If you’ve been in Southern California for a while, you’ve probably gotten a sense of our history under Mexican rule. And you might’ve experienced a bit of our rancho past and even caught a glimpse of the California that was conquered by Spanish explorers.
But what about before that? After all, the Chumash Indians were here at least 10,000 years ago.
Unfortunately, a lot of our knowledge about Native American life in the 1700s comes from the 4th grade curriculum of the California missions. And that’s not exactly how it really was.
So if you’re interested in piecing together what life might’ve been like here, before it was Alta California or what we know now as the The Golden State, here are five great sites to learn about and experience a kind of Native American heritage that you probably won’t find in elementary school history books.
1. Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, Ridgecrest
Who knew? The largest concentration of petroglyphs in the western hemisphere is deep within the Coso Range of mountains just south of Owens Lake – and only accessible by going through the Naval Air Weapons Station at China Lake. Fortunately, the Maturango Museum in Ridgecrest sponsors guided excursions to Little Petroglyph Canyon in both the spring and the fall; but you’ve got to buy your tickets months in advance, and you’ve got to meet them in Ridgecrest at 6:30 in the morning. The hassle is worth it, however, especially when you finally access the areas that were first "discovered" in the 1930s and contain over 20,000 images carved into the rock formations along a wash. Navy security is incredibly tight: Cell phone use is restricted, and photos are only allowed in the actual canyon. So put your camera down during the drive through the rest of the weapons testing site and enjoy the view – and maybe you’ll spot one of their wild horses running away, as something gets blown up in a routine weapons testing operation.
2. Chumash Indian Museum, Thousand Oaks
In the Conejo Valley, there’s an archaeologically sensitive site that was once home to several Chumash villages – and then, subsequently, the privately-owned Lang Ranch. When historians discovered the sacred Chumash sites on the property – including as many as 20 caves – it was preserved and eventually turned into public land. Access to most of the caves is now restricted to protect them, but the Chumash Indian Museum does conduct limited field trips to two of them, including a sacred “birthing cave” whose walls were once covered in pictographs (or “cave paintings”). Unfortunately, the passage of time and the exposure to humans, their dust, and their camera flashes have faded the pictographs to the point that they’re barely visible to the naked eye. But infrared cameras can still pick up the red and black paints that give some clue as to what exactly happened in this “womb of the earth.” Visit the museum to see the incredible collection of artifacts they’ve collected from the Lang Ranch site, as well as the dioramas they’ve built showing Chumash life. Walk the trails and keep your eyes (and ears) open for woodpeckers. And if the scenery looks familiar, that’s because it has been used to portray Texas, Africa, and even Ireland in a variety of TV shows and movies.
3. Painted Rock, Carrizo Plain National Monument
You can also find pictographs at Painted Rock, a horseshoe-shaped rock outcropping in Carrizo Plain in San Luis Obispo County that’s been claimed by three Native American groups: the Chumash, Salinan, and Yokuts. Unfortunately, the paintings were heavily vandalized in the 20th century (by graffiti and, alarmingly, shotgun), so visiting is now only possible with a permit or a ranger in tow. Like the rest of Southern California, this area was once submerged under a prehistoric sea; but here, the receding waters left behind an alkali lake that gets wet when there’s rainfall and becomes a stark white salt flat when there’s none. During your time at the Carrizo Plain, you might spot tule elk, migratory birds, raptors, or even pronghorn antelope during the day. The nocturnal kangaroo rats and kit foxes are harder to spot at night. Rare plants, like the iodine bush, that can survive in such highly salty conditions somehow manage to end up there. All of these creatures have amazingly adapted to seemingly uninhabitable and inhospitable surroundings – but if Painted Rock is any indication, then humans once found a way to thrive here, too.
4. Antelope Valley Indian Museum, Lancaster
In 1928, theatrical set painter and homesteader Howard Arden Edwards received 160 acres of land in the Antelope Valley and used it to build a chalet into the side of Piute Butte. His new Tudor-style home turned out to be the perfect place to house his personal collection of Native American artifacts from Great Basin Indian cultures – including some rare and one-of-a-kind items – which are now on display as part of the Antelope Valley Indian Museum. The unusual granite rock formations behind the house are also part of Piute Butte, once an area of spiritual significance for the various American Indian groups that once populated it. Some pictographs and petroglyphs can be found on these rocks, but they’ve severely faded over time. This is a location where the inside is just as fascinating as the outside; so be sure to save some time to walk the nature trail, enjoy the wildflowers, and look for signs of the old dude ranch.
5. Cave of Munits, Upper Las Virgenes Canyon Open Space Preserve
On the former Ahmanson Ranch in the Simi Hills, it's a relatively easy uphill hike through the Upper Las Virgenes Canyon Open Space Preserve to get to the Cave of Munits, a.k.a. The Shaman’s Cave. But once you get to the cave, it’s a steep climb up into it, and you’ve got to use your hands. Beware of scraping knees, shins, and elbows across the rock; and make sure somebody else is there to help hoist you up. Once you make your passage through the cave, you can continue onto another area of ceremonial importance, Castle Peak (Kas'elew). But why not stay in the cave for a while? It still holds great significance to the Chumash people, reportedly as a shaman’s home – and its mythical stories are still known by Chumash descendants today. Since it’s a “chimney cave,” you can look up and see the sky through an opening at the top, which also lets just enough sunlight in to make the cathedral ceiling look really dramatic.