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Published: July 29, 2023

Tribe fights to preserve California coastline — and its own culture


AVILA BEACH/TPAXTU, Calif. — When Violet Sage Walker stares out at the calm waters butting against the shoreline of her hometown, she sees what was once the largest northern village of the Chumash people, who fished from traditional canoes in the open water, viewed sea creatures as their ancestors and believed in a “Western Gate” farther south where their spirits went after they passed away.

“All that is where we all lived,” Walker, one of the leaders of the Chumash tribe, said recently.

That coastal California shoreline and the water it touches are at the center of a reclamation movement led by the Indigenous Chumash tribe to revive and restore its heritage, culture and land. There are about 10,200 people with some Chumash ancestry left, according to the Census Bureau. Their effort is part of a nationwide “land back” movement by Native Americans to reclaim sacred sites. The Biden administration has established national landmarks for Native people and appointed the first Native American to a Cabinet secretary position, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland. Haaland, as well as other members of the Biden Cabinet, has spoken in favor of a Chumash marine sanctuary proposal.

“We’re in a real period of cultural revitalization for Native tribes across the country,” said Shannon Speed, director of the American Indian Studies Center at the University of California at Los Angeles and a member of the Chickasaw nation. “It is a moment of change.”

The proposed boundary that NOAA used to initiate the designation process in November 2021. Source: NOAA

The Northern Chumash Tribal Council wants federal protection for 7,000 square miles of territory along 156 miles of central California coastline and stretching for miles into the Pacific Ocean. If approved by federal regulators, Chumash tribes would gain a unique leadership role over an expansive marine sanctuary, including the ability to block unwanted commercial development on the land and water within its bounds.

The proposed sanctuary “gives us a platform to grow our culture and history in a safe place,” Walker said. “The more people know about us, the less stereotypes and less misconceptions they have about us — the more they learn about us.”

The tribe’s biggest challenge may be the clock as it aims to get the hard-fought designation in place before the 2024 presidential election, when a new administration could take over and force them to restart their decades-long effort. A wind energy company is also pushing to install four floating wind turbines, which members of the Northern Chumash, one band of the tribe, oppose.

Violet Sage Walker, chair of the Northern Chumash Tribal Council and Joseph Lopez, a member of the Coastal Band of the Chumash Nation. (Karla Gachet for The Washington Post)

“It’s a sacred site. It’s an absolute no,” said Walker, who objects to that project as well as others she says could harm marine life in the proposed sanctuary.

Cierco Wind Energy, which is planning to build the turbines, says it supports the designation of the federal Chumash marine sanctuary, despite the criticism leveled by some tribal members. The state already has a rigorous environmental review to ensure the effort doesn’t cause significant ecological harm, said Mikael Jakobsson, chairman of Cierco Wind Energy. Not all of the tribe’s members oppose their wind turbines project, he added, pointing to the Santa Ynez band of the tribe, which confirmed to The Washington Post they do not oppose the project.

The Chumash’s campaign for the federal designation dates back at least three generations, as tribal members struggled to raise the money and political support needed for the huge endeavor. They also faced resistance from some local fishermen who expressed concerns that the sanctuary could harm their businesses, though the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations now says it wishes the Chumash well in their endeavor and that the sanctuary’s effect on the fishermen’s business depends on how well it is managed.

“It’s expensive to fight that kind of fight,” said Speed, the UCLA professor. “You need resources and you need lawyers and you need, generally, a team of folks to help wage a successful campaign to get that kind of thing done.”

Eva Pagaling and her son Antuk pack up the paddles for their tomol in Santa Barbara Harbor. (Karla Gachet for The Washington Post)

Santa Ynez and Santa Barbara bands take their tomol, Muptamai, out to sea at Santa Barbara Harbor. (Karla Gachet for The Washington Post)

A breakthrough came in 2015 when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration accepted their application.

But during the Trump administration, the request sat idle for years, leaving tribal members in limbo.

President Biden’s election gave the movement new hope. The tribe’s application, which had languished for five years, moved into the next bureaucratic phase — designation — and NOAA began outlining the terms of the potential sanctuary.

Many tribal members rejoiced, but movement leaders say they remain cautious as the clock ticks closer to 2024.

“We have done everything they have asked us to do, plus more. We are running out of time,” Walker said.

Birds fly around in Morro Bay, known to the Chumash people as Lisamu’, a sacred site. (Karla Gachet for The Washington Post)

Violence made them hide. Now, Chumash reclaim their history.

The Chumash’s effort to secure a federal marine sanctuary comes as many members are also attempting to reclaim other elements of their history.

Before European colonists arrived in the 1700s, the Chumash were a tribe of more than 20,000 people whose territory stretched from Paso Robles to Malibu, with traditions and spirituality that revolved around the water. They fished using traditional plank canoes, called tomols, ate clams, mussels and abalone, and passed down their history and spiritual stories through song and dance.

The tribe’s size started to dwindle after members were killed by diseases brought by European settlers and during grueling work building Spanish missions.

More tribal members lost their lives in the 1850s after then-Governor of California Peter Burnett said of the state’s Native people: “That a war of extermination will continue to be waged between the races until the Indian race becomes extinct must be expected.”

Many Native people in California began passing as Mexican American to avoid persecution, Chumash members say. The family of Slo’w Gutierrez, 76, a tribal chief, was among them.

Slo’w Gutierrez and his grandchildren Alilkoy and Adrian, members of the Coastal Band of the Chumash Nation. (Karla Gachet for The Washington Post)

He discovered he was not Mexican American but Chumash when he was 19. His aunt shared the family secret, he said, and it changed his perspective on his identity. He learned his grandfather spoke Chumash but chose to speak only Spanish or English to his grandchildren, probably out of fear of the consequences of being identified as Indigenous, Gutierrez said.

He changed his name to Slo’w, which means “eagle” in Chumash, and joined a group reviving the tribe’s traditional practice of building tomols and putting them out to sea. The canoes, among the oldest examples of watercraft made to traverse the ocean in North America, can be up to 30 feet long and are built from planks of wood, typically redwood trees, then sealed with a homemade glue or tar called “yop.” Gutierrez says he was one of the first to put a tomol in the water since the practice was ended 150 years ago.

“My purpose in life right now is to teach all the young ones dancing and our songs,” said Gutierrez, who teaches Chumash traditions at local schools. “It’s going to be lost if nobody teaches it.”

Outside a Mexican restaurant in Pismo Beach, Gutierrez and his family recently began to sing the Chumash song “Chechio,” which means “bear.” Alilkoy Cardenas Gutierrez, 15, his granddaughter, shook her to-go box of tortilla chips to create a beat. It’s Gutierrez’s favorite Native song and also the name of his late brother.

Alilkoy, whose name means “dolphin” in Chumash, has been performing traditional dances since she was 9 months old, she said. She spends her weekends making crafts for her regalia, using feathers and shells and other natural elements meaningful to the Chumash.

“The dances can carry stories of what has happened in the past, and it can also teach you about where you came from and what other things mean,” she said.

Slo’w Gutierrez, an elder member of the Coastal Band of the Chumash Nation, shows his regalia he has done himself. (Karla Gachet for The Washington Post)

Members of the Coastal Band of the Chumash Nation have a chat around a fire in Arroyo Grande. They reflect on the day before, when they were admitted after more than 40 years to Point Conception, a sacred site for Chumash people. (Karla Gachet for The Washington Post)

Other members of the tribe are also working to revitalize Chumash traditions. In inland Santa Ynez, where the Chumash band — or faction of the tribe — is federally recognized, a $32 million cultural center is being built. To the southeast around Santa Barbara, a group of tomol makers — known as tomoleros — are teaching their craft at local schools as a growing number take group trips along the nearby Channel Islands for spiritual rituals. And the Northern Chumash awarded their first environmental student scholarship to a tribal member who is working on revitalizing the language, using Smithsonian archives to make Chumash languages more accessible.

But the sanctuary represents the most ambitious effort yet to preserve the tribe’s history.

In the rolling mountains and wine country of the central coast, Reggie Pagaling, a tribal elder in the Santa Ynez band, dusted off his handmade tomol in preparation for their annual spring trip around the Channel Islands.

The marine sanctuary would mean “finally letting us have access to the whole picture of what we’re about, not just the land but the water itself, the ocean itself, the creatures above and below the water,” he said. “Having that opportunity to regain that and to take steps to revitalize that whole maritime caretaking and participation is invaluable.”

Santa Ynez and Santa Barbara bands take their tomol out to sea at Santa Barbara Harbor. (Karla Gachet for The Washington Post)

The long road to protect California’s coast
When Fred Collins died in October 2021, his daughter placed his ashes on a tomol and pushed them into the ocean off Spooner’s Cove of Santa Barbara. He had spent years fighting for the sanctuary and attempting to persuade more tribe members to support the effort.

Walker promised her father that she would continue this work and clocked more than 30,000 miles on her car last year making the rounds to the dinner tables of local politicians, other tribal members and local nonprofit leaders. To succeed, she says she needs to show federal regulators that the proposal had the support of the tribe’s members.

“It took all hands on deck to convince our own people that the government wasn’t conspiring to take away our rights,” Walker said.

Mia and Rosemary Lopez, members of the Coastal Band of the Chumash Nation. (Karla Gachet for The Washington Post)

The Office of Management and Budget and other agencies are reviewing and editing NOAA’s draft regulations detailing the proposed terms of the sanctuary. In the next couple of months, regulators will make the documents available for 60 days of public comments.

But that wouldn’t be the end of the process. If the sanctuary is approved, NOAA could take a year to incorporate the public’s suggestions, and Congress and California’s governor would also have a chance to weigh in.

“This is just another step in the long journey that started … with the Chumash as the guardians of mother earth and grandmother ocean,” said P.J. Webb, tribal adviser for the Northern Chumash Tribal Council, who wrote the sanctuary’s application in 2015.

If the proposal is ultimately approved, NOAA could begin bringing the sanctuary to life in the next couple of years. That would come with increased government resources for ecological research, public education and outreach, and operating a visitors’ center to teach the public about the importance of conserving ocean waters, said Paul Michel, regional policy coordinator for NOAA sanctuaries’ West Coast region.

NOAA is also looking for unique ways to incorporate the tribe into its efforts, he said, including having Chumash translations on sanctuary signage and including tribal history in educational programming.

The significance of the proposed sanctuary would be told “through the eyes of the stewards of this coast for 10,000 years,” Michel said. “You put it in that perspective, and it gets people’s attention.”

And that may not be the end, he said. The tribe’s work on the proposed sanctuary has sparked interest from other tribes seeking to protect the land that was once theirs.

Originally published in the Washington Post. Article By Silvia Foster-Frau

Northern Chumash Tribal Council: 
Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary: 
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