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A Maritime People: The Chumash Tribes of Santa Barbara Channel

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KCET is Southern California Television

There was a time, at night, when you were in the tomols [plank canoes], it would be like a necklace of fires-where you would see all the villages up and down the whole coast. -- Mati Waiya

By 500 B.C., a seafaring civilization, known to us as the Chumash, prospered on the coast of the Santa Barbara Channel. Their villages stretched from present day Malibu to Pasos Robles, and were located on the Santa Barbara Channel coast, in the interior mountains and on the Channel Island. At one time the nation probably boasted around 150 villages and up to 30,000 members. The villages, which ranged in size from 100 to 1000 people, had many similarities and differences. But from birth to death, a reverence and connection with the natural world -- particularly the sea -- tied the many distinct tribes of the Chumash together.


The Chumash believed that their connection to the ocean and ocean life was not only spiritual, but familial. This fact is evident in their creation story, recounted here by Mati Waiya, founder and Executive Director of the Wishtoyo Foundation and a Chumash ceremonial leader:

The ancestors got here on a rainbow bridge [Wishtoyo]. They were promised an abundance of land and food for a future generation as they crossed over that bridge. And they were warned not to look down because they would get dizzy and fall looking at the sparkling water below. But some of them could not resist and they looked down and they fell. And as they were falling, the earth goddess said to our creator, "Save our people, don't let them die. They're good people. Save them." So right when they hit the ocean their bodies started to sink down and their bodies started changing -- their arms came together, their legs came together, these fins came out and they went up for their first breath of air -- and they had changed into blue dolphins. So they are our brothers, our sisters, our relatives.

These brothers and sisters shared a special bond with their human counterparts. It is said that when the men went out onto the sea on fishing and trading expeditions, they would be accompanied by hundreds of their dolphin brethren. "When our women would give birth on the shorelines," recounts Mr. Waiya, "the dolphins would come and surround and protect them." The Chumash also paid reverence to the swordfish, both in songs and dances, believing him to be the "king of the sea." Land animals were honored, too. The Chumash believed many animals embodied the souls of the "first people," ancestors who had nearly been wiped out in a long-ago flood.

The Chumash made great use of the abundant natural resources at their disposal. Their diet was rich in acorn meal, fish and shellfish, elderberry, bulbs, roots, and mustard greens. Their domed homes, called aps, were made with willow poles and tule rush. Abalone shell was a prized possession and used to make everything from decorative inlay to jewelry and fishing hooks. Pelican bones were made into flutes, and seal pelts into skirts and capes. Musical shakers were made out of kelp bulbs. Willow bark was used as a medication, much like aspirin. Shamans used natural pigments, including those found in brightly colored shells, to create inscrutable paintings in isolated caves, many of which baffle visitors to this day. Asphaltum, a gooey tar that washed up on the shore or on nearby stream beds, was used to waterproof and seal baskets, aps and canoes. The many uses of the soaproot bulb, recorded in "The Chumash," by Robert O. Gibson, almost boggles the modern mind:

If soaproot was pounded fresh and sprinkled into still water, it would paralyze the gills of fish. The fish would then float to the surface, and the Chumash could easily collect them. If it was allowed to dry slightly, soaproot formed a resinous material that was used to coat tool handles and brushes in order to make them last longer. The freshly grounded pulp could also be used as a soap for washing hair, skin, and clothing. Most remarkably, if the fresh bulb was placed in a rock-lined oven and baked for half a day, it became a tasty and nutritious food.

The canoes that enabled the Chumash to fish and develop an advanced trading culture were called tomols. Tomols were often richly decorated with abalone shells and meaningful patterns that were burned into the wood. So important were the canoes to the Chumash that many fishermen carried miniature steatite charms in the shape of carved canoes with them for good luck on fishing trips. According to Mr. Waiya, the construction of a single canoe took many months, and required a great deal of skill:

We used redwood plank canoes made from redwood trees. Trees would wash up when the seasons were normal, and they were split up with stones into planks. We would sew them together and seal them with asphaltum [a gooey tar] and pine pitch -- it was a 3 to 1 ratio, how we would mix it -- and we would seal the joints.

Even the currency of the Chumash came from the sea. Money was made out of specially carved white olivella shells, which were made into beads that were strung to make necklaces. The more beads you had -- the richer you were. The Chumash had a highly stratified and sophisticated economy, which so impressed Spanish explorers that they compared it to the Chinese economic system. There were trade routes over the sea and land -- many of which are today our modern highways. The Chumash were also :modern" in the sense that they had distinct upper, middle, and lower classes. The Antap cult, which performed religious rites and dances, was made up almost exclusively from the upper classes. People identified by their trade were mostly in the middle class -- hunters, basket makers, tool makers, chefs. So important was your trade that when you died, tokens symbolizing your job were often hung on a tall ceremonial pole atop your grave.


Chumash wore very little clothing. Women wore skirts made of pelts or woven plant material. The men and children often wore nothing, covering themselves with animal skins when it was cold. Both sexes boasted piercings, tattoos, jewelry, and hair adornments made of shells and stones. In their leisure time they played a game reminiscent of soccer, gambled, and held foot races from one village to the next. The most important time of year for the Chumash was the winter solstice, culminating in the "Day of the New Sun" in December. People would travel by canoe or foot from all over the Chumash nation to a host village. Days of prayer, religious ceremonies, political discussions, and games followed. Songs were sung to the willow, the protective eagle, and of course -- the dolphin.

When a Chumash died, it was believed that the soul travelled back across the sea. In 1916, a Ynezo Chumash named Maria Solares recounted what happened in the days after a Chumash death:

Three days after a person has been buried the soul comes up out of the grave in the evening. Between the third and fifth day it wanders about the world visiting the places it used to frequent in life. On the fifth day after death the soul returns to the grave to oversee the destruction of its property before leaving for Similaqsa [the land of the dead across the sea]. The soul goes first to Point Conception, which is a wild and stormy place. It was called Humqaq, and there was no village there. In ancient times no one ever went near Humqaq...There is a place at Humqaq below the cliff that can only be reached by rope and there is a pool of water there like a basin, into which fresh water continually drips. And there in the stone can be seen the footprints of women and children. There the spirit of the dead bathes and paints itself. Then it sees a light to the westward and goes toward it through the air, and thus reaches the land of Similaqsa.

On Oct. 10, 1542, the sea brought the beginning of the larger death of the Chumash people of the Santa Barbara Channel. When explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo's Spanish expedition sailed into the channel, a group of Chumash men raced out in finely crafted canoes to meet them. They entertained the strangers in one of their prosperous villages (probably in Ventura County). An impressed Cabrillo named the village "Las Conoas," because the community owned so many maritime vessels. The expedition soon left, across the sea and into history.

The Chumash continued their seafaring way of life for over 200 years with little interaction with European outsiders, blissfully unaware that Cabrillo had claimed their land for Spain. The Spanish returned in the 1780s. Over the next few decades they killed the Chumash in many ways -- stealing their land, subjugating them to the brutal mission system, destroying their natural way of life, and spreading infectious diseases. The Chumash were equally mistreated by subsequent Mexican and American governments. By 1900, there were only 200 Chumash left.

Today, there are around 5,000 Chumash in California. They mostly reside in Ventura, Santa Barbara, and San Louis Obispo Counties. A small group of Chumash struggle to keep their people's ways alive. They also teach fellow Californians about the importance of our ecosystem, particularly the coastal areas. Organizations like the Wishtoyo Foundation, who operate a recreated Chumash Discovery Village in Malibu, continue to try and make a difference in a largely indifferent world.

"We're thinking about the water we use, the land we use, fisheries, history, and about how we have to start telling the truth -- especially about our country, which was born of violence," Mr. Wayai explains. "How do we go from here as a human family?"

Special thanks to the Wishtoyo Foundation

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