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Researcher gave the Chumash a gift: their heritage

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Everyone thought the tall, strange white man was some kind of genius. But to teenage Ernestine De Soto he was a giant pain in the neck, a nosy, "Ichabod Crane-like" character who drew her mother's attention from its rightful place -- on her.

John Peabody Harrington studied De Soto's Chumash family for nearly 50 years, pumping her great-grandmother, her grandmother and her mother for the tiniest details of their lives. Everything fascinated him: the Chumash names of places mostly forgotten, of fish no longer caught -- even, to the family's puzzlement, of private parts never discussed in polite company. A brilliant linguist and anthropologist, Harrington had been just as relentless with countless Indian families throughout the West, but that didn't impress the young Ernestine.

"I was just a brat to him," she said. "He'd never speak to me if he could help it."

Toward the end of his life, Harrington was ravaged by Parkinson's disease, and De Soto's mother spoon-fed the lonely old man. Sometimes De Soto's 5-year-old daughter would tickle his feet. In a few months, he would die, poor and obscure, most of his obsessively collected notes gathering dust in barn lofts and attics. But over time his work would profoundly influence De Soto and many other Native Americans whose heritage was on the verge of vanishing.

"It's due to his madness that we are who we are today," said De Soto, a 71-year-old nurse who works at a Santa Barbara rest home. "We have a language. We have an identity."

Paranoid and secretive, Harrington was a fiercely devoted researcher of California tribes. He had a particular fascination with the Chumash, recording virtually every sound and word of their language, every nuance of their belief system and daily lives. As he did with other Native Americans until his death in 1961, he furiously quizzed De Soto's relatives for days at a time, sometimes recording their recollections on wax cylinders or scratchy aluminum disks.

At her kitchen table, De Soto vividly recalled how annoyed she was by the Smithsonian researcher's constant questions on "everything from the hair on top of your head to how you trim your toenails." Just as vividly, she slips into the voices of long-gone family members, telling stories that, but for Harrington, would have been lost.

From time to time, De Soto stages one-woman presentations portraying female ancestors back to her great-great-great-grandmother Maria Paula, who was born in 1769, the year Spanish explorer Gaspar de Portola trekked up the coast through Santa Barbara.

Her stories start in a Chumash beach village and culminate with the trials of a modern Chumash woman: Ernestine.

Boat-builders and astronomers, the Chumash lived in villages scattered from Malibu to Morro Bay and spoke about eight dialects that are virtually separate languages. Before Spanish colonization, there were as many as 20,000; by the end of the mission system in the 1830s, there were perhaps 3,000. Most died in epidemics.

None of this was of more than passing interest to the young Ernestine. Today, though, she's intensely proud of her lineage in Santa Barbara's Barbareño band of Chumash. She says her DNA is a rare strain of Haplogroup D, a genetic sequence that links her to present-day Ecuadorean tribesmen and a 10,000-year-old human tooth found in an Alaska cave. And, though no full-blood Chumash are thought to survive, De Soto was pleased to be chosen years ago as the model for an early Chumash woman in a diorama at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History.

"As soon as I die, they'll probably throw it in the basement," she joked.

She also stars in the poignant documentary "Six Generations," a museum project produced and directed by filmmaker Paul Goldsmith that traces her roots to the days when Spanish monks established missions along the California coast. Generation after generation, the stories of De Soto's ancestors are punctuated by disaster, displacement and disease.

As De Soto uncovered them, they resonated with her.

By the time she was 24, she had five children and more hard lessons than she could count from a string of abusive men. For a few years, she drifted. At points, she was sick, broke, disowned by her family. Only in her late 30s did she start pulling her life together, taking classes at Santa Barbara City College. For one assignment, she wrote about her family -- for a while, she lived in a small house with 17 relatives -- and a tide of memories surged.

"It evoked feelings that were always there," she recalled. "They were just dormant."

Taken by a teacher to the archive of the Santa Barbara Mission, she met an earnest graduate student named John Johnson. His thesis was on Chumash marriage and family patterns, and he was intensely interested in Mary J. Yee, the last native speaker of Chumash. Yee, who had recently died, was De Soto's mother.

The two became fast friends.

With Johnson at her side, De Soto pored over the mission's records of births, baptisms and deaths. To learn about two of her great-uncles, she dipped into records as far afield as San Quentin. She scoured her memory for the old family stories her mother used to tell. And she dived into the microfilmed field notes of Harrington, her old nemesis.

Yee, the wife of a Chinese vegetable peddler, was a favorite source -- and, later, a close friend -- of Harrington's. And while the eccentric scholar was picking her brain, Yee was inspired to take her own notes, recording family lore and drawing caricatures of her questioner. Her 42 notebooks are in the Santa Barbara museum, and De Soto finds something new each time she delves into them.

"It's like a little girl going into the attic and opening an old trunk, pulling out all these dolls, clothes and old family things," she said. "It's like having a treasure."

There's Yee's prayer in Chumash for her daughter, which has yet to be translated. And there are the ancient tales -- one of which De Soto turned into a children's book, "Sugar Bear," about Chumash generosity to wayfarers.

"She'd tell me stories every night," De Soto said.

"There were old ghost stories. She remembered the taste of acorn mush, and how my great-grandmother would grind acorns, chew them and feed them to her babies like a bird."

Other family memories weren't so gentle.

A devout Catholic, De Soto tries to attend Mass every day. Her refrigerator magnets are religious paintings. But growing up, she heard about a female ancestor who was flogged by a monk for running off from the mission with a Spanish soldier. She knew that at various times, her family fled rather than face mistreatment.

Even so, De Soto worked at the mission's infirmary for six years and developed a deep fondness for the friars.

"I'd joke around with them," she said. "I'd say: I have to leave now. Don't beat me!"

In "Six Generations," she narrates two centuries of mostly melancholy family history.

Great-great-grandmother Maria Ygnacia shares her home with local paisanos who return to rob her and her blind husband and rape their daughter. "This is how they repaid the favor of being allowed to live here," De Soto says in the film, portraying Maria in a solemn monotone.

Great-grandmother Luisa Ygnacio sees her husband, a violin player for the mission's orchestra, complain of cramps and, in the space of a morning, drop dead of cholera. Her second husband is stabbed to death in a Los Angeles saloon, and a third is found facedown in a creek, apparently killed by bandits. A 4-year-old son, one of her 15 children, dies of a rattlesnake bite.

The stories roll on, most of them sad but not unusual for the time, the place and the people. De Soto's mother, who spoke only a Chumash dialect until she was 12, had never seen a camera and bolted in terror from a class photograph, figuring she was about to be gunned down. Lacking toys, she played with a dead owl until her parents burned the rotting carcass.

Some of the stories are verified in old newspaper accounts and mission records. Many came straight from Harrington's notes: Delirious from a fever, Maria Juana as a young girl dreamed of marrying a wot -- a chief -- years before she actually did so. As she lay dying, Maria Ygnacia sent her daughter-in-law to gather spring clover for a last meal.

Such details would be poignant in any family, but for De Soto they are especially so because her people came so close to extinction.

Other Native American families feel the same way.

Her old friend Johnson, now curator of anthropology at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, said that over his career he has received inquiries from more than 1,000 people eager to trace their roots.

Some, he said, hope to receive federal benefits or revenues from groups with casinos, like the Santa Ynez band of Chumash. Many are driven by more profound forces.

"I've had people just weep with the realization that they've been able to identify their ancestors," said Johnson, who has sometimes been criticized as a know-nothing outsider when a search comes up dry.

"It's emotionally overwhelming. We can show them that their great-grandparents worked with John Harrington and that the stories they heard from some great-aunt are real. It's validating for them," he said.

For De Soto, it's the kind of knowledge that has helped her deal with tough circumstances.

The mother of five grown children has seen her family raked by mental illness, alcoholism and drug abuse. She has a congenital heart condition and a respiratory ailment. She doesn't think retirement is in the cards.

"But we're hard-grit survivors," she said. "What I have -- it's a legacy you can't put a dollar value on."

steve.chawkins@latimes.com

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