Hand color tinted photo of Rafael Sloares, Chumash Native American Indian Chief 1878
The “Chumash” are Native American people who historically inhabit chiefly central and southern coastal regions of California, in portions of what is now San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Ventura and Los Angeles counties, extending from Morro Bay in the north to Malibu in the south. They also occupied three of the Channel Islands: Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa and San Miguel; the smaller island of Anacapa was uninhabited. Modern place names with Chumash origins include Malibu, Lompoc, Ojai, Pismo Beach, Point Mugu, Piru, Lake Castaic, and Simi Valley.
Archaeological research demonstrates that the Chumash have deep roots in the Santa Barbara Channel area and lived along the southern California Coast for millennia.
Further information: Population of Native California
Estimates for the pre-contact populations of most native groups in California have varied substantially. Alfred L. Kroeber thought that the 1770 population of the Chumash might have been about 10,000. Alan K. Brown concluded that the population was not over 15,000. Sherburne F. Cook at various times estimated the aboriginal Chumash as 8,000, 13,650, 20,400, and 18,500.
Some scholars (Erlandson et al. 2001) have suggested that Chumash population may have declined substantially during a “protohistoric” period (AD 1542-1769) when intermittent contacts with the crews of Spanish ships–including those of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo’s expedition who wintered in the Santa Barbara Channel in AD 1542-43–brought disease and death. But the Chumash appear to have been thriving in the late 18th century when Spaniards first began actively colonizing the California coast. Whether the deaths began earlier with the contacts with ships’ crew, or only later with the construction of several Spanish missions at Ventura, Santa Barbara, Lompoc, Santa Inez, and San Luis Obispo, the Chumash were eventually devastated by Old World diseases such as influenza and small pox, to which they had no immunological resistance. By 1900, their numbers had declined to just 200. According to some reports, the Chumash people are now numbered at about 5,000.
Several related Chumashan languages were spoken. There are no longer any living native speakers, although they are well documented in the unpublished fieldnotes of linguist John Peabody Harrington. Especially well documented are the Barbareño, Ineseño, and Ventureño dialects. Several Chumash families are working to revitalize the language.
The Chumash were hunter-gatherers and were adept at fishing at the time of Spanish colonization. They are one of the relatively few New World peoples who regularly navigated the ocean (another was the Tongva, a neighboring tribe located to the south). Some settlements built plank boats called tomols, which facilitated the distribution of goods and could even be used for whaling. Remains of a developed Chumash culture, including rock paintings apparently depicting the Chumash cosmology such as Chumash Painted Cave State Historic Park can still be seen.
Anthropologists eagerly sought Chumash baskets as prime examples of the craft, and two of the finest collections are at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC and the Musée de l’Homme (Museum of Mankind) in Paris, France. The Museum of Natural History at Santa Barbara is believed to have the largest collection of Chumash baskets.
The Chumash of the Northern Channel Islands were at the center of an intense regional trade network. Beads made from olivella shells were manufactured on the Channel Islands and used as a form of currency by the Chumash. These shell beads were traded to neighboring groups and have been found throughout alta California. Over the course of late prehistory, millions of shell beads were manufactured and traded from Santa Cruz Island. It has been suggested that exclusive control over stone quarries used to manufacture the drills needed in bead production may have played a role in the development of social complexity in Chumash society.
Pre-contact distribution of the Chumash
Before Spanish contact
The Chumash people thrived at a very early period in California prehistory, with some settlements dating to at least 10,000 years before present. Sites of the Millingstone Horizon date from 7000 cal BC to 4500 cal BC; they evidence a subsistance system focused on the processing of seeds with metates and manos. During that time people used bipointed bone objects and line to catch fish and began making beads from shells of the marine olive snail (Olivella biplicata).
Some researchers believe the Chumash may have been visited by Polynesians between AD 400 and 800, nearly 1,000 years before Christopher Columbus reached The Americas. Although the concept is rejected by most archaeologists who work with the Chumash culture, studies published in peer-reviewed journals have given the idea greater plausibility. The Chumash advanced sewn-plank canoe design, which is used throughout the Polynesian Islands but is unknown in North America except by those two tribes, is cited as the chief evidence for contact. Comparative linguistics also may provide evidence as the Chumash word for “sewn-plank canoe,” tomolo’o, may have been derived from kumulā’au, the Polynesian word for the redwood logs used in that construction. However, the language comparison is generally considered tentative. Furthermore, the development of the Chumash plank canoe is fairly well represented in the archaeological record and spans a time period of several centuries. This evidence strongly suggests that the Tomol was an indigenous invention.
Spanish Arrival and the Mission Era
Chumash people first encountered Europeans in the autumn of 1542, when two sailing vessels under Juan Cabrillo arrived on the coast from Mexico. Cabrillo died and was buried on San Miguel Island, but his men brought back a diary that contained the names and population counts for many Chumash villages, such as Mikiw. Spain claimed what is now California from that time forward, but did not return to settle until 1769, when the first Spanish soldiers and missionaries arrived with the double-purpose of Christianizing the Native Americans and facilitating Spanish colonization. By the end of 1770 missions and military presidios had been founded at San Diego to the south of Chumash lands and Monterey, to their north.
The Chumash people moved from their villages to the Franciscan missions between 1772 and 1817. Mission San Luis Obispo, established in 1772, was the first mission in Chumash-speaking lands, as well as the northernmost of the five missions ever constructed in those lands. Next established, in 1782, was Mission San Buenaventura on the Pacific Coast near the mouth of the Santa Clara River. Mission Santa Barbara, also on the coast, and facing out to the Channel Islands, was established in 1786. Mission La Purisima Concepcion was founded along the inland route from Santa Barbara north to San Luis Obispo in 1789. The final Franciscan mission to be constructed in native Chumash territory was Santa Ynez, founded in 1804 on the Santa Ynez River with a seed population of Chumash people from Missions La Purisima and Santa Barbara. To the southeast, Mission San Fernando, founded in 1798 in the land of Takic Shoshonean speakers, also took in large numbers of Chumash speakers from the middle Santa Clara River valley. While most of the Chumash people joined one mission or another between 1772 and 1806, a significant portion of the native inhabitants of the Channel Islands did not move to the mainland missions until 1816.
Modern times The first modern Tomol was built and launched in 1976 as a result of a joint venture between Quabajai Chumash of The Coastal Band of the Chumash Nation and the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. The Tomol’s name is Helek/Xelex, the Chumash word for falcon. The Brotherhood of the Tomol was revived and her crew paddled and circumnavigated around the Santa Barbara Channel Islands on a ten day journey, stopping on each island. The second Tomol, the Elye’wun (“swordfish”), was launched in 1997.
On September 9, 2001, the first “crossing,” in the Chumash tomol, from the mainland to Channel islands was sponsored by the Chumash Maritime Association and the Barbareno Chumash Council. Several Chumash bands and descendants gathered on the island of Limuw (the Chumash name for Santa Cruz island) to witness the tomol Elye’wun being paddled from the mainland to Santa Cruz island. Their journey was documented in the short film “Return to Limuw” produced by the Ocean Channel for the Chumash Maritime Association, Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, and the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum. The channel crossings have become a yearly event hosted by the Barbareno Chumash Council.
The Santa Ynez Band of Chumash are a federally recognized tribe with a casino on their reservation in Santa Ynez, California.
In addition to the Santa Ynez Band, the Coastal Band of the Chumash Nation, and the Barbareno/Ventureno tribal group are attempting to gain federal recognition. Other Chumash tribal groups include the Northern Chumash Tribal Council, descendants from the San Luis Obispo area, and the Barbareno Chumash Council, descendants from the greater Santa Barbara area.
The publication of the first Chumash dictionary took place in April 2008. Six hundred pages long and containing 4,000 entries, the “Samala-English Dictionary” includes more than 2,000 illustrations.