Land of the Chumash, Past and Present

When Chumash leader Charlie Tiq Slo’w Cooke walks the trails of the Santa Monica Mountains, he walks where his ancestors walked thousands of years before him. He knows which plants nourish, which plants poison and which make good medicine.

He knows the habits of birds and animals, the changes the seasons bring, the ceremonies that kept--and still keep--his people bonded to the earth.

Cooke shares his people’s lore and legends with Southern Californians during his monthly guided tours at the Native American Indian Culture Center at Rancho Sierra Vista/Satwiwa on the Conejo Valley side of the Santa Monica Mountains.


“This is a special area, close to Mother Earth,” Cooke says. “It has everything the Chumash need--for food and for the spirit.”

On his guided walks, Cooke shows how the Chumash ate the delectable purple pears from the prickly pear cactus without getting a mouth full of thorns. He explains how acorns were gathered, leached, ground into mush and prepared for cooking.

He points out the seeds, roots, bulbs, berries and black walnuts that made up the Chumash diet. Birds, deer and squirrels were caught year round. Fish and shellfish from Mugu Lagoon and from the Santa Barbara Channel also provided a major food source.

When Cooke points out what grows on this gentle land, many people on his tours get the impression that Southern California is, or at least was, an Eden.

It was this abundant food supply that helped the Chumash become the largest Indian tribal group in California at the time of Cabrillo’s arrival in 1542. Chumash territory ranged from Topanga Canyon near the east end of the Santa Monica Mountains, all the way up the coast to San Luis Obispo, and out to the Channel Islands.

“A lot of visitors are really surprised to learn of the extent of Chumash settlement,” Cooke says. “And they’re even more surprised to meet a living Chumash. But it shouldn’t be so surprising. California has 45 tribes, and more Indians living here than in any other state. We have about 6,000 Chumash people in Southern California.”

Phil Holmes, a cultural anthropologist for the National Park Service, agrees. “Visitors really are surprised to be greeted by a living Chumash and learn they’re not just museum relics,” he says.

Holmes says the reason the National Park Service prefers to call Satwiwa a “cultural center” rather than a museum is to keep the emphasis on living American Indians.

The park service also decided not to interpret the 1 1/2-mile loop path through Satwiwa with plant identification plaques, brochures and exhibits “so Charlie Cooke and the Chumash would have room for spontaneity, could explain the land and their beliefs in their own way.”

Cooke’s walks are far more than botany lessons, or an explanation of the basic food groups, Chumash style. He adds what he calls “a spiritual dimension.”

Often his walks begin with the Sage Ceremony during which white sage is burned. Only white sage--as opposed to black sage or hummingbird sage, which also grow in the Santa Monica Mountains--is used. The white symbolizes purity; the smoke is a kind of cleansing. The burning of this aromatic shrub long has been a traditional Chumash way of beginning important gatherings.

On his walks, Cooke points out nearby Boney Mountain--a series of sheer cliffs and high peaks, including 3,111-foot Sandstone Peak, the highest one in the Santa Monica Mountains. Indian shamans gathered some of their power from Boney Mountain, long considered-- still considered--by the Chumash to be a sanctuary.

But what is sacred to the Chumash has rarely been considered so by the landowners who displaced these first Southern Californians. For example:

* Diablo Canyon, for 9,000 years the hunting grounds of the Chumash, is the site of a nuclear power plant.

* In Chumash legend, Point Conception is known as the “Western Gate.” Indians believed that all land visible from the point is sacred, and disaster will befall anyone who disturbs the land. A natural gas/oil processing facility is under construction south of Point Conception, and Hollister Ranch, which occupies 10 miles of coast, prohibits visitation of the point.

* Dozens of Chumash village and worship sites along the Santa Barbara, Ventura, and Los Angeles county coasts, as well as throughout the Santa Monica Mountains, have been bulldozed into oblivion.

“But once in a while we win one from the big money and the politicians,” Cooke says. “Hundreds of homes, a huge subdivision, was slated for Satwiwa, but it was one of the first properties acquired by the National Park Service.”

Cooke works with municipal governments, the California Department of Parks and Recreation and the National Park Service to preserve Chumash cultural sites, and is trying to raise money for an interpretive center. But when he’s leading a walk along Satwiwa trail, it’s not land-use politics that he emphasizes, but what he calls “our connection to Mother Earth.”

“Maybe we didn’t leave behind any pyramids or huge temples, but we had many sacred areas--caves and solstice observation sites, and even the land itself,” says Cooke. “There’s a spirit out here that’s very special.”

Charlie Cooke’s next guided walk through Rancho Sierra Vista/Satwiwa, titled “A Walk With a Chumash,” will take place March 18, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. The walk is free.

For more information about Cooke’s walk and Satwiwa’s programs, call the new National Park Service Information Center in Agoura Hills, (818) 597-9192.

To get to Rancho Sierra Vista/Satwiwa, take the Ventura Freeway (101) to Wendy Drive in Newbury Park. Go south on Wendy Drive to Potrero Road. Turn west (right) onto Potrero Road. Entrance to the park is at the intersection of Potrero Road and Pinehill Road. Parking is free.