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Leah Mata: A Life in Abalone, Pine Nuts and Culture

Nature has long been the Chumash Indian’s companion and co-creator. Using materials gathered from natural sources, the Chumash people — inhabitants of the Central California coast and Channel Islands for 10,000 or so years —have been creating intricate regalia that speak to their culture and also nature’s own cycles.

Naomi Whitehorse and Giselle Fontanelli wearing Leah Mata's creations | Courtesy of Leah Mata
Naomi Whitehorse and Giselle Fontanelli wearing Leah Mata's creations | Courtesy of Leah Mata

“You can’t go to a store and buy the pieces. Regalia can take a lifetime of collecting and preparing,” says artist Leah Mata, a member of the yak tityu tityu yaktiłini (the people) Northern Chumash Tribe during the 2013 Heard Museum Guild Indian Fair, “It’s not something you can just plan to do in a short period of time, it’s about planning years ahead.” The artist hails from the Chumash village of Tsïtpxatu, or “place of the whales.” Most Californians know Tsïtpxatu as Avila Beach.

Mata gathers materials such as mallard feathers, olivine shells, pine nuts, deerskin and otter tails to recreate traditional adornment and outfits as wearable art. Mata transforms red abalone into stars, lightning, traditional fishhooks, discs and other intricate shapes. She crafts round beads from clam shells and carefully drills though the long end of pine nuts to make traditional California Indian beadwork. Mata enhances her creations with contemporary “bling” like Swarovski crystals and glass beads. She also uses seed beads for loomed belts, featuring shaped abalone charms, which clack in a pleasing sound while dancing.

She bases her creations on traditional Chumash art and cultural motifs, being careful to avoid culturally sensitive materials such as feathers from endangered or threatened species, when making items for sale or for museums as opposed to what she crafts for family and community members. Using materials that aren’t sensitive maintains the cultural craftsmanship while avoiding the cultural conflicts that can result from protected materials being sent to museums or to non-Native collectors.

But, these stunning creations come with a cost in time and health threats. Cutting any shell requires stringent precautions, as modern power tools create toxic particles that can clog the lungs. Using power tools helps shave time from shell and stone cutting, and they also allow artists like Mata to create even more intricate designs such as bears, salmon and butterflies — but, the artists also sacrifice the time savings, since these exquisite carvings are time-consuming. Mata estimates that preparing a pine nut for stringing can take up to an hour — and, that’s only after locating and gathering them.

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Leah Mata and her daughter working on a few pieces | Courtesy of Leah Mata
Leah Mata and her daughter working on a few pieces | Courtesy of Leah Mata

Fortunately, Mata has a support system. “I could not gather if I didn’t have help from my community and family,” Mata says. “If family members see a shell at a flea market, they buy it for me. “ After a clam feast, Mata’s cousins save the empty shells for her. “My cousin Shane is like the ‘bird master,’” because of his ability to find the birds needed for regalia, she says. “Even Cliff [Fragua, my husband] is learning how to recognize plants.”

Mata’s art comes from a lifetime spent in traditional pursuits. “There is no official ‘start’ point for generations my family has worked in traditional arts, sustainability, cultural resource protection and advocacy,” she says. “Some of my family are more visible than others, but all of us are doing this work is some fashion.  I learned these values from my mom, and my great uncles and cousins, who credit their love of family and our homelands from my great grandmother Mary Olivas Mata.”

Apart from recreating this regalia, Mata also creates jewelry and textiles and sells them at local markets and to private collectors up and down the state. This helped support Mata, 50, and her four children while she was obtaining a master’s degree in cultural sustainability. Mata never conceived of presenting her work outside California, though, until a friend suggested it. “It was Diana Terrazas, the Autry’s community outreach manager, who got me thinking about it,” Mata says. “Diana’s outreach to California Indian artists to take our art outside of California markets has been phenomenal.” So, after a fellowship with the Smithsonian Institution and winning a blue ribbon for diverse cultural arts at the 2012 Autry Indian Market, Mata took a deep breath and plunged into out-of-state competitions. She entered a traditional Chumash woman’s regalia outfit at the 2013 Heard Museum Guild Indian Fair & Market in Phoenix and received her second blue ribbon in the traditional attire division. Those awards led to Mata being honored  as a master artist by the Alliance for California Traditional Arts.

Mata moved to Fragua’s New Mexico home, where she works as an adjunct instructor at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, teaching traditional arts, ecology and anthropology classes. She and Fragua split their time between Jemez, a tribal community northwest of Albuquerque, and California for markets, family and tribal activities, and to gather the all-important natural materials needed for her work.

Northern Chumash dancing regalia | Courtesy of Leah Mata
Northern Chumash dancing regalia | Courtesy of Leah Mata

“Art can be used as a platform to talk about protection for tribal cultural resources,” Mata says. “Often, tribal communities are focused on protecting ancestral remains and so aren’t thinking so much about protecting material access. Since just one-half of 1 percent of all California land is tribal land, tribal cultural practitioners, artists and resource managers must work with private, state and federal landholders to assure access to gathering areas. Also, cultural practitioners need to be aware of pesticide contamination in plant materials, and to be very careful to not spread the pathogen that causes sudden oak death disease.  For example, gatherers are now careful to disinfect their shoes and even their vehicle tires when gathering in the wet season, when the water mold P. ramorum is active She also discusses the health hazards that gatherers encounter when touching and handling plants sprayed with pesticides, and why organizations like CIBA advocate more organic pest control.

But the biggest issue looming over the California Indian cultural Renaissance is climate change. “Because climate change is gradual, it sometimes takes a couple of years to figure out why traditional timelines are altering,” says Mata. “The drought made it hard to locate mallards, and it’s harder to find abalone and clams.”

Marshall McKay, chairman emeritus of the Autry’s board of trustees, strolls by Mata’s booth to chat with the couple. McKay, Wintun/Pomo, a lifelong supporter of Native art, says that artists like Mata give the museum’s visitors an opportunity to understand contemporary Native peoples. “It gives us a sense of community, a point of conversation,” says McKay.

Mata echoes that sentiment. “I spend at least 50 percent of my time at markets answering questions about California Native people,” she says. “It’s less about the art and more about how people see us.” Visitors who have only encountered California Natives through mission history, or who aren’t aware that indigenous communities still exist will leave Mata’s booth with a new perspective. “I talk about the intricacies of how we’re organized by bands, the reservations and rancherias, how families with BIA [Bureau of Indian Affairs] numbers don’t belong to federally recognized tribes,” she says. “It’s weird to people outside California that we don’t have treaty rights, and that we didn’t sign anything” to obtain those rights. California Indians negotiated 18 treaties with the U.S. government after the state was annexed, only to find that the Senate had refused to ratify the treaties in secret hearings. That was the beginning of nearly 150 years of upheaval and genocide in California’s tribal communities — and the reason why it’s vital for Mata and other California Indian artists to show and discuss their work and the continuation of their communities and cultures.

But, Mata is encouraged by what she sees is a strong interest in preservation. “It’s important to be engaged in cultural resource protection, and establishing partnerships with state and federal agencies and local landowners,” she says. “Staying visible makes it easier for California Indian artists to have the platform to discuss these issues.”

Banner: Abalone shell.| Featherlite/Flickr, Creative Commons

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