning, is marked by a modest sign and not often visited by outsiders. In fact, very few of the reservations in Southern California are on the destination lists of non-Indian travelers, unlike certain reservations in the Southwest and Great Plains. This is partly because many of the classic Western films were shot in Utah's Monument Valley, presenting Indians as red men galloping across red mesas highlighted by turquoise skies. But the light is different here, and so is the scenery. So are the Indians for that matter--they were wiped out by the Spanish before the Americans had the chance, and so when it came time for modern historians to write about the indigenous people in the area, there wasn't much left to write, and what little remained was known to only a few people.

Catherine Saubel is one of those people.

"I was married here and have lived here for 60 years," she says from an armchair in her house near the Malki Museum. Now 78, Saubel recalls her last visit to the ringing rock. "I had heard about the rock since I was a child," she says. "The elders would go there and beseech it for blessings. It rings like a bell when you strike it with a small rock. You can hit it in different places and get different tones. I didn't get there until a few years ago myself, and when I did, I was awestruck. We need to have more communion with things like this; everybody does."

One of the things Saubel would ask the rock for right now is passage of Prop. 5, on the ballot for the Nov. 3 elections. "I am the chairwoman of the Los Coyotes Tribe in San Diego County, and I can tell you that before some of the tribes had casinos, we didn't have any electricity, telephones or paved roads on the reservation." Signs that say "Vote yes on Prop. 5" dot the Morongo Reservation. I ask Saubel how to say this in Cahuilla, her native language.

"You can't," she explains. "We never had voting. There's no word for it. We went to the elders for important decisions. If people were in harmony with things, they would know this was right; it wouldn't even come to a vote. Look at that scare campaign: 'Do you want a casino in your backyard?' "

Personally, I wouldn't mind a casino in my backyard--it would be more fun than the Cheesecake Factory and Benihana's.

"And the food would be better," Saubel mentions, suggesting that I visit the Barona Casino in San Diego County to sample the chicken wings.

"The gas is cheap, too."

Sounds good, but could we visit the ringing rock now? "I can't go anywhere," Saubel says, referring to injuries she suffered in a recent car accident. "Doctor's orders until I get better." Perhaps she could just tell me how to get there, and then I could beseech the rock on her behalf for passage of Prop. 5 and all other measures beneficial to Indians and beings everywhere. "I could tell you, but the rock is under lock and key behind a fence so the vandals don't get it. You have to get permission from the Riverside County Parks Department."

Well, I got the permission, but I'm still waiting for the tour. It seems no one in the Parks Department knows where the rock is. But perhaps Catherine Saubel has as much to say as the symphonic boulder. And in my world, which features birds, horses and yes, even rocks, ahead of most people, that is no small thing.


Patt Morrison is on assignment. Her column returns next month.

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