Long before soccer moms sped along Westlake Boulevard, the real locals--the Chumash--enjoyed an idyllic existence, based on hunting, fishing, trade and hanging out at the beach.
Turning the clock back to that time is the mission of the Chumash Interpretive Center, in the 427-acre Oakbrook Regional Park in Thousand Oaks.
Frank Lemos is the director, assisted by his mother and brother.
Because of all the deer in the area, Lemos calls the center Little S’apwi, which was one of the early Indian villages in the Conejo Valley. “S’apwi means ‘house of the deer,’ ” he said.
The area was once thought to be a regional encampment of the Chumash and thus one of the oldest inhabited sites in the Conejo Valley.
“In the canyon we have evidence of occupation that was most likely a seasonal encampment,” Lemos said. “The evidence is not just in the subsurface materials but in the grinding stones. There are three of these village sites and we also have a ritual site with pictograph art, which is anywhere from 100 to 1,000 years old.
“The problem with this art is that to test its age, you have to destroy part of it. And that’s something Chumash descendants have always wanted to avoid.”
From the parking lot, signs point the way to the interpretive trail.
Within moments, one can forget the world of red lights and traffic jams and be totally alone, walking through a pristine, shady forest of coast live oaks--some of the oldest left in the Conejo Valley.
At the beginning of the trail near the main building are the ceremonial grounds, which are also used for more contemporary events such as a powwow scheduled for Memorial Day weekend.
Not too far off is a lone chimney, a remnant of a cabin inhabited by the Langs, a pioneer ranching family.
Visiting children are taught native games in a nearby field, and a few hundred yards from the parking lot is a sweat lodge where the Chumash would perspire away impurities and scents in order to be more efficient hunters. Still to be built are a shrine area and a cemetery.
The path ends back at the center, a Chumash museum with artifacts, exhibits and drawings that depict all facets of the native people’s lives. When the Spaniards came here, the Chumash were inhabiting about 200 miles of the Southern California coast from Estero Bay to Malibu Canyon, including the Channel Islands. The Chumash were successful sailors, using canoes to get around.
Other exhibits include tools made from stone and bone. There are also examples of some of the local flora, including Indian herbal remedies.
Groups and schools visit the center often, with 9,886 students dropping by last year and even more expected in 2001.
So what can history teach us, particularly our own local history? Understanding where we came from can help us get where we are going.
“We’re a product of the world now,” Lemos said. “One of the most important things we could say about our work here at the center is that having an understanding and awareness of your own history lends to your identity and is a valuable tool to take into the future.
“It’s important to know who you are in this world, and from that point you can do anything in that world, but you have to have that foundation. It’s for the Chumash children that we want to make sure the foundation is set.”
Oakbrook Regional Park Chumash Interpretive Center, 3290 Lang Ranch Parkway; Tuesday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sunday, 10 a.m.-2 p.m.; $5 adults, $3 children, students and seniors; park hours: Monday-Sunday, 7 a.m.-dusk; 492-8076.