The Living Traditions of the Chumash Tribe
By MEGHAN WARD
This sidebar is a supplement to The Lost Art of Traditional Bow Hunting
Once a maritime people, the Chumash inhabited the Santa Barbara coast and the Channel Islands for at least 13,000 years before their population was decimated, first by the Spanish, then the Mexicans, and finally by more European settlers. Today the largest remaining Chumash tribe and the only one recognized by the federal government—the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians, which numbers in the hundreds—lives on the Santa Ynez Reservation in the Santa Ynez Valley north of Santa Barbara.
To keep their culture going, the Santa Ynez Chumash host an annual Chumash Intertribal Pow-Wow and Chumash Culture Day; they also stage a ceremonial ocean voyage in a traditional canoe called a tomol. Tom Lopez, a tribal elder and cultural teacher for the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash, is one of the paddlers who each year cross the Santa Barbara channel to the Channel Islands in one of these sewn-plank canoes—a highly sophisticated vessel when it was invented in 500 AD. “We build our own tomols and paddles, and all the Chumash participate,” he says.
The programs hosted by the Santa Ynez band’s culture department also include workshops and classes in weaving baskets; tanning deer hides for use in traditional clothing; making handmade fishing nets; gardening and cooking; and Samala language studies; along with summer camps that teach youngsters traditional archery. During these workshops, Lopez says, the younger kids might make a simple bow from local shrubs such as elderberry, toyon, and juniper; those 14 and up make more sophisticated bows, using tendons from deer legs to create a stronger, sinew-backed bow.
“One of our older members went down to Riverside and got a goat with his,” Lopez says. “We have a lot of young men who like to hunt everything from mountain goats to elk to deer.” For the Chumash, deer in particular have always been sacred. In their honor, Lopez says, they used every part of the animal: bones and sinew for tools; skin for clothing and camouflage; even the animal’s hooves for rattles.
A few years ago, the Santa Ynez reservation held a class in traditional stick-bow making that drew 15 to 20 people. But Lopez says that with just five people on staff in the reservation’s culture department, they can’t offer classes like that regularly. Which is not to suggest there’s a lack of interest. “We get asked to do school presentations,” he says, “but we’re so darn busy.”
Many Chumash do hunt, but Lopez says they don’t typically use stick bows. Like most modern hunters, they use rifles, compound bows, and, for the rare hunter who wants a real challenge, recurve bows. One of the Santa Ynez band’s best hunters is J.P. Zavalla, chief of the Chumash Fire Department. (We tried to reach Zavalla, but he was off hunting in Idaho after fighting a fire near Big Sur.)
When we asked Lopez how he felt about a non-indigenous person calling in order to write about Native American traditions, he said, “Color doesn’t come into my scheme of things. My wife is English, and they have some pretty damn good archers.”
“Our cultures are all pretty much the same,” he added. “We all lived off the Earth at one time. We were all hunters. We all made bows. I appreciate that non-native people can respect us and… I encourage our youth to listen to people who have something to offer. If people give you something good, use it. That’s how we grow.”
As with many tribes, Lopez says that tribal knowledge about some of their traditions, such as rock art and burial ceremonies, have been virtually lost over the years, worsened by the practice of schoolteachers and others pushing Native American children to abandon their language and customs. But a number of traditions have been saved as well. “Not enough people realize we’re alive and well,” he says. “We have a lot of skilled craftsman here, and we’re still making bows and arrows like our ancestors did.”
Meghan Ward, a Berkeley-based freelance writer, is the author of "Runway: Confessions of a not-so-supermodel."
© 2023 Meghan Ward. All rights reserved. Under exclusive license to Craftsmanship, LLC. Unauthorized copying or republication of any part of this article is prohibited by law.