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Traditional Boat Building Helps Native Community Hone Ecological Knowledge

“Water is sacred, water is life, water is us, water is everything.” Cindi Alvitre, Tongva educator, culture bearer, and professor of American Indian studies at California State University, Long Beach, eloquently states these insightful words in the premiere episode of the second season of “Tending Nature,” in which tribal groups share how they are currently involved in ocean stewardship through the lens of cultural revitalization.

As someone who was born and raised in California, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the uniqueness of our state — not only the beauty and ecological diversity, but also the fragility. In the week leading up to the airing of this new season, catastrophic fires are raging in both northern and southern California, reminding us that we all need to become more aware of our relationships with the environment. As we look to the future of living sustainably in this fragile state (both California, and our state of being), “Tending Nature” raises awareness of the importance of Indigenous voices in environmental thinking as much needed voice in the dialogue.

Tending Nature -- Baby Ti’at: The Making of a Traditional Canoe

In a recent conversation with a professor of environmental studies at San Francisco State University, we discussed the necessity of incorporating Indigenous knowledge in the teaching of environmental science as a discipline. While this information may not yet exist in standardized textbooks, it is essential to acknowledge the value of knowledge gleaned from communities whose ancestors have lived in their local environments for thousands of years, forming relationships with plants, wildlife, and waterways and passing down land management techniques and stewardship efforts for generations. It is important to acknowledge the Indigenous presence of the original inhabitants of the places where we live, work, and frequent.

Rethinking the Coast with the Ti’at Society” reminds the viewer that Los Angeles has been built on the traditional land of the Tongva and Tataviam peoples, by bringing us to Catalina Island, or Pimu in the Tongva language.

Located more than 20 miles from the coast of Los Angeles, Catalina is home to more than 4,000 people and it is also a major tourist destination, serving cruise ships and daily visitors coming over on ferries from San Pedro and Long Beach. Modern development has had an ecological impact on the island and the surrounding waters that make up the channel between the island and the mainland.

Members of Ti'at Society with their Ti'at, Moomat ahiko in Avalon Bay at Santa Catalina Island
Members of the Ti'at Society with their ti'at, "Moomat ahiko" near Avalon Bay at Santa Catalina Island

Catalina is home to a wealth of marine life, including seaweed, fish, shellfish, and marine mammals. For thousands of years, the Tongva relied on these resources for survival, and today, many community members are engaged in their protection efforts and serve as their advocates.

The Tongva people who lived on the island were able to travel to the mainland via boats called ti’ats, or plank canoes. A traditional ti’at could hold anywhere from three to 30 paddlers, who would paddle the over 20-mile journey across the channel from Catalina Island to the coast. These boats allowed communities to trade important materials, including steatite, or soapstone, which is quarried on Catalina Island and can be heated directly over fire without breaking. Colonization had a devastating impact on the Tongva community, and like many California Indian cultural traditions, construction of these vessels ceased after the mission period.

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A new ti’at would not be created for over a century. Several decades ago, the idea of bringing these vessels back to the community came to Cindi Alvitre in a dream. Alvitre describes dreaming of an enormous warrior in the Santa Ana mountains and a lake in front of him filled with wooden plank canoes. As soon as people began paddling the canoes, the warrior opened his eyes and the mountavins parted, leaving a pathway to Catalina Island. When sharing this story, Alvitre pauses: “Dream? Vision? I don’t know.” 

Tending Nature -- Community Builds Canoe Around Native Leader’s Dream

During the 1990s, Alvitre’s dream became a reality with the birth of the ti’at named Moomat ahiko, or “breath of the ocean” in the Tongva language, and the Ti’at Society, whose members have been actively working to revitalize this maritime tradition ever since. The Ti’at Society is comprised of members of the Tongva, Chumash, Acjachemen, and other tribal communities who are working together to keep these cultural practices alive. The canoe master is Marcus Lopez (Chumash), who has also worked hard to revive the maritime tradition of the tomol, or Chumash plank canoe, which shares many similarities with the ti’at. Other participants help out by hammering planks or simply being there to cook food and be a part of the community. Moomat ahiko is also serving as a teacher for the next generation of students, as members of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society at California State University, Long Beach have helped restore the vessel while they learn more about its construction techniques.  

"Baby Ti'at" under construction
"Baby Ti'at" under construction

The Ti’at Society is currently building a miniature version (affectionately referred to as the “baby ti’at”) for the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County so that visitors can learn about Tongva maritime traditions and the community’s role in ocean stewardship. This canoe is 12 feet long; in contrast, Moomat ahiko is 27 feet long.

The materials of the ti’at itself tell a story of not only Indigenous heritage, but also of California’s environmental diversity. California is home to thousands of endemic plant species and contains more biological diversity than any other state in the United States. Native communities have long relied on plants for food, medicine, and material culture, many of which are unique to different areas of California.

Redwood driftwood remains structurally viable for decades after washing ashore.
Redwood driftwood remains structurally viable for decades after washing ashore.

The wooden boards of the ti’at are made of redwood logs split into planks. Traditionally, ti’at builders created planks from driftwood logs of redwood trees that washed down the California coast from northern California. For Moomat ahiko, the Ti’at Society worked with members of the Karuk Tribe in the Klamath River region to obtain the traditional redwood needed for the planks.

The planks are bound with woven cordage made of plant fibers, including dogbane, nettle, sea grass, milkweed, or willow. Ti’at Society member Miztlayolxochitl Aguilera describes learning how to weave cordage from her uncle Craig Torres, and the patience it takes to ensure it is consistent all the way through.

Dogbane | Charles Richard Dodge, A Descriptive Catalogue of Useful Fiber Plants of the World, 1897
Dogbane | Charles Richard Dodge, A Descriptive Catalogue of Useful Fiber Plants of the World, 1897
Nettle (Urtica dioica) | Prof. Dr. Otto Wilhelm Thomé ''Flora von Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz'' 1885, Gera, Germany
Nettle (Urtica dioica) | Prof. Dr. Otto Wilhelm Thomé, Flora von Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz, 1885
Zostera Marina (fig. 3) is one of the most common native seagrasses to California. | Biodiversity Heritage Library
Zostera Marina (fig. 3) is one of the most common native seagrasses to California. | Biodiversity Heritage Library
Milkweed | S. Edwards, Botanical Register Vol.1, 1816
Milkweed | S. Edwards, Botanical Register Vol.1, 1816
Willow | Pierre-Joseph Redouté, Traité des Arbres et Arbustes que l'on Cultive en France en Pleine Terre, 1801-1819
Willow | Pierre-Joseph Redouté, Traité des Arbres et Arbustes que l'on Cultive en France en Pleine Terre, 1801-1819

 

Another material used in ti’at construction is asphaltum, which naturally wells up from underground oil seepages. This tar-like substance, made famous from the La Brea Tar Pits on Wilshire Boulevard, can be used as an adhesive and waterproof coating. Heidi Lucero of the Acjachemen community uses a screwdriver to pry hardened asphaltum from the rocky coastline, explaining how she mixes it with pine pitch and heats it in a pan over a low heat to create the perfect sealant. 

Tending Nature -- A Natural Tar that Seeps From Cracks Along the Coast

Lucero is an abalone artist, and uses her traditional skills to adorn the ti’ats with abalone inlay. Like many native California species, abalone also has a troubled environmental history. Abalone once thrived off of Catalina Island, and was traditionally used by the Tongva for food, regalia, and adornment. After contact, commercial demand for this species led to massive overharvesting, resulting in major population declines. In southern California, Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) have been established to protect endangered species, including abalone, from overharvesting. One MPA is located on Catalina Island.

The redwood planks, cordage, asphaltum, and abalone both reflect the rich diversity of the California environment and remind us of the necessity of protecting these resources and their surrounding waters. While the new “baby ti’at” will soon go on display in the museum to inspire school children and visitors, Moomat ahiko is meant to be in the ocean. She is launched from Long Beach, a port city whose development has had a major impact on the ecosystem of the coastline. Lucero and Alvitre explain that a major environmental concern for being able to paddle these vessels is the water quality. When the canoe is put in the water, it is covered in oil byproducts and runoff from pollutants that wash into the ocean.

In addition to the Ti’at Society, other tribal communities continue to build traditional watercraft, including tomols, dugout canoes and tule boats. The Cultural Conservancy, a Native led non-profit organization based in San Francisco, hosts a “Youth Guardians of the Waters” program and has supported several efforts to revive indigenous maritime traditions in California and beyond. 

Chumash Tomol 'Elye'wun paddlers crossing at Santa Cruz Island. California, Channel Islands NMS, Santa Cruz Island. 2006 | NOAA Photo Library (CC BY 2.0)
Chumash Tomol 'Elye'wun paddlers crossing at Santa Cruz Island. California, Channel Islands NMS, Santa Cruz Island. 2006 | NOAA Photo Library (CC BY 2.0)
Hupa Dugout Canoe, Trinity River
Hupa Dugout Canoe, Trinity River

 

Rethinking the Coast with the Ti’at Society” ends with an unprecedented meeting between the Tongva and Hōkūleʻa, or the Polynesian Voyaging Society, who sailed the traditional voyaging canoe Hikianalia over 2,800 miles from Hawai’i to California bearing a message of the importance of caring for the ocean. The crewmembers timed their journey’s arrival to attend the Global Climate Action Summit. Upon reaching southern California, they exchanged a greeting with the Tongva and members of the Ti’at Society, acknowledging their Indigenous roots and shared maritime heritage.   

These encounters show that these vessels are used for much more than transportation. They are symbols of cultural identity and heritage, and ways that communities can connect with the past, present, and future. Traditional vessels can promote healing from the traumatic legacies of colonialism. They can also serve as powerful messengers for climate action and social justice. The ti’at serves as a symbol for re-thinking our relationships with water.

Major environmental challenges, including climate change, overpopulation, and overconsumption, give us all an opportunity to re-think our relationship with the land; or perhaps more appropriately, ‘eyoo’ooxon, or “our land” in the Tongva language.

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