Connie Diaz remembers the day her daughter came home from school, angry after a lesson about the Chumash Indians.
“They were teaching her things like, ‘When the Chumash were here, they liked to fish and eat venison,’ ” said Diaz, a Ventura County resident who is part Chumash.
“My daughter said, ‘Mom, I just had to let them know that we’re still here. They always talk about us as if we don’t exist anymore.’ ”
That was a few years ago--before the start of a “Chumash renaissance” in Ventura County--a time when the Chumash were treated as practically extinct, like the California condors that used to soar over their lands.
In some respects, the Chumash have practically vanished. Scarcely 200 years ago, when the Spanish missionaries arrived, as many as 20,000 Chumash inhabited the coast between Malibu and San Luis Obispo. The Europeans brought new diseases for which the Chumash had no immunity. By the mid-1800s, there were fewer than 1,000 Chumash, anthropologists say.
Today, they say, there is not one pure-blooded Chumash left.
But there are an estimated 4,000 people of Chumash descent living in the region, most of them in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. The vast majority have only a little Chumash blood, but three are three-quarters Chumash and several are half Chumash.
Through intermarriage, mostly with people of Mexican descent, the Chumash have been assimilated into the American melting pot, according to John Johnson, curator of anthropology at Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History.
As they have struggled to discover their origins and assert their presence in recent years, they have had to overcome a number of obstacles, some stemming from ancient times.
Historians say the Chumash never had the strong tribal organization and geographical isolation that helped larger Indian nations such as the Navajo maintain their identities. The Chumash were linked primarily by a common language, and by 1923 only a dozen people spoke it. The last person to speak the Chumash language died in 1965.
“There’s no continuum from ancient times to the present,” said Michael Ward, who has worked on Chumash cultural programs for various government agencies. “Chumash culture was interrupted by the Mission Period, Latino culture and, more recently, by Anglo culture.
“It hasn’t been acceptable until the past 20 years to be Chumash. All over you’ll find Indian people who would rather say they’re Mexican. . . . It’s the pressure of trying to fit in with the dominant culture.”
For many Chumash today, pressures of daily life also get in the way of cultural fulfillment, social workers say.
Bruce Stenslie, deputy director of the Candelaria American Indian Council in Oxnard, said unemployment, homelessness and broken families tend to occur more frequently among the Chumash and other American Indians than in the population at large.
Despite the obstacles, many Chumash have taken to learning more about their heritage and culture, and some are sharing it with the public through folklore, songs, dances and art.
For example, Ernestine McGovran, a Santa Paula nurse whose mother was the last Chumash to speak the language, tells Chumash stories and demonstrates basketry arts. Vincent Tumamait, who is three-quarters Chumash, talks about his ancestors and sings Chumash songs to school groups. Tony Romero, who lives at the Chumash Reservation in Santa Barbara County, and other Chumash descendants demonstrate dances with a group called the Dolphin Dancers.
They and other Chumash take part in well-attended programs sponsored by the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, several municipal park departments, the Santa Barbara museum and the Ventura County Museum of History and Art. Almost every school district in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties includes studies of the Chumash.
Ironically, considering the white man’s role in the disappearance of Chumash culture, most of what the modern-day Chumash people know about themselves has been uncovered by white researchers.
McGovran was taught Chumash basketry by Pat Campbell, an expert on Chumash arts who was formerly affiliated with the Santa Barbara museum. Tumamait learned Chumash songs from recordings that a white anthropologist made for the Ventura museum. Romero learned Chumash dances through the museum in Santa Barbara.
“There is an ongoing Chumash renaissance,” Ward said. “The biggest problem is too many white people, including myself--too many white authors, writers, artists, anthropologists, storytellers.”
For most Chumash, he said, “There just isn’t the time to devote to public presentations.”
But there is a demand, especially among non-Indians.
“The public is fascinated,” said Kathi Conti, director of Chumash arts at the Santa Barbara museum. “They’re starved for it.”
As sometimes happens in the white man’s system, demand for the Chumash often exceeds the supply.
Consider this scene last month at the 100-acre Chumash Reservation near Solvang, an example of what one skeptical anthropologist called “New Age Chumash”:
Choy-Slo, a self-described Chumash spiritual leader and keeper of the flame, was receiving visitors between the traditional tents he has built next to his mobile home. Nearby was a rack with various hides, bones, animal feet and dried plants used in religious observances.
Sitting cross-legged on the ground next to the spiritual leader, a woman from Los Angeles said she had come to humbly ask Choy-Slo to dance and give the blessing at an environmental conference she is organizing at Malibu.
After all, she said, Indians were the original environmentalists.
While she had the Indian’s attention, the visitor mentioned a Los Angeles gang project in which she is involved. Perhaps, she said, Choy-Slo could speak to the youths and share some Indian methods of conflict resolution.
With her was a Santa Barbara man who whittled silently while the woman spoke. When his turn came, the man said he was putting together a seminar on alternative fuels. Again citing the Indian-environment connection, he invited Choy-Slo to stop by and say a few words.
The spiritual leader said yes to the first request but was noncommittal toward the others. “We’ll need expenses,” he said, starting down a mental checklist that obviously had been been developed from previous negotiations.
He later said such requests average one per week, far more than he can handle from the remote reservation.
“I don’t even drive,” he said.
Although Choy-Slo and others present themselves as spiritual leaders, experts say very little actually is known about ancient Chumash religious beliefs and practices.
Most Chumash laugh at the “too reverent” way some people approach Indians, said Ward, who has been unofficially adopted by the Tumamait clan and has a long association with the Chumash people.
McGovran agreed that it’s important to keep things in perspective.
“I don’t want to be put on as a circus performer,” she said. “It irritates me if I’m at a party and and someone says, “Tell me a Chumash story.’ ”
Although there seems to be no effort by the Chumash to gain political clout, their increased visibility was reflected in March when Rep. Robert J. Lagomarsino (R-Ventura) and Sierra Club officials, who are seeking to establish a national wilderness in northern Ventura County, asked the tribe to suggest a name for the area. They chose Chumash Wilderness Area, saying it would add to the tribe’s name recognition.
Virtually everyone involved in the revival seems anxious not to resurrect old issues that have divided the Chumash, such as who--if anyone--should speak for the tribe; who should get monitoring jobs at construction sites where Chumash artifacts are found; and the most basic question of all:
Who is a Chumash?
Johnson, who has indexed the files of all five missions where Chumash births, marriages and deaths were recorded, hesitates to discuss such things as percentage of Chumash blood, saying such talk is divisive and potentially racist.
Several years ago, Johnson angered a group known as the United Chumash Council, which controlled most monitoring jobs, by stating that his records showed most of its leaders were not Chumash.
Johnson says the closest to a full-blooded Chumash is Vincent Tumamait and his sisters, Bertha Blanco and Margaret Duarte of Ventura. Not only was their father, Cecilio Tumamait, pure-blooded but their mother, Maria, was half Chumash.
“I’d say there are several thousand people that have some degree of Chumash ancestry,” Johnson said, adding that his best guess is about 4,000. Most of them live in Ventura or Santa Barbara counties, but some also are found in Los Angeles County and the San Luis Obispo area.
Chumash ancestry can be determined through mission records or “judgment rolls"--lists compiled by the government in the 1920s and the 1960s to determine who was entitled to federal compensation for broken treaties.
Connie Diaz has a blue suitcase crammed with such records. Her Chumash connection is the baptismal record for her grandmother, Maria Rafaela Leiba, whose mother is listed as Maria Neofita. Neofita, the Spanish word for “newly baptized,” was the name commonly given to Chumash converts.
Diaz said her mother often talked about her Indian heritage, but Vincent Tumamait said his father never discussed the subject and refused to speak the language.
“One of my sisters asked my father to teach her some of the language,” Tumamait said. “His answer was: ‘Who would you talk to?’ ”
At Shell Oil Co. in Ventura, where Tumamait worked for 30 years, he would list himself on company records as an American Indian or a Mission Indian--a catchall term for various Southern California tribes--but not as a Chumash.
“I didn’t hear that word till a few years back,” Tumamait said, referring to the time in 1984 when Ward approached him about doing some cultural programs through the Ventura Parks and Recreation Department.
That was the start of a process of self-discovery that is still going on, he said.
“It started to build up in me just what our culture was,” he said. “I’m still learning it. . . . The Indian people I meet teach me. I’m a learner.”
He is also a teacher. About three times a month, Tumamait visits schools, civic groups and museums to talk about his ancestors.
“These people are very genuine,” said Conti of the Santa Barbara museum. “They have a beautiful and humble way of presenting themselves. It quiets an audience.”
Last month, Tumamait spoke to nearly 100 fifth-graders from Elmhurst School in Ventura during their three-day campout near Oak View.
“Ha-koo, ha-koo,” he said, greeting the children with the Chumash word for hello. As dusk settled on the valley, he sang a welcome song and told a Chumash folk legend.
Long ago, he said, when most of the Chumash lived in the Channel Islands, some of them wanted to return to the mainland. So Mother Earth built a bridge out of a rainbow, but warned those crossing it not to look down.
Some looked anyway, and plunged into the sea. Not wanting to see the Chumash drown, Mother Earth turned them into dolphins.
“That’s why dolphins are a symbol of the Chumash,” Tumamait said.
Earlier, he winced when he was introduced to the children as a “Chumash Indian chief,” a title he shuns.
“I refer to myself as a Chumash elder,” he said. “In the Ojai area, they recognize me as a leader because of what I’ve been doing.”
Before he spoke, Tumamait was asked why he spends so much time speaking about his people.
“You’re not going to change the American way of life,” he said. “The Indian cultural ways, that’s in the past. But it’s good to re-create it and have Indians get into their culture.”