Satwiwa Ranch House in Newbury Park Honors Chumash Lore and Land

Morgan is a Times desk assistant.

Art Alvitre remembers the June night when he spotted two shooting stars--the first one falling from the north and moments later, another from the west.

That same night his wife gave birth to a daughter in their home, which also functions as the Satwiwa Cultural Center, in Newbury Park. He named the child Weshoyot. The name means "two stars" in Alvitre's native language, Tongva.

"It was a very magical night. Coyotes came down from the hills and howled. Like a welcome." Alvitre said Weshoyot, the couple's second daughter, was the first Native American born at Satwiwa in more than 150 years.

Satwiwa is Chumash for the bluffs or higher places.

Mountain Behind Center

By strict definition, the name Satwiwa is the mountain--also known as Boney Mountain--which is directly behind the center and looks out toward the ocean, eight miles to the west. But generally, Satwiwa is used in a looser fashion to describe the area sandwiched between Point Mugu National Park and Rancho Sierra Vista. Its boundaries were created four years ago by the National Park Service to include 80 acres of trails and wilderness.

Before the Spanish arrived, the area was a trading center for Chumash and other local tribes such as the Tongva that lived throughout Southern California, including the Channel Islands.

The actual center is little more than an old ranch house transported from Ventura. Alvitre's family--his wife Sheena, 12-year-old Winona and 3-year-old Weshoyot--live in two bedrooms.

Sheena, a free-lance commercial artist who was born in a small town outside London, has decorated their quarters with her own colorful artwork to offset what Alvitre calls "make-do" furniture. The pair have converted a smaller third room into the center, with displays of native tools, pottery, artwork, photographs of cave paintings and maps of the area.

"This is living history," said Alvitre, who voluntarily supervises the center's grounds. Like his wife, he was a commercial artist until he was selected for the position four years ago.

"You can see this is much more than a museum," he said, looking out the window. In the distance, the mountain of Satwiwa towers like the silhouette of a proud grandfather gazing up at the heavens.

'Someone Like Me'

"I've had tourists ask me: 'Where's the old Indian who runs the center?' When people think of Native Americans, they think of a dead culture. A relic of the past. They don't think of someone like me," he said, twisting his charcoal black ponytail forward. Alvitre is 34.

The Park Service began toying with the idea for a cultural center in 1978. At that time, minority groups were being surveyed about programs and activities they wanted from the parks. But it wasn't until Phil Holmes joined the Satwiwa project in 1980 as its cultural anthropologist that Native Americans were included in that survey.

"It was surprising," Holmes said, "since Los Angeles has the largest urban population of Native Americans of any city in the country. But not unusual. Their interests tend to get skipped over."

What Holmes' research proved was that, more than any other group, Native Americans feel very strongly about the land.

Alvitre's passion for it prompted him to leave his home in Fountain Valley in Orange County to travel throughout Alaska. He arrived at Satwiwa in 1983.

"I live each day by what the Earth tells me. If she says to fast, I fast. We must listen to what's being told."

Learned Father's Ways

Alvitre learned many of his traditional Tongva ways from his father, now retired from the Orange County Sheriff's Department. The two would hunt from Dana Point to the Palos Verdes Peninsula for anything from abalone to wild ducks.

Alvitre has also spent nearly 20 years, beginning as an adolescent, monitoring the construction of housing developments for Native American archeological remains, mostly in Orange County, where his ancestors originated.

But more than anything else, he said, the trails of Satwiwa teach him. There are days he walks alone, listening to the song of the wind. Everything has its message, he said.

Holmes said it was Alvitre's high marks from a majority of local tribal leaders and his eloquence that singled him out from seven other well-qualified contenders for the job as Satwiwa's caretaker.

'Speaks From the Heart'

"Of course, there's the obvious. Art does add authenticity to the center," said Holmes. "But what he really adds is something more. When he speaks, he speaks from the heart."

Alvitre opens the center only on Sundays. Sitting behind a desk piled high with papers, he reads archeological manuscripts and waits for interested hikers. He offers them his knowledge of the area, its trails and animal inhabitants. He describes the land the way it was before the white man: an abundance of water and oak trees, thick with a variety of grasses used for basket weaving.

"I don't think it's always easy for him," Holmes said. "People mean well, but sometimes they can be insensitive or ignorant without realizing it. They can ask very personal questions. Art handles the situation extremely well.

"There are certain subjects Native Americans just don't talk about," he added. "Some things aren't considered appropriate for conversation."

Inappropriate questions, Alvitre said, are commonly about religious practices, anything from spiritual songs and sweat lodges to vision quests.

"I can't encapsulate our ceremonies. They are a way of life," he said.

Inappropriate practices, Holmes said, would include the exhibition of native ceremonial objects and human remains from burial sites.

Bold Experiment

With its emphasis on education through demonstration, the Satwiwa Cultural Center is considered by the Park Service to be a bold experiment. Although success has been slow to arrive, the center has made steady progress. Holmes is amazed at the number of people who return year after year, almost like a family, and estimates that 4,000 people visit the center annually.

But it isn't enough, Holmes added, because Native Americans do not benefit as much as they should from Satwiwa.

"We still need more. The demonstrations are really for non-native peoples," Holmes said. "Powwows haven't been practiced since 1984," he said, explaining that in that year insurance rates for the spiritual ceremonies skyrocketed to well over $3,000.

A new center is being planned. Construction on the $100,000 building, designed by UCLA's Graduate School of Architecture and Urban Planning, will begin sometime next year. Other plans include more lectures and demonstrations. Holmes hopes that Alvitre will be able to be paid for his work, and that eventually the center will be able to add other Native Americans to its staff.

But for the time being, Alvitre works odd jobs--construction, painting and some commercial art work--to support his family.

"This isn't about money. I do this because I have to," Alvitre said. "Because now is the time to educate. Everyone must learn what my people have known since the beginning--to care for this Earth. Or someday, it will be gone."

The Satwiwa Culture Center , at Potrero and Pinehill roads in Newbury Park , will offer a daylong program Oct. 24, beginning at 9:30 a.m. Alvitre will lead a walk and lecture on the area's wildlife. Joe Rivera, the director of The Home of Winds cultural center in Perris, will give a presentation on "The Contributions of Native Americans to the U.S. Constitution."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World