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At Home With Culture of the Chumash : Native Americans: Husband, wife, son and cousin pitch in to keep a living museum running for hundreds of weekly visitors.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When James Varela moved to Thousand Oaks a year ago, his new friends couldn’t believe their luck.

Fifteen-year-old James had a seemingly endless back yard, complete with a private swimming hole, secret cave paintings and miles of dusty trails perfect for rugged mountain bike adventures.

Even harder for them to fathom was that the fair-skinned, blue-eyed boy lived in such a spectacular place because he is Chumash.

“Nobody has ever believed it,” James said with a shrug. “But now they see that I’m living here, so maybe they won’t think I’m just making it up.”

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James’ home is part of the Chumash Interpretive Center, a sort of living museum run by his father, Paul, who traces his Native American heritage back 10 generations.

Technically, Paul Varela is the only paid employee at the nonprofit center. But the whole family pitches in to keep the place up and running for the hundreds of visitors who pass through each week.

James’ mother, Karen, keeps the books and answers the phones. And on weekends James leads nature walks through the 438-acre property, along with his cousin, 14-year-old Marc Pena, who lives with the Varelas in a tiny apartment at the center.

They take visitors to see the old Chumash pictographs painted in remote caves. And they point out the sage plants, used in Chumash religious rites, and the old oak trees the Chumash once depended on for food and shelter.

For the most part, James enjoys living at the center. The family passes many nights around a campfire, gazing at the stars and listening to coyotes.

His one lament: It’s not as easy to get out and see friends as it was in his old south Oxnard neighborhood.

“Sometimes I just want to get away from my parents,” he said. “I can’t drive yet. It’s hard to get out of here.”

But for Paul and Karen Varela, the center is the ideal place to raise their son. Karen Varela, who passed her freckled Irish skin and red hair on to James, said she is glad that he is learning about his ancestors.

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“The Irish are a very clannish people,” she said. “I know where I come from and how it shapes who I am. I think that is very important, especially when you’re young and you’re trying to figure out who you are.”

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Paul Varela agreed, saying he hoped living at the center would give James a leg up in understanding his heritage.

“When I was growing up, we knew we were Indian, but we didn’t have the same level of awareness,” said Paul Varela. “I am just really grateful we have the chance to live in a place like this, where our culture is all around us.”

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The $1.7-million center, funded by the county, was opened to the public in March in an area believed by archeologists to be a former Chumash village.

It is located down a winding road near Lang Ranch, in a one-story concrete building that curves around a center courtyard. In addition to the museum, the center also houses a library, gift shop, amphitheater and the Varela home.

On a recent evening, after sweeping the museum floors and picking up trash on the grounds, the family retired to the living quarters to dine on hot dogs in front of the large color television. All eyes were riveted to the screen as Diane Sawyer interviewed Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley, brought to their living room via the satellite dish out back.

Next to the television, a small black-and-white monitor flashed images from surveillance cameras around the property. There has not been much trouble with trespassers--just a few teen-agers out for some late-night beer drinking.

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Still, Karen Varela felt a little unsafe in moving from a bustling neighborhood to the remote spot. So Paul Varela took the family to a rifle range and taught everyone to shoot. He keeps a rifle at the house for protection.

Living at the museum has been an adjustment, Karen Varela said. Their home in Oxnard was twice as big, with ample storage space and a covered patio.

Now the family makes do with two cramped bedrooms, a tiny kitchen and a small living and dining area that also serves as Karen Varela’s office.

The boys’ bedroom is barely large enough for James’ single bed, with a trundle tucked underneath for Marc. Posters of James’ hero, basketball superstar Shaquille O’Neal, cover the walls, including a nearly life-size cutout of Shaq himself.

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“I have one more poster I want to get, and it’s going right there,” James said, pointing to the only unadorned spot--the ceiling.

Marc rolled his eyes. “That’s one thing about this place,” he said. “It’s hard to share a room.”

Marc’s family lives in the same south Oxnard neighborhood the Varelas left behind when they came to the center. Just about the time the Varelas were moving, Marc’s parents became alarmed at the efforts of a local gang to recruit their son. When the Varelas suggested that Marc leave the neighborhood to live with them for a while, the Penas gratefully agreed. Marc sees his parents often, frequently spending weekends and vacations with them.

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The sports posters in the Varela home stop at the boys’ bedroom door. Beyond it, Native American paintings cover the walls, and a map over the dining table charts tribes throughout California.

The Irish side of the family gets some recognition as well. An Irish coat of arms hangs in the master bedroom, and Karen Varela proudly displays her antique silverware, handed down from one generation to the next.

“We are not ones to forget where we came from,” she said. “That’s why we’re here.”

Moving into a smaller home was not the only sacrifice the family made when they came to the center. Before, Paul Varela was a computer technician and Karen worked as a preschool teacher. Now they rely entirely on the center for their income, about $1,700 a month--a third of what they made before, Karen Varela said.

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“We’re hoping that once we get a little more established, we may be able to get some corporate sponsorship,” she said. “For now, things are pretty tight.”

For the Varelas, the sacrifices are worth the chance to instill in James and Marc a sense of pride in their ancestry.

“Nobody speaks the language,” Paul Varela said. “The religion is wiped out. All we have left is the family.”

A few years back, when James brought home a school assignment to build a model of a Spanish California mission, his parents were less than thrilled. Many Chumash view the missions as destructive places where Native Americans were enslaved and stripped of their language and their culture.

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The next day, James arrived at school with a cake, decorated to look like a mission. When his turn came to present his project, he pulled out a knife and chopped up his creation, inviting his classmates to join him in devouring it.

“I guess that showed them what we think about the missions,” Paul Varela said.

“Dad is very concerned that people know the truth about the Indians,” James said. Indeed, Paul Varela is encouraging his son to pursue a career in anthropology or archeology, so he can continue to piece together the history of the Chumash.

As the story about the mission cake ends, Marc mumbles something to James about “showing him the Indian.”

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James, who hopes to try out for the Westlake High School football team in the fall, reluctantly handed his father a photograph of the team mascot--a fat, grimacing Indian.

Paul Varela stared at the image in silence, shaking his head. “Look at how big his nose is,” he said. “We’re going to have to do something about this.”

James sighed.

“That’s why he didn’t want to show him,” Marc explained. “He knew he’d want to do something about it.”

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Paul Varela came to his own defense. “If we don’t do anything, who will? It’s our responsibility to teach awareness about these things.”

The center does seem to be building awareness--even among those of Chumash descent. It is fast becoming the gathering site for Chumash from throughout Ventura County and as far away as Bakersfield and San Diego. On the first Saturday of each month, many of them gather at the center for a day of ceremonies, dancing and discussion.

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Among those who came together on a recent Saturday were aunts, nephews, cousins, grandmothers--everyone seemed to be related to the Varelas. But in many cases such appellations are more likely expressions of affection than proof of blood bonds, Varela said.

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“We look at the idea of family in a different way than other people,” Varela said. “For us, our common heritage draws us together.”

Just how many Chumash exist today is unclear. The 1990 U.S. census reports a total of 3,200 Chumash nationwide, including about 400 each in Ventura and Los Angeles counties and another 350 on a Santa Ynez reservation in Santa Barbara County.

But John Johnson, curator of the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, said those figures are low. Johnson has spent 20 years researching Chumash history. Over the years he has compiled a database of more than 20,000 Chumash Indians. He is often sought by those trying to puzzle out their genealogy.

Johnson puts the number of Chumash in Southern California alone at about 4,000 people.

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“This is something that continues to evolve as people become more interested in tracing their heritage,” he said. “I get several calls a week.”

One of those he helped was Beverly Folkes, a cousin of Paul Varela who traces her ancestry back to the Chumash village of Tapo in Simi Valley. Her grandfather was the last Native American to live at the San Fernando Mission, and she believes another relative once held the land grant for 4,460 acres in what is now Encino.

Folkes, who lives in Thousand Oaks and works as a bank clerk, volunteers as an interpretive guide at the center.

“I’ll tell the children I’m Chumash, and they go, ‘Oh, do you live in the woods and make flour out of acorns?’ ” Folkes said. “And I’ll say ‘No, I’m not that kind of Chumash.’ ”

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Folkes spends much of her spare time at the center. She serves on the board of directors and is helping launch an effort to gain federal recognition for the tribe. That status would open the door to the sorts of government benefits other tribes enjoy, including land rights, subsidies and grants.

At each monthly gathering, she and Varela hope to make a little progress with the application, which will likely take years to complete.

On this sunny Saturday, many of the guests socialized and picnicked on grilled chicken and steak, waiting for the much-touted performance of Frankie Flores, Paul Varela’s 19-year-old cousin.

Sprawled on the floor behind a white cloth screen inside the center, Flores rushed to assemble his dancing costume.

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“So what should I do?” Flores asked his uncle, Michael Contreras. Looking up from his work threading beads for his nephew’s costume, Contreras quickly responded. “Crow hop, sneak-up,” he said.

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Flores is part Chumash and part Apache, but the dance that day would emulate the Sioux style.

“There are certain ideas about spirituality that you can find in many different Indian traditions,” he said. “I look for the common themes, and then I put the ones I like into my routine.”

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Then Flores donned his costume of feathers, leather and beads and marched outside to begin his performance, in the shade of an old oak tree.

Tapping his moccasined feet in time to the taped drum music, he stomped and swayed, gazing upward to the heavens, then down to the ground. After a few minutes he reached into the crowd and grabbed Folkes’ hand.

Slowly they shuffled around the old oak. Then Paul, Karen and James Varela joined in. Boom, boom, boom went the drums, as the dancers moved in unison.

“Come on,” they shouted, inviting others into the dance. And dance they did, leaving half-eaten drumsticks and potato salad, jumping out of lawn chairs, breaking off conversations.

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Soon the dancers stretched half way around the oak, and their impromptu stomping took on a new urgency: The circle must be completed.

Children left their games and danced. An elderly woman limped to the circle and was welcomed with cheers. As the gap narrowed, the pace quickened to skips and hops, and a few more observers rushed to join in.

Then, just as the music reached a crescendo, the final hands were linked and the circle completed. Whoops and applause erupted from the group.

Breathing hard, beads of sweat gathering on her forehead, Folkes collapsed in a shady spot. “Our first circle,” she said. “What a wonderful family!”

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