Archeologists believe that when Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo discovered Southern California for Spain in 1542, there were more than 20,000 American Indians living in the area. And there is evidence that people lived here for at least 10,000 years.
When the Spaniards arrived, they found that the two largest Indian groups in today’s Los Angeles area--the Chumash and Gabrielino--were accomplished artists and skilled craftsmen, adept at making a living from the sea and land. Food was so abundant they did not need to farm. They lived in large villages with a hierarchy of rulers and a division of labor among skilled artisans.
Some created finely woven baskets and carved bowls. Others made shell beads for jewelry and money. Carpenters built large canoes from wooden planks for deep-sea fishing and travel to the Channel Islands. Religious leaders painted or carved intricate designs on rocks as part of a rich ceremonial life.
During the 17th and 18th centuries, many Indians died of European diseases and from the shock of being relocated from their tribal lands to the missions, where they worked as laborers. With these changes, a vital cultural legacy of several thousand years was forever altered, but not completely lost.
How can you learn more about these first Californians? There are dozens of places to look. What follows is a list of some of the best.
1) VISIT AN INDIAN MUSEUM
There are more than 30 museums in Southern California with exhibits of artifacts made by local native groups. Among the most complete are:
* SOUTHWEST MUSEUM, 234 Museum Drive, Los Angeles, (213) 221-2163
Four main exhibit halls spotlight North America’s earliest inhabitants. Highlights in the “People of California” exhibit include a replica of a cave painted with Chumash rock art, an acorn granary with a display of mortars used for grinding acorn flour, and a basket collection. Open Tuesday-Sunday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Adults, $3; seniors and students, $1.50; ages 7-18, $1; under 7, free.
* SANTA BARBARA MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY, 2559 Puesta del Sol Road, Santa Barbara, (805) 682-4711.
The museum’s “Indian Hall” displays an unrivaled collection of Chumash artifacts. In the museum’s Fleischmann Auditorium, look for the replica of a tomol , a Chumash wood-plank canoe. Open daily 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Sundays and holidays from 10 a.m. Free.
2) ATTEND AN AMERICAN INDIAN FESTIVAL
Several museums present powwows or Indian fiestas in Southern California, including two annual festivals:
* AMERICAN INDIAN FESTIVAL, Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, (213) 744-3414. March 23-25.
Indians from the Southwestern United States, including California, perform dances, demonstrate artistic skills and sell their wares at this three-day festival. Adults, $3; ages 13-17 and seniors, $1; ages 5-12, 75 cents; under 5, free.
* MALKI MUSEUM ANNUAL FIESTA AND BARBECUE, Morongo Indian Reservation, 11-795 Fields Road, Banning, (714) 849-7289. May 27.
Cahuilla Bird Dancers, Sherman Indian Museum Hoop Dancers, and dancers or storytellers from other California Indian groups perform throughout the day. Free.
3) TAKE A CLASS
Universities, community colleges and museums offer courses and lectures on California Indian subjects ranging from rock art and mythology to basketry-making techniques. Among them:
* UCLA EXTENSION, Los Angeles, (213) 825-9971.
* VENTURA COUNTY MUSEUM OF HISTORY AND ART, 100 E. Main St., Ventura, (805) 653-0323.
4) GO TO A MISSION
Local Indians built and lived at California missions between 1770 and 1830. Two missions that tell the story of the Indians best are:
* LA PURISIMA MISSION STATE HISTORICAL PARK, 12 miles west of Buellton on Highway 246, Lompoc, (805) 733-3713.
The only California mission run by the state, La Purisima was restored to its 1800s splendor by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. The mission takes visitors back to the old days because of its isolation and the fact that all its buildings, not just the church, were reconstructed. Weaving rooms, kitchens with Indian grinding stones resting on dirt floors, and cow hides tanning in the sun recreate those early times. Open daily, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Adults, $1; ages 6-17, 50 cents; under 6 free.
* MISSION SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO, at Camino Capistrano and Ortega Highway (74), San Juan Capistrano, (714) 493-1111.
Visit the American Indian area on the mission grounds to see a replica of an Indian shelter and grinding stones used to make acorn flour. An adjacent museum displays Indian artifacts discovered during excavations at the mission. Open daily, 7:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Adults, $2; children under 11, $1.
5) VISIT AN ARCHEOLOGICAL SITE
Few archeological sites have survived in Southern California. The ruins at San Juan Capistrano Mission are one exception. Another dig site you can visit is:
* ALBINGER ARCHEOLOGICAL MUSEUM, 113 E. Main St., Ventura, (805) 648-5823.
An extensive excavation during 1974-75 uncovered artifacts dating back 3,500 years. Archeologists found a particularly large number of objects from the Chumash village of Mitz-kana-kan, which occupied the site for more than 1,000 years. Remains from this Indian occupation are on display at the adjacent museum, along with artifacts from Spanish, Mexican, Chinese and Analo pioneers who lived in the area. Open Tuesday-Sunday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Free.
6) TAKE A GUIDED HIKE
Many natural areas offer docent-led hikes to help visitors understand how early inhabitants lived off the land. Some of the best:
* SANTA MONICA MOUNTAINS NATIONAL RECREATION AREA, National Park Service Visitor Information Center, 30401 Agoura Road, Suite 102, Agoura Hills, (818) 597-9192.
A group of more than 30 parks stretches across the Santa Monica Mountains from Franklin Canyon Ranch in Beverly Hills to Point Mugu State Park north of Malibu. Many of the parks offer hikes led by docents or rangers who teach participants about the area’s Indians and and their use of the land. Call for a schedule of hikes.
* DESERT STUDIES CENTER, Soda Springs. From Interstate 15, take the Zzyzx Road off-ramp near Baker, (619) 256-3591.
Take a guided tour of ancient Indian sites to learn how Indians lived in the desert. Sponsored by the Desert Studies Consortium and the Bureau of Land Management, tours are conducted from October-April on most weekends at 10 a.m., noon, and 2 p.m. Per person, $2; family, $5.
7) SEE INDIAN ART
Many California Indian tribes left behind paintings (pictographs) and carvings (petroglyphs) on rocks. Because much of this exquisite rock art has been destroyed by vandals, remaining sites are protected. One site can be seen on the tour at the Desert Studies Center. Another site you can visit is:
* PAINTED CAVE STATE HISTORIC PARK, San Marcos Pass.
This sandstone shelter contains a spectacular Chumash polychrome painting. The age of the complicated designs are not known, although one theory suggests the painting may have been made at the time of a solar eclipse in 1677.
To reach the cave, drive north from U.S. Highway 101 on San Marcos Pass Road (Highway 154) 6 miles to Painted Cave Road; turn right to a shady canyon with a sign pointing to the cave.
8) SAIL TO AN ISLAND
CHANNEL ISLANDS NATIONAL PARK, Visitor Center, 1901 Spinnaker Drive, Ventura, (805) 644-8262.
Five islands in the Santa Barbara Channel--Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, San Miguel and Santa Barbara--were once home for seafaring Chumash who lived on these islands and regularly crossed the channel in their canoes. Stop by the mainland Visitor Center to see a display of Chumash artifacts, pleasantly labeled “Please touch.” Open daily, 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Free.
* ISLAND PACKERS, the transportation concession for the park, offers daily boat excursions to the islands. The two best islands for learning about Indian life are Anacapa and Santa Cruz. Nature Conservancy guides describe life on the Islands before European contact.
Island Packers, 1867 Spinnaker Drive, Ventura, (805) 642-1393. Reservations required for island tours. Day trips to Anacapa and Santa Cruz islands: Adults, $34 and $39; ages 3-12, $18 and $29; under 2, free.
9) VISIT AN INDIAN PARK
SATWIWA NATIVE AMERICAN INDIAN NATURAL AREA, Rancho Sierra Vista/Satwiwa, at Potrero Road and Pinehill Road, Newbury Park, (818) 597-9192.
Located in foothills inhabited by the Chumash Indians for perhaps 2,000 years, Satwiwa Native American Indian Natural Area sits on a grassy plain below Boney Mountain, a peak sacred to the tribe.
The Indian Natural Area is open daily. The cultural center is open Sundays, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Free.
* INDIAN CANYONS, at south end of South Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs, (619) 325-5673.
Andreas Canyon, Murray Canyon and Palm Canyon are desert oases, once tribal home sites for the Agua Caliente Cahuilla Indians. Today you can pack a picnic and hike or ride on horseback along ancient canyon trails. Under majestic palms and along running streams, you’ll spot Indian house pits, irrigation ditches, food processing areas and petroglyphs. Open daily, September-May, 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Adults, $3; seniors, $2; children, 75 cents.
10) READ A BOOK
You’ll find books about Southern California Indians at the museums mentioned above and at some bookstores. Three readily available books are:
* HANDBOOK OF THE INDIANS OF CALIFORNIA, A.L. Kroeber, Dover Publications, New York.
* CALIFORNIA’S CHUMASH INDIANS, McCall and Perry, Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, Santa Barbara.
* ISLAND OF THE BLUE DOLPHINS, Scott O’Dell, Dell Publishing Co., New York. (fiction).