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Chumash Indians A Rich Heritage… One of the first people to inhabit California
The Chumash Indian tribe is a large part of California history, as well as my family’s history. I will be talking about the history of my family’s tribe, as well as two different periods of time from 1542-1800 in which my family lived and experienced some very troubling times, in which many of them were killed or died from various diseases. I’m thankful to be able to share their rich history.
The Chumash once numbered in the tens of thousands and were considered the elite or intelligentsia of the coastal natives. They were people of high integrity and lived in harmony with nature. Chumash astronomers charted the heavens and had their own solar and star charts. Astrologers interpreted those charts in guiding the everyday lives of the people. Their territory encompassed 7,000 square miles – from the Channel Islands to Malibu up to Paso Robles and inland to the western edge of the San Joaquin Valley. Santa Barbara was the central point in their lands; Mt. Pinos (Iwihinmu) was their sacred shrine and the area of Mt. Pinos, Cuddy Valley (Valley of the Shaman) and Frazier Mountain was the center of their universe. With resources from both the land and the sea, The Chumash were able to enjoy a more prosperous environment than most other tribes in California. (As hunters, gatherers and fishermen, they recognized their dependency on the world around them. Ceremonies marked the significant seasons that their lives were contingent upon with emphasis given to the full harvest and the storage of food for the winter. (Gamble, L pg. 30)
As hunters, gatherers, and fishermen, the Chumash recognized the necessity to depend on the world around them. They had ceremonies that marked significant seasons, that their lives were important because of their ability to gather food and save it for the winter so they could survive the harsh winters. The Chumash lived in large, dome-shaped homes that were made of willow branches. Whalebone was used for reinforcing and the roofs were composed of tulle mats. The interior rooms were partitioned for privacy by hanging reed mats from the ceiling. As many as 50 people could live in one house. With platform beds built above the ground, the Chumash used the area under the platforms to store personal belongings.
Anthropologists have written that there were 20,000 Chumash living in an area that covers California’s coast from Malibu in the South, to San Luis Obispo in the North at the time of European occupation. The successful livelihood of the Chumash people was based upon subsistence upon the available natural resources – plants, animals and fish, and their sustainable ways of utilizing these resources. The ancestors found uses for almost every type of plant and animal available – for food, clothing, medicine, baskets, canoes, and tools. The natural environment inspired art (Chumash rock and cave art still exists today), beliefs, stories, ceremonies and songs. The rich history and lifeways of the Chumash people is preserved in those art forms, which were passed down to the children of each generation to today. The Chumash are a maritime culture, known as hunters and gatherers. Our boats – canoes, called tomols – enabled abundant fishing and trade, traveling up and down the coast to other villages.
In 1542 Europeans were one of the first people to encounter the Chumash tribe. The Chumash were met, by sailing ships that were under the command of Juan Cabrillo. (Smith-Llera pg. 42) When the Europeans arrived, it brought a lot of problems to the Chumash tribe. The Chumash land was taken over by the Spanish in 1770. The Spanish started to bring in missionaries that would try to convert the Indians to Christianity. The Chumash wanted nothing to do with this, as they felt they would be disrespecting their ancestors and tribal tradition. They started to move their villages away, from the Spanish and found missions that were being built on the coast of California in 1772 and decided to settle there. The Chumash entered these missions voluntarily and many became missionized. Unfortunately, most missions, used the Indians for slave labor. The Indians were introduced to several diseases as well, when they lived at the missions such as smallpox and syphilis. (Smith-Llera pg. 50) In the 1800s many of the Chumash rebelled against the missions, for the poor treatment that was given. Little is known about the Chumash’s religion, but they worshipped a deity called chupu. The shamans of the tribe would cure diseases using chants or herbs, or even a tube which was used to suck out bad spirits from the afflicted.
The Chumash’s government was organized by village rather than by tribe. Villages were led by chiefs. The chief’s authority was based on either heredity or wealth. Women could inherit the position of head chief. This gender relation is historically significant, as the Chumash were one of the few Indian tribes that allowed women to have a high position of power. Women that were head chiefs, were given the authority to leading their tribe into battle, presiding over ceremonies and granting tribe members to hunt for food. (Gamble, L pg. 44)
The Chumash went only to war for several reasons such as, someone who trespassed on their land, breach of etiquette, avenging witchcraft or for defense against other Indian tribes. However, the Chumash seldom engaged in actual warfare as they were a peaceful tribe and didn’t believe in taking another’s life.
With most Native American tribes, Chumash tribal history was passed down from generation to generation through, various stories, dances and legends. Unfortunately, many of these stories were lost to time, when the Chumash were all but killed in the 1700s and 1800s by the Spanish mission system. I will talk more later about how the Chumash tribe was almost wiped out, due to being infected with European diseases.
The Chumash culture has been considered one of the most unique and advanced in the United States. There is much we can learn from the Chumash, who understood the connection between humankind and the natural resources, that Earth gives freely. The Chumash respected the Earth, as their “teacher” because they knew that their survival depended on it for their survival. The Chumash culture also has been told through many books written by tribe members. A few of these books are “When the Animals Were People, Stories Told by the Chumash Indians of California” also, “Chumash A Picture of Their World.” When the Animals Were People book, talks about nine legends about a character named Coyote and his friends which the Chumash believed were real people. There are many legends that the Chumash shared with each other, but the Coyote legend story I have heard from a great grandmother and I found it very interesting. I hope to share the legend story that was shared with me, with my children one day. I hope my ancestors would be proud, that I’m continuing to share history and stories.
The Chumash tribe spoke in a Salinan-Seri dialect of the Hokan language family. The word ‘Chumash’ means “bead maker” or “seashell people”. They were described by the Spanish as” of good disposition, affable, liberal, and friendly”. The six languages within the Chumash a language family were named after the missions which the languages were associated: San Luis Obispo, Mission La Purisima, Mission Santa Ynez, Mission Santa Barbara and Mission San Buenaventura.
The Chumash used their own currency that came from the ocean. Money was made from 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. The Chumash insured that everything they used if it came from nature, or the ocean that they always returned it back to the Earth because they respected “Mother Earth” and were thankful for everything she gave. (Coombs, G. pg. 40)
The Chumash also wore very little clothes. If they did wear clothes, the women would wear skirts made from pelts or woven plant material. While the men and children mostly wore nothing, except for wearing animal pelts when it was cold. The Chumash also wore very interesting jewelry made from shells and stones. When the Chumash had some down time, they would play a game that was almost like soccer. They would also gamble and hold foot races from one village to another. There was a most important time of the year, that was very important to the Chumash, and that was called “Day of The New Sun.” This would be attended by people from all over the Chumash nation to a host village, they would arrive by boats and sometimes would arrive on foot. The Chumash would participate in prayers, ceremonies, political discussions and games.
As can be seen in this visual below, the Chumash Languages were separated into the different areas where the different missions were located.
The Obispeno, was the language used by the Chumash in San Luis Obispo mission. The Barbareno language, came from Santa Barbara mission. The Ventureno language, came from the Ventura County mission.
As can be seen in this visual this is the traditional wear that the Chumash would wear during ceremonies. The different parts of the outfits are fur robes, moccasins, headdress, kilts, aprons, and leggings. The Chumash would dance and sing to bring honor, to “Mother Earth” their family members, and sometimes to their dead ancestors.
Unfortunately, in the 1780s the Spanish returned. Over the next few years, the Spanish killed the Chumash in many ways such as stealing their land, forcing them to be part of the mission system, destroying their natural way of life and spreading diseases. The Chumash in 1800, numbered only 2,788 lower than the original amount before the Spanish came of 22,000 Chumash Indians. The Chumash were clearly not treated very well, and unfortunately were killed and disrespected.
In conclusion, the insights that I gained from this research is that my family has such a rich history that needs to be shared. I also gained the insight, that my family gave back so much to the land that they lived on, and to their own families. I’ve learned that I should never take anything for granted, and to be thankful for everything that I have. Learning more about my family has inspired me, to possibly participate in pow-wows and to possibly purchase my own ceremonial wear. I want to honor my family, and my ancestors by participating in things that were important to them. I learned that the Chumash, were a peaceful tribe who rarely tried to engage in war or were always thankful for the Earth and the resources it gives. I also learned, that had the Spanish not barged their way onto my family’s land and decimated their population, that the Chumash would be an even richer and influential tribe than it is today. The final thing that I learned, was that we should not trash the Earth and respect it because we won’t have it one day. It really opened my eyes to see, that my family took great honor in respecting and caring for the Earth. I want to challenge anyone, to find ways to volunteer their time in cleaning up the Earth, or possibly learning more about the Chumash tribe and giving support to all Native American tribes.
- McCall, L. (1998). California’s Chumash Indians. Ez Nature Books.
- Smith-Llera, D. (2016). The Chumash: The Past and Present of California’s Seashell People. North Mankato, MN: Capstone Press, a capstone imprint.
- Gamble, L. (2008). The Chumash World at European Contact: Power, Trade, and Feasting Among Complex Hunter-Gatherers. Berkeley; Los Angeles; London: University of California Press. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/j.ctt1ppr4x
- Gamble, L. (2008). The Environment and Its Management. In the Chumash World at European Contact: Power, Trade, and Feasting Among Complex Hunter-Gatherers (pp. 17-36). Berkeley; Los Angeles; London: University of California Press. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/j.ctt1ppr4x.5
- Coombs, G., & Plog, F. (1977). The Conversion of the Chumash Indians: An Ecological Interpretation. Human Ecology, 5(4), 309-328. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/4602423
- “California Native American Chumash Songs Star Knowledge.” Performance by Anwa Weelanchee, YouTube, EarthStar TV, 25 Mar. 2012, www.youtube.com/watch?v=ehqPnOPH_5I.
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