He claimed Chumash ancestry and raised millions. But experts say he’s not Chumash
On a recent afternoon, Mati Waiya wore a bear bone in his nose and a medicine bag dangled from a strap around his neck. In his hand were two California condor feathers, sacred to the Chumash people who once flourished on the Southern and Central California coasts.
For more than a quarter of a century, Waiya has served as one of the most prominent voices for the Chumash, invoking his ancestors’ ties to the land along the Santa Clara River. His nonprofit Wishtoyo Foundation, which runs an education center in Malibu, has raised more than $12 million since 2015, IRS records show. The foundation also has waged legal battles to protect historically Chumash areas and waterways from pollution and major construction projects.
But leaders of the local Chumash band and academic experts on the tribe’s history and genealogy challenge Waiya’s claims to Chumash roots. Several also have asked whether it is appropriate for him and his family to make money through the foundation and allege he performs ceremonies that mislead the public about Chumash culture and usurps the role of the tribal leadership in Ventura County.
A Times review of census, birth, marriage, death and Roman Catholic Church records dating to the 18th century shows that Waiya’s forebears came from Mexico, where ethnohistorians said there were no Chumash.
In an interview at an old Santa Paula golf course that his foundation has bought to create a Chumash cultural conservancy, Waiya said he had a documented family genealogy that shows he is of Chumash descent, but he declined to share it with The Times.
“We know where we come from,” Waiya said, gesturing to the Topatopa Mountains.
Questionable claims to Native American ancestry have become common in recent decades, infuriating tribes who complain that their culture is often appropriated for financial gain.
A Times investigation this year found that more than $300 million in contracts reserved by local, state and federal government agencies for minorities across the country instead went to contractors who made unsubstantiated claims to being Cherokee Indians. The contractors were members of unrecognized groups that federally recognized tribes say are illegitimate. A review of genealogy records dating to the 19th century found that the contractors’ ancestors were white.
The controversy over Waiya’s ancestry is more complex, raising thorny issues of cultural identity and who can legitimately represent Chumash interests.
Waiya has strong support from some Chumash members of his foundation who say he has fought to preserve the tribe’s history and culture. But to his detractors, Waiya’s role as one of the state’s most visible leaders of the Chumash people makes his ancestral claims all the more concerning.
A global phenomenon
Among the Chumash, disputes over tribal heritage go back decades and are complicated by the fact that the federal government officially recognizes only one group — the Santa Ynez band in Santa Barbara County — as a tribe. Scholars say there are potentially thousands of people with Chumash ancestry who are not members of the recognized tribe.
Anthropologist Brian Haley, who has conducted research on the backgrounds of people asserting Native American identities, said questionable claims to indigenous heritage began to increase in the 1960s. Many, he said, came to sincerely believe family stories about Native American ancestors.
Haley, a professor at State University of New York Oneonta, said he also traced Waiya’s roots back to Mexico.
“We’re looking at something that’s actually a global phenomenon, people asserting indigenous identities,” Haley said.
A spokesperson for the Santa Ynez band of Chumash Indians declined to comment.
For thousands of years, the Chumash fished and foraged on tribal lands that extended from San Luis Obispo County to Malibu. The tribe encompassed about 150 villages before the Chumash were nearly wiped out by disease and violence after Europeans arrived in California.
Today, there isn’t a single full-blooded Chumash left, according to scholars.
Waiya, 63, said his work is to educate the public and advocate for Chumash culture and the environment.
The Ventura County-based Wishtoyo Foundation has filed lawsuits over allegations of polluting local waters, including two that ultimately required Six Flags Magic Mountain and the city of Ventura to reduce the dumping of pollutants into the Santa Clara River and its estuary. The Trump administration also settled a Wishtoyo lawsuit by agreeing to designate a habitat to safeguard humpback whales.
The nonprofit counts the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation among its donors, and the actor Beau Bridges has served on the board. Terry Tamminen, former head of the California Environmental Protection Agency, started the foundation with Waiya and is the board’s vice president.
‘Colonization of our culture’
In the last three years, federal tax filings show, Waiya’s salary as the foundation’s executive director has ranged from $80,000 to $161,000. Last year, he was paid $120,000 plus nearly $9,600 from a related organization that wasn’t identified on the tax document.
The foundation also employs his wife, Luhui Isha, as its director of cultural resources, as well as his son, a nephew and Isha’s son, according to an attorney for the organization.
Waiya and the foundation declined to say how much his relatives are paid. The nonprofit isn’t required to disclose salaries for employees making under $50,000. Waiya’s sister-in-law sits on the board of directors and serves as its secretary. She is not paid, according to tax filings.
Julie Tumamait-Stenslie, chairwoman of the local Chumash tribe known as the Barbareño/Ventureño band of Mission Indians, described Waiya’s work as the “colonization of our culture for his own personal gain. We don’t get to weigh in on how he is interpreting our culture.” She and three others said Waiya misrepresents traditions by blowing into a conch shell at blessing ceremonies — an act they say was never a Chumash practice.
Tumamait-Stenslie also criticized Wishtoyo’s involvement in a legal settlement with the developer behind Newhall Ranch, a planned city of 58,000 in northwest Los Angeles County.
In 2010, Waiya submitted a letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the California Department of Fish and Game invoking his ancestors 20 times as he argued that the development would ravage the area Chumash people once lived.
The Wishtoyo Foundation sued to stop the development, joining a coalition of environmental activists that included the Santa Ynez band of Chumash Indians. Several members of the coalition settled with the developer in 2017.
In a separate confidential agreement, the developer — Five Point Holdings — gave the foundation an undisclosed sum to buy land and construct a Chumash museum, which has not yet been built.
The foundation took in nearly $8.9 million in legal settlement revenue last year, according to its 2018 tax filing. The document does not say whether the money came from the Newhall settlement, and the nonprofit’s board president declined to comment.
The foundation recently purchased the shuttered Mountain View Golf Course and two neighboring parcels for about $5.5 million, property records show. The nonprofit plans to turn the land into an “ecological and cultural conservancy.”
Tumamait-Stenslie said she would have preferred to keep fighting the Newhall Ranch project. Though Waiya’s foundation was part of a coalition of groups that sued, Tumamait-Stenslie said she blames Waiya for not reaching out to include her Ventura Chumash tribe in decisions about the suit, because he holds himself out as representing tribal interests in the area.
“People who don’t know or don’t want to question [Waiya’s] authenticity will think he’s representing a tribe, but he’s not,” Tumamait-Stenslie said.
Raudel Bañuelos, the band’s vice chair, said: “He has no right representing Chumash interests.”
Carole Goldberg, president of the Wishtoyo Foundation’s board and a UCLA law professor, said Tumamait-Stenslie’s Chumash band “declined to engage with Wishtoyo despite invitations to partner on local issues” and didn’t previously show an interest in the Newhall Ranch development.
If you think you can find neat, crisp genealogies for everything, that’s mistaken.
Carole Goldberg, president of the Wishtoyo Foundation board
According to Tumamait-Stenslie, the foundation’s attorney did approach her more than a decade ago, but she rejected the invitation because she doesn’t consider Waiya to be Chumash.
Goldberg dismissed the accusation that Waiya misrepresents the tribe’s culture. She said it came from “an exceptionally small, nonrepresentative subset of Chumash people who dispute any cultural practices which differ from their own.”
The foundation board, Goldberg said, had reviewed allegations that Waiya and his wife were not descended from the Chumash and concluded they didn’t warrant further inquiry.
She said that it was common in the 19th century for California Indians to identify themselves as members of other ethnicities to U.S. census takers out of fear of persecution or even death at the hands of white settlers.
“If you think you can find neat, crisp genealogies for everything, that’s mistaken,” Goldberg said.
This year, Tumamait-Stenslie and two other Chumash — Jonathan Cordero and Matthew Vestuto — wrote to Waiya and his wife, demanding proof for the couple’s ancestry claims.
“As you will hopefully agree, the misappropriation of Chumash identity and culture is a serious affront to Chumash peoples and adversely affects the Chumash community’s relations with the broader public,” they wrote in January 2019.
Waiya and Isha did not respond to the letter.
Cordero and Vestuto later sent letters to the foundation board, alleging the couple are not descended from Chumash people. They said the board never responded to the allegations.
Isha, whose birth name is Paulette Ward, told The Times she descends from Chumash on her father’s side and said “outsiders” shouldn’t meddle in disputes between Native Americans.
She declined to provide evidence of Chumash ancestry, saying that paper records are unreliable and that the Chumash passed down their culture from one generation to another through oral traditions.
“It’s very important to leave Native business to Native people,” she said.
Some Chumash people, including members of the Wishtoyo Women’s Elders Council and several of Cordero’s relatives, signed letters denouncing those who challenge the Chumash identity of others. The letters did not name Waiya but were posted on Wishtoyo’s website.
The letter from the Women’s Elders Council says the attacks are motivated by “jealousy and hatred,” and are aided by “biased academics of questionable authority.” It says that “Chumash identity is rightly held through a number of different ways,” including genealogical documentation, oral family histories and tribal enrollment or membership.
Georgiana Sanchez, head of the Wishtoyo Women’s Elders Council, said she hadn’t seen Waiya’s genealogical documents and didn’t rule out the possibility that he was Mexican American and became Chumash by absorbing the culture.
Sanchez pointed to the “incredible work” Waiya has done in protecting Chumash land and promoting the tribe’s culture. She said when she met him two decades ago, she found him to be “very authentic.”
Her daughter, Deborah Sanchez, is Wishtoyo’s board chair and a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge. She declined to comment.
Cordero, a sociology professor at California Lutheran University, said Chumash communities have the right to accept someone as “ethnically Chumash” — though he would disagree with such a decision — if they have no Chumash ancestry. But he said Waiya cannot claim the credibility that comes with having Chumash ancestors.
“Contrary to his claims, Mati Waiya has no Chumash ancestry,” Cordero said.
Waiya’s birth certificate identifies him as Frank Rocha — which he calls his “slave name”— and says his parents were white, a racial designation that can include Latinos. His father was born in Mexico, the certificate says.
The Times also examined birth and other genealogical records for Waiya’s family on his mother’s side, going back eight generations. Some of his ancestors were soldiers who helped colonize California for Spain, according to the records.
None of the documents identified Waiya’s ancestors as Chumash, but a 1930 U.S. census record says his great-great-grandmother, Celedonia Baldonado, was from a “Mission Tribe.”
John Johnson, an ethnohistorian at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, said the phrase was a catchall for Native Americans, not only the Chumash, who lived near missions in California and Mexico.
Other records identify Baldonado by various surnames but don’t say she was Native American. At least two documents put her birthplace as California but most said she was born in Mexico.
Johnson, who has spent decades studying Chumash culture and ancestry, said he examined Baldonado’s background when Waiya’s cousin contacted him in the late 1990s and asked that he try to prove the family’s Chumash ancestry through her.
Johnson said he concluded Baldonado was born in Mexico.
Her children show up in baptism records at the Santa Barbara mission, but they are not identified as Native Americans. Johnson said it would be highly unlikely for Baldonado and her children to have escaped being recorded as California Indians in the Spanish church records or in U.S. census entries, and avoid other efforts to document them as Native American.
He said Waiya’s relatives “were disappointed that we didn’t find Chumash ancestry.”
Asked about the findings, Waiya challenged his detractors to “take us to court” over his ancestry.
“They’re submissive to a genocidal, colonial thinking that’s destroyed our people,” Waiya said of his Chumash critics. “We don’t have to prove this.… They’re not the Chumash police or the Chumash God.”
The stories shaping California
Get up to speed with our Essential California newsletter, sent six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.