Native American couple expresses appreciation in tangible way
At the intersection of the postmodern and the prehistoric, George and Pauline Murillo struggle to integrate the ancient practices of her Serrano/Cahuilla Native American ancestors into the Internet age. Here they proudly display a set of Pauline’s prayer feathers and one of George’s home-tanned rattlesnake hides from the balcony of their Highland home. Pauline is an elder of the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians.
For George and Pauline Murillo, the act of donating money to help others is as natural an expression of who they are as their traditional way of praying.
As members of the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, the Murillos do their best to live in harmony with the natural world in keeping with the philosophy of their tribal ancestors, the prehistoric Yuhaviatam, or People of the Pines. The Yuhaviatam—who were renamed Serrano by the Spanish conquistadores—have lived amid the mountains, valleys, hillsides, and deserts of the Inland Empire for thousands of years. Pauline points out that her personal ancestry also includes the neighboring Cahuilla culture and that George is a tribal spouse, not a birth member of the San Manuel Band.
The Murillos, however, aren’t living in the past. Instead, they’re finding creative ways to adapt ancestral beliefs to the postmodern environment of the 21st century. One of the ways they express their gratitude to the Creator for the gift of life is by giving back to organizations in the community that are working to make life better for others. For several years, they have supported Loma Linda University Children’s Hospital, the Loma Linda University Cancer Center, and the Loma Linda International Heart Institute as part of their stewardship of the resources entrusted to their care.
On Thursday, May 28, 2008, the Murillos met with doctors from those three organizations and representatives of the LLUMC office of philanthropy to present a check in the amount of $75,000 to be divided equally among the three. At that meeting, the Murillos explained that their family has benefited from the services of all three organizations: granddaughter Zeny was born at LLU Children’s Hospital, George was treated at the Cancer Center, and Pauline got a pacemaker at the Heart Institute.
“When our son’s little daughter, Zeny, was born here,” Pauline recalls, “she had a low platelet count. They kept her here for eight days. We are very grateful for the care she received.”
One hurdle the couple faced involved a perceived conflict between their culture’s ancient ways of praying and the antiseptic conditions that must be strictly maintained in a hospital environment. The couple felt torn between their need to pray for Zeny’s recovery in a centuries-old prayer tradition of the Serrano culture that involves the use of natural materials, on the one hand, and the need to minimize the risk of introducing unwanted bacterial agents to patients on the other.
“Our ethnic group has certain ways of praying,” Pauline explains. “We pray with feathers in our hands. The staff told us that it was okay so long as we put the feathers in a plastic container.”
The couple was relieved. They readily agreed to take the reasonable precautions the staff recommended, but they weren’t prepared for the overwhelmingly positive response they would get from the staff the day they showed up to pray.
“We thought it would just be members of our family in the room,” Pauline continues, “but when we arrived, there were lots of different people—doctors, nurses, other staff members—they all wanted to join us in prayer!”
Happily, Baby Zeny came through the illness just fine. She’s now 7 years old and has asthma, but her doctor assured the family she will probably outgrow it in the future. In the meantime, however, Pauline notes that Zeny has to be careful around wind. “But she’s gained weight,” the proud grandmother brags, “and is doing very well.”
George says the family had to make certain adaptations for Zeny’s health needs. “Our son had to rebuild his whole house to put a special kind of insulation in the attic that kills germs. He also installed a filtration system that purifies the air and keeps it circulating.”
At this point, Dale Isaeff, MD, medical director for the coronary care unit at Loma Linda University Medical Center, jumps into the conversation to report that he recently saw Pauline on TV. “She’s a local celebrity!” he insists. “I saw her in a San Manuel commercial. I said to myself, ‘I know that lady!’” Dr. Isaeff also informs the group that Pauline is a published author. “She has two books out on tribal history,” he points out.
The books—Living in Two Worlds and We’re Still Here, Alive and In Spirit—display Pauline’s extensive knowledge of her people and their tribal history as well as her gifts as a communicator. As an elder and historian of the San Manuel Band, she felt an obligation to preserve a written history of Serrano/Cahuilla beliefs and lifeways far into the future.
Pauline is contemplating writing a third book of tribal recipes and herbal remedies. “My father was a medicine man,” she shares. “People would come from all over to get stuff from him.” Dr. Isaeff adds his words of encouragement; apparently he’s been urging her to write it for quite some time. Then he informs the group that George is famous in his own right. “He knows the tribal custom of how to cure and tan the hides of rattlesnakes,” Dr. Isaeff reports. “Not many people can do that!”
That comment brings laughter as everyone agrees that rattlesnake tanning is a dying art, but Pauline’s next disclosure turns the focus back to a serious topic. “Our daughter, Audrey Martinez, made a documentary film titled ‘Older Than America,’” she notes. “It’s going to the Cannes Film Festival.” In the film, a young Native American woman, portrayed by Georgina Lightning, wrestles with nightmares from her mother’s childhood at an Indian boarding school.
The movie examines the dark side of the U.S. government’s cultural assimilation policies and will likely anger some of the groups and organizations it depicts. Pauline insists, though, that the truth needs to be told. As a spiritual teacher from another ancient tradition asserts, “The truth shall make you free.” Even so, the film—which takes a bold, unvarnished look at a very ugly episode from the past—resolves with an upbeat message of optimism and empowerment for people of all ethnic groups.
In reality, the tragedy of cultural genocide casts an enormous shadow throughout Native America, yet Pauline remains resilient. “I remember,” she admits, “how we used to run and hide whenever we’d see a car coming to our village. We knew it was either the government or the missionaries. Either way, it meant they were coming to round up the kids and haul us off to a boarding school. But we all hid in a shed, so they never found us.”
Things were different for her mother, who was deported to a boarding school. “Our mother told us how they reprimanded the Indian kids for speaking our own language,” Pauline shares. “They slapped the kids until they learned to speak only English.” On one occasion, Pauline’s mom smiled at a nun she passed in a hall. The nun slapped her in response. The girl boldly returned the favor.
Talk turns lighter when Pauline complains that her husband is “very stubborn.” She recalls that when he got sick awhile back, members of the family tried to get him to see a doctor. The family persisted, and George finally came to Loma Linda University Medical Center. “We found out he had colon cancer,” Pauline says. After radiation, chemotherapy, and lots of prayer feathers, George had surgery to remove the tumor. As he recovered, George hallucinated from the powerful medications he was taking. “That clock on the wall keeps going up and down, up and down,” he told Pauline. “It made him go a little out of his head,” she laughs.
As the meeting adjourns, everyone heads downstairs where Mark Reeves, MD, PhD, director of the Cancer Center, guides the Murillos and their entourage—Dr. Isaeff; Richard Chinnock, MD, medical director of LLU Children’s Hospital; Patti Cotton Pettis, executive director of the Children’s Hospital Foundation; and Eric Ewing, an officer with the Foundation—to the beautifully furnished new patient waiting area.
“One of the wonderful things about their gifts,” Ms. Pettis observes, “is that their giving will be recognized here in the waiting area of the Cancer Center.” Someone observes that perhaps the area would better reflect the Serrano heritage if George were allowed to drain the large saltwater aquarium in the center of the room and transform it instead into a rattlesnake terrarium. Pauline suggests that might not be such a good idea after all, but George expresses enthusiasm for it.
There’s time for a quick group picture next to the aquarium before Pauline offers an important observation. “You know,” she says, “the people here treated us nicely and took good care of us. That’s why we do this. This is close to my heart. My children want to start donating, too.”
Ever the practical one, George injects some wisdom of his own into the conversation. “Besides,” he insists, “if we don’t give it to Loma Linda, Uncle Sam’s going to take it all from us when we die.”
That’s not exactly what Pauline wanted to hear. After her husband successfully battled both cancer and heart disease, she’s not open to hear any more talk about mortality. But true to form, she handles the situation in her own inimitable way.
“You better not die before me,” she scolds George, “’cause I’ll kill you!”
By James Ponder