An ancient culture lives on through descendants who keep the fires lit

Written by ELA LINDSAY and ERIN NEWMAN Photos by MICHAEL COONS

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Thousand Oaks resident Beverly Folkes has listened to the stories of her ancestors all her life; stories told by her grandfather Antonio Ortega and mother, Vera Ortega Salazar. She carries on this tradition, appearing as a storyteller at special events in the community.

A Chumash elder, Folkes often represents the Native community at blessings and groundbreaking events. As an active member of the Native American Monitoring Group in Thousand Oaks, she works with archaeologists and other public works teams to oversee sacred native areas to ensure any remains and artifacts are handled according to Chumash tradition. She strives to leave a legacy of teaching the importance of protecting the land.

The modern population of Southern California is not the first to enjoy the region’s spectacular beauty, rich resources and temperate climate.

Several groups of Native Americans have flourished here for thousands of years, including the Chumash—pronounced Shumash—whose settlements stretched from Malibu to San Luis Obispo along the coast, in valleys and on the northern Channel Islands.

Evidence of Chumash civilization dates back 10,000 to 12,000 years.

The Chumash people existed in simple relationships with each other, the land, animals, sky, wind, the sun and the moon. They believed that everything had a spirit and that those spirits communicated with one another.

Families lived in thatched domed houses, called ’aps. Ground acorns were a staple food, along with sea life. Chumash fisherman traveled up and down the coast in plank canoes, called tomols, hunting marine resources. The Chumash lived fairly peaceably with other local tribes, often trading with them using shell beads as currency.

The people thrived until the mission system imposed by the Spanish in the late 1700s and early 1800s devastated the Chumash, whose way of life and language suffered greatly. European diseases nearly wiped out the Chumash—only 200 were left by 1900.

Today, people with Chumash ancestry are scattered throughout the Central Coast and number between 4,000 and 5,000. Ventureno Chumash, named for their dialect, are prevalent in the Conejo Valley and surrounding areas. Chumash descendants do not have a tribal land to call their own aside from the Santa Ynez band, the only federally recognized group of Chumash, known for their Chumash Casino. Other bands include the Coastal Band of the Chumash Nation, the Barbareno/Ventureno Band of Mission Indians, the Northern Chumash Tribal Council and the Barbareno Chumash Council.

Today’s Chumash people strive to keep their cultural inheritance alive through songs, storytelling, language, basketry and canoeing. As a group they are also committed to protecting the lush land that their people have inhabited for thousands of years.

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Chumash ceremonial leader Mati Waiya, “Little Hawk,” a lifelong resident of Ventura County, created the Wishtoyo Foundation in Malibu in 1997. The nonprofit promotes cultural and ocean conservation through its Chumash Marine Stewardship Program.

In teaching about environmental preservation and his tribe’s values, and to preserve the culture, language and history of the Chumash, Waiya often appears in full regalia to present programs in the community. He also performs with fellow Chumash Dolphin Dancers and sings tribal songs.

Waiya is the first Native American to be named a “Keeper” in the Waterkeeper Alliance created by Robert Kennedy, Jr., a global movement for “swimmable, drinkable and fishable water worldwide.”

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Dennis

Educator and storyteller Dennis Garcia teaches about traditional ways through music and presentations.

In Chumash regalia, wearing tribal necklaces and red face paint traditionally donned for protection, Garcia sings songs and tells stories while also displaying rattles and clapper sticks.

He also displays the soapstone carvings made by his brother, Chief Ted Garcia Jr.

Garcia is of Chumash, Tataviam, Tongva and Vanyume ancestry. The Garcias’ father, Ted Garcia Sr., and grandmother, Chief Mary Cooke Garcia, are direct descendants of early 1700s members of the Chaguayabit village, now known as Castaic Junction.

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As a traditional storyteller, Alan Salazar makes it his mission to share Chumash culture with students and communities throughout California and abroad. This past summer, he visited Bath, England, lecturing at the American Museum and at several schools about the Chumash ways.

Salazar, who lives in Ventura, is also a traditional paddler of Chumash ocean plank canoes, called tomols, and has paddled all of his ancestors’ long-established, historic routes from the mainland to the Channel Islands.

As a Chumash monitor, Salazar also works to protect ancient village hunting and rock-art sites.

In a word copyThe influence of the Chumash is all around us. Here are some familiar names that evolved from Chumashan, a family of languages now extinct.  

chumash-poleSimi Valley (Shimiyi): “threadlike clouds”

Tapo Canyon (Ta’apu): “yucca”

Malibu (Humaliwo): “the surf sounds loudly”

Topanga (Topa’nga): “above”

Calleguas (KayÏwÏsh): “my head”

Satwiwa: “the bluffs”

Point Mugu (Muwu): “beach”

Port Hueneme (Wene’mu): “resting place”

Pismo Beach (Pismu): “tar”

Castaic (Kashtiq or Kashtük): “my eyes”

Saticoy (Sati’koi): “sheltered from the wind”

Ojai (’Awha’y): “moon”

Anacapa Island (Anyapah): “mirage”

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The Chumash people lived in close harmony with their natural environment. Many of the native plants we are familiar with served very practical purposes in daily Chumash life. Here are a few, with their Chumash name included when available.

Coyote Brush Treated poison oak rashes and used as kindling.

Deer Grass Inland Chumash used stalks as weft in traditional coil-weave baskets.

California Poppy California’s state flower was also the Chumash symbol of love.

Basket Grass Primary material used in outer strands of Chumash Indian basket weaving.

Mugwort (Molush) Powerful astringent, antibacterial and vasoconstrictor. Also used as a purifying smudge smoke in the form of moxibustion (burning of an herb on certain points on the body).

Coffeeberry (Puq’) Bark used as laxative and purgative.

Blue Elderberry Hollow stems split and used to store small items or made into musical clapper sticks, a rhythm instrument. Berries made into jam and syrup.

California Hummingbird Sage (Qims) Used for tea, medicinal remedy, and antimicrobial healing salves.

Toyon (Qwe’) Red berries a nutritious food source. Wood used to make traditional big-game arrows, harpoons, digging sticks, acorn mush paddles, long needles, fish hooks and hide scrapers.

Giant Wild Rye (Stemelel) Stalks used for arrows, roof thatching material, and as a food source.

California Blackberry (Tiq’itiq) Berries known for juicy, sweet flavor. Leaves and flowers heal bruises and scrapes.

Lemonadeberry (Walqaqs) Berries are rich in antioxidants, flavonoids, Vitamin C. Wood used as firewood. Plant closely related to poison oak.

California Lilac (Washiko) Rot-resistant wood used for fence posts, feathered ceremonial poles and to treat inflammation and infection.

California Wild Rose (Washtiq’oliq’ol) Dried, powdered petals used as baby powder; rosehips eaten for calcium, phosphorus, iron and vitamin C.

California Sagebrush (Kopsheek) Powerful medicine that supported the body during acute bacterial and viral infections, postpartum troubles and muscle and joint pain. Dried sticks made good fire drills for starting small fires.

California Sycamore (Xso’) Wood used for bowls, cups and construction. Leaves played key role in leaching toxins out of acorn flour.

Experience the world of the Chumash by venturing out to these centers and events

 

The Chumash Indian Museum, a living history center, is located on an historic Chumash site in the Lang Ranch area of Thousand Oaks and features exhibits, events and educational programs. 3290 Lang Ranch Pkwy., Thousand Oaks www.chumashindianmuseum.com (805) 492-8076

 

The Wishtoyo Foundation’s Chumash Discovery Village offers a glimpse of what Chumash life was like. This recreation of a village with dwellings, canoes, tools and handicrafts serves as a center for ceremonies and celebrations. Guided tours are available by appointment. Nicholas Canyon County Beach Park 33904 Pacific Coast Hwy., Malibu www.wishtoyo.org (424) 644-0088

 

In addition to a permanent exhibit that explores the Chumash and their natural world, the Museum of Ventura County has added a new outdoor children’s learning space that includes a Chumash ’ap (dwelling) reconstructed by an Eagle Scout. 100 East Main St., Ventura www.venturamuseum.org (805) 653-0323

 

Working closely with the Chumash community performing ongoing research and artifact identification, the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History is the region’s center of Chumash knowledge. The collection features rare Chumash basketry, photographs, dioramas and original manuscripts of the lost Chumash languages and dialects. 2559 Puesta del Sol, Santa Barbara www.sbnature.org (805) 682-4711

 

Chumash cave paintings and pictographs are plentiful, but their locations are not provided to the public to avoid vandalism—with one exception. The Chumash Painted Cave Historic Park near Santa Barbara offers visitors a glimpse of colorful rock art created by the Chumash several centuries ago. Directions provided on website www.parks.ca.gov (805) 733-3713

 

Newbury Park’s Stagecoach Inn Museum contains authentic Chumash relics as well as carefully crafted recreations of tools, games and items for everyday use. Step outside to see a Chumash home, or ’ap. 51 South Ventu Park Road, Newbury Park www.stagecoachmuseum.org (805) 498-9441

 

King Gillette Ranch periodically offers easy one-mile walks that show how the Chumash have utilized resources in nature. 26800 Mulholland Hwy., Calabasas www.lamountains.com (818) 878-0866 ext. 228

 

The Satwiwa Native American Indian Culture Center, established by the National Park Service, features Native American hosts and rangers who answer questions during the weekend hours. The center also hosts occasional workshops and programs. 4121 Potrero Road, Newbury Park (805) 370-2300 (National Park Service) (805) 375-1930 (culture center) www.nps.gov/samo

 

Powwows, although not traditional to Chumash culture, provide the community with an educational and cultural experience featuring music, dancing, arts, food and customs.

 

•The annual Children of Many Colors Powwow is usually held in summer at Moorpark College: www.redbirdsvision.org/manycolors.htm

 

•The Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians hold an intertribal powwow as well as Chumash Culture Days, both typically in October in the Santa Ynez area: www.santaynezchumash.org

 

•The Chumash Day intertribal powwow in Malibu takes place in early April: www.malibucity.org