Friday, May 25, 2018     Volume: 19, Issue: 12

Santa Maria Sun / Cover Story

The following article was posted on July 9th, 2009, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 10, Issue 17 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [] - Volume 10, Issue 17

Those who came before

Locals want everyone to have access to the story of the rise and fall of the Chumash people�


Mystery cave
Researchers speculate the Chumash Painted Cave, located north of Santa Barbara, may have served as an ancient observatory.
The signs are everywhere: in place names like Nipomo, Lompoc, and Sisquoc, in art and rock carvings hidden among dim caves and wind-swept valleys, and buried deep in the soil under our feet.

They’re the remnants of an ancient maritime Native American civilization that once prospered on the Central Coast, but today is struggling to keep its culture alive: the Chumash Indians.

Landmarks such as the Chumash Painted Cave State Historic Park, just south of the San Marcos Pass, are testimony to the complex mystery that surrounds this native people’s past. While much is known about Chumash history, much has also been lost to time and tragedy.

Now, with California’s budget problems threatening access to state parks—including Painted Cave—locals are worried that even more could be lost.

On guard
California State Parks Interpretive Specialist Wes Chapin fears that putting Painted Cave into “caretaker” status will keep park visitors away.
Roots and rise of the Chumash

Chumash mythology traces their creation to the Channel Islands— “Chumash” translates to “people of the islands”—but science is still searching for clues to explain their origins.

The oldest records of Chumash settlements date back about 13,000 years, according to Dr. John Johnson, curator of anthropology at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. DNA evidence suggests the ancestors of the Chumash traveled across the Bering Strait and migrated south down the coast. From there, they settled in densely populated villages in the islands and on the mainland from modern-day Malibu to Monterey.

Conventional science describes the Chumash as hunter-gatherers who subsisted on a diet of fish, seeds, and acorns. At the height of their prosperity, their population numbered about 25,000, living mostly in waterproof domed huts made of tule reeds and branches.

“They were able to support larger numbers of people and more permanent settlements, even though they weren’t agriculturalists,” Johnson said. “Instead of harvesting corn, beans, and squash, they were harvesting the sea.”

An isolated people, the Chumash spoke six different languages, the first known languages in North America. With no written records, everything that’s known about them passed down orally or came from early European explorers and later Spanish missionaries.

The first modern accounts of the Chumash come from the fragmented journals of Portuguese explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo. During his journey through the Santa Barbara Channel in 1542, Cabrillo encountered permanent Chumash tribal settlements, or “pueblos,” which had already existed for thousands of years. He and his crew described the Chumash as a friendly, energetic and technologically advanced culture.

The Chumash were adept seafarers. They built durable planked canoes called tomols, which allowed up to 10 people to travel between the islands and mainland. They used beads as currency and left behind fine basketry and weaving.

Keeping the flame alive
Dr. John Johnson demonstrates a Chumash fire and hearth stick, part of the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History’s ethnographic collection.
Women were highly regarded. The first recorded chief of the Chumash was a female, and, according to Johnson, the Chumash were unique for being matrilocal, meaning that after marriage the husband would move in with the wife’s family.

The Chumash were well versed in ethno-botany and astronomy, according to paleontologist Rex Saint Onge. They possessed a well-defined spirituality, based on a connection to the natural world and complex systematic study of the heavens.

“By monitoring the sun and the stars and keeping track of their positions, it told them when to plant and when to prepare for winter holidays corresponding with position of the sun,” Saint Onge said. “They saw themselves as part of creation and used their scientific expertise to monitor creation.”

Polaris, the North Star, was a central figure to the Chumash. They noticed it was the only star that never moved and that all the other stars and constellations rotated around it. They personified the North Star in their myths as the “Sky Coyote,” a trickster who would gamble with the Sun in a sort of dice game. Coyote was on the side of the people. If he won, there would be a good harvest.

According to Joe Talaugon, a local Chumash Elder, the stars were both the Chumash guide and their entertainment.

“In ancient times, people could look at the night sky every night. It was a map,” Talaugon said. “When you study something long enough, you’re going to learn something about it.

As their population expanded and demand for food grew, according to Talaugon, the Chumash people stressed living in balance with nature.

“The leader would make sure that everyone got their share,” Talaugon said. “When a village became overpopulated, they would move to another village. They had a system to survive.”

That was until the late 1760s, when the Spanish missionaries arrived on the coast.

Elder statesman
Chumash Elder Joe Talaugon said he wants a coalition of Indians to work with the federal government to protect sacred Chumash sites.
The decline and fall of the tribe

For the next 50 years, from the foundation of the first mission in San Luis Obispo in 1772 until around 1822, the once-flourishing Chumash culture experienced a dramatic decline.

Mission life was one of hard labor for the Chumash, with days spent working the fields, harvesting and storing food, cooking, and weaving. Joining a mission was considered a lifetime commitment for the Chumash, and while coerced baptism was forbidden by Spanish law, many Chumash were eventually forced to join the missions for practical reasons.

“People think that they were rounded up and brought in,” Johnson said. “It wasn’t by force of arms, but by force of circumstance.”

The introduction of wine by the Spanish priests, the thinning of plant resources by grazing animals, and exposure to diseases like smallpox soon decimated the Chumash population.

“In their minds and their way of thinking, they felt they were doing the Indians a favor in bringing religion to them,” Talaugon said. “The Spanish looked on them as ‘heathens’ or pagans that needed religion, not even considering the fact that these people had been living here for thousands of years and already had their spirituality and tradition and culture functioning. That didn’t matter to the Spanish. That’s where the devastation started.”

Gradually, the Chumash death rate exceeded the birth rate. Older generations aged and died, and younger Chumash found the missions more dependable than trying to survive off the land.

“We can’t say that there was a good transformation or conversion from one culture to the other. It was horrible,” Talaugon said. “It was genocide in a sense because there’s a whole nation of people just about wiped off the face of the earth because of this.”

Mistreatment and unhealthy living conditions led the Chumash to revolt at the Santa Ines mission in 1824. The Chumash fought the Spanish military for months, resulting in many Indian deaths. The revolt eventually fizzled out, and many Chumash were executed as a result of the uprising.

The clashes continued through the 1830s, after the Mexican government took over. Then the Gold Rush started, forcing the Indians to abandon their remaining settlements and scatter to survive.

According to archaeologist Tammy Whitley of the California Bureau of Land Management, those Chumash who weren’t destroyed by the mission system dispersed into various discreet political groups throughout California.

By the turn of the century, according to Talaugon, the Chumash people no longer had their culture, language tradition, or spirituality.

“The younger generation, because of the hardships and lifestyles, assimilated into the American way of life and got lost,” Talaugon said. “Many of us today don’t even know our own language, or a lot of our own history. There’s some people who’ve never learned and never knew.”

While there are still about 5,000 people in Santa Barbara County who claim Chumash heritage, the last full-blooded Chumash died in the 1950s. The last native speaker, Maria Ignacio, died in Santa Barbara in 1965, and only two of her living relatives have ever heard the language spoken.

Form and function
A carved Chumash cooking bowl made of serpentine was found at an archeological site near Los Prietos.
The mystery of Painted Cave

Situated alongside a mountain road a few miles north of Santa Barbara, Chumash Painted Cave Historical Park tells a story, the narrative likely lost forever.

In layers of red, white seashell, and black charcoal pigment, the paintings inside the cave depict discs segmented into fourths, mandalas, centipede-like figures, anthropomorphic characters, and abstract patterns.

While the particulars of the cave’s discovery are unknown, it was first written about in the 1870s. It was known to the Chumash well before that time and was frequented by the Indians at specific times during the year, according to Johnson. A wrought-iron gate from an old bank vault has protected the cave from vandals since the early 1900s, and the cave became a state park in 1975.

Researchers like William Hyder and Georgia Lee speculate the paintings are a result of shamanic practices and rituals. In Chumash culture, the shaman or group of priests would ritually smoke toloache (Datura or jimsonweed) to enter the spirit world. The shaman would pray to ensure the success of the next year’s crop.

According to California State Parks Interpretive Specialist Wes Chapin, who oversees the cave, there’s no consensus among researchers on the cave’s significance.

“It’s a guess as to what they were trying to do. Some people surmise that they were trying to influence the powers of the universe for the benefit of the people,” Chapin said. “Without a Rosetta Stone, we’ll probably never know what it means.”

 There’s growing speculation that the site may have served as a celestial observatory, used by Chumash astronomers at the summer and winter solstices.

“They were practicing natural science within a connection to the earth and stars themselves, all part of creation,” researcher Saint Onge said. “These were monitoring stations and nobody was going up there stoned out of their gourd on Datura.”

The Natural History Museum’s Johnson agrees that the paintings are too detailed to have been done by a person under the influence of Datura, a toxic flower that can cause death, even at low doses.

In his studies, Johnson discovered a Chumash word for the cave: alahalukin, meaning “that which comes around.” He said the name might indicate the purpose of the cave had something to do with tracking the movement of the sun.

Working with Saint Onge and Talaugon, Johnson has a forthcoming scientific paper that theorizes that the cave probably served as an observatory. Even so, Johnson keeps an open mind.

“You don’t need to believe in any one thing,” Johnson said. “There’s some truth to every idea.”

Whatever its true purpose, the cave is still considered sacred to the Chumash. To this day, many Chumash descendants make pilgrimages to the spot, leaving tobacco and other items at its gate.

Basket case
The Chumash used baskets woven from tule reeds to sift meal and dry seeds. This basket was discovered in Santa Ynez and is on display at Santa Barbara’s Museum of Natural History.
Chumash legacy in peril?

As one of the 220 possible State Park closures the California Legislature is considering to help solve the budget crisis, the Painted Cave is under threat.

According to Chapin, a closure would mean the park would be put into “caretaker status.” The public would still be able to visit, but Parks employees would only periodically maintain it.

“California State Parks exists to make places like this available to the public so that they have the opportunity to learn about and come to appreciate their heritage,” Chapin said. “These places are irreplaceable, and if they’re put into caretaker status or [people are] otherwise denied access to them, then the public is essentially having their history book closed. We consider that a serious violation of the public trust that we’ve been given.”

If legislators do go through with their proposal to close state parks, Talaugon fears that many sacred Chumash sites won’t be protected.

“The cities would lose out. It’s important for people to see nature, and we need to preserve our lands,” he said.

“It’s a tough situation. I don’t think the state should shut them down. I think the state could find other ways to save money.”

In addition, housing developments along coastal areas like Avila Beach and Pismo Beach also threaten significant Chumash burial and sacred sites. According to Talaugon, up to 97 percent of Chumash sites aren’t protected under current law.

“We need stronger legislation that will protect the Native American lands. It’s been watered down for so many years,” he said.

Even more important than protecting land, Talaugon added, is preserving the true history of the Chumash.

“I would like to see people acknowledge the fact that we were here tens of thousands of years and we were not hunters and gatherers or just a bunch of roaming tribes of people,” he explained. “We had established societies that were probably more advanced than a lot of European-type societies. I call it telling the truth, and sometimes it’s difficult for people to accept it.”

Talaugon and others are working to keep the Chumash culture vibrant. On the Santa Ynez reservation—the home of the only federally recognized Chumash tribe—children are learning the Chumash language and history in their classrooms. The legacy of the Chumash isn’t going to disappear, and, according to the Museum of Natural History’s Johnson, it’s still being written.

“When we see those parts of California that are still in their natural state, we realize what the Indians were experiencing,” Johnson said. “They lived in nature, they were attuned to nature. We can appreciate how they survived and feel an empathy with what they experienced. Most of all, we can learn from them.”

Contact Staff Writer Jeremy Thomas at

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