Songs, Prayers Mark Long-Awaited Opening of Chumash Center


Walking slowly and reverently, they fanned burning sage as the smoke wafted across the small clearing. They chanted a welcoming song and offered a prayer. A hawk swooped low and gracefully just over the heads of those present.

Then the ribbon was cut and it was official: The Oakbrook Regional Park Chumash Interpretive Center, first conceived nearly eight years ago, on Saturday at last opened its doors to the public.

“This is a vision that has finally come true for this area,” said Leo Valenzuela, who is of Chumash ancestry and leads the board of the Oakbrook Park Chumash Indian Corp., as he spoke to about 250 people assembled for the center’s grand opening.


Nestled in a grove of majestic oak trees, the semi-circular concrete building is hardly a stone’s throw from a phalanx of new homes being erected atop freshly graded hillsides.

And though the center is made of concrete, the $1.7-million, 5,000-square-foot structure meshes well with the surroundings at the park, which is at the eastern end of Thousand Oaks.

For the Chumash, a Native American tribe that once widely populated portions of what are now Central and Southern California, it was a day dedicated to their ancestors. But all were invited to share in it.

“This is wonderful for the Chumash people,” said Ruth Maxwell, a Thousand Oaks resident for more than 30 years. “It’s really a rallying point for them.”

For Paul Varela, who traces his Chumash ancestry back 10 generations, the day was a triumph. He quit his job in the electronics industry to oversee the completion of the center, of which he is now executive director. He and his wife, Karen, and their 15-year-old son live in the caretaker’s quarters on the grounds.

“Just by being here, you’re showing your support for what we’re doing,” said Varela, 39, as he addressed the audience, his voice at times quavering with emotion.


With the ribbon cut, people streamed inside the center’s main gallery to view artifacts--both original and replicas--of Chumash life and culture. Display cabinets held baskets, jewelry, stone tools, carved bones and a headdress used in ceremonies. Accompanying the displays were explanatory notes.

Hung on the wall in the gallery were paintings depicting the Chumash in parts of the county as they lived before European settlers arrived hundreds of years ago. The region’s current names are familiar--Point Mugu, Ojai and Newbury Park--but the old Chumash way of life is long since vanished.

The mood at the opening ceremonies was alternately ebullient and somber, a mixture of relief and awe that the center has been realized. “It’s a wonderful feeling,” Lemos said. “But sad at the same time because I wish we had this a lot sooner. It’s a beginning, of sorts, for us.”

The center will offer programs at its outdoor amphitheater and should soon have a replica of a Chumash village. The relocated Raptor Rehabilitation and Release program will also be on the grounds and has already leased 20 acres. Hawks, an owl, a raccoon, an opossum and a timber wolf are kept throughout the grounds.

And while the ancient Chumash way of life has vanished, the Chumash themselves have not, said Carmelita Lemos, a Ventura resident of Chumash ancestry. “We’re trying to make the public aware that we’re still here, and not remnants of a vanishing tribe.”