Coming home

Experience the linguistic and cultural renaissance of the Chumash people



A smell of burning sage hung in the dark on a brisk night at the Channel Islands Harbor in Oxnard. At 3:30 a.m. the water was eerily calm, rippled only occasionally by small fish breaking the surface as they hunted even smaller prey.

ROSARIO COOPER The last known speaker of Obispeño Chumash, Rosario Cooper was born Oct. 7, 1845, and died June 15, 1917. - PHOTO COURTESY OF SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION NATIONAL ANTHROPOLOGICAL ARCHIVES
  • ROSARIO COOPER The last known speaker of Obispeño Chumash, Rosario Cooper was born Oct. 7, 1845, and died June 15, 1917.

On the dock, four paddlers stood with about two dozen friends, family, and members of a safety crew for a preparatory ceremony before they loaded into the tomol, a traditional Chumash canoe made from redwood planks strapped together and sealed with pitch.

Since 2001, this tomol, the elye’wun, which translates to “swordfish,” has made seven trips across the Santa Barbara Channel, a 26-mile trek across 400-foot-deep ocean to Santa Cruz Island—“limuw” in Chumash. The paddlers didn’t make it last year. Winds were ripping through the channel, forcing the men to call off the journey.

But on a foggy Saturday morning this year, the men climbed into the tomol, clutched their paddles, and pushed away from the dock. People cheered as the paddles made their first slaps on the surface. Slowly, the men floated away from the dock and into the harbor, fading into the fog.

Twenty-six miles out, more than 100 people were waiting on the northern side of the island, praying the men would make it safely. As they’ve done every year since the first crossing, the descendants of Chumash people from all along the Central Coast gathered on the beach and waited, keeping their eyes focused on the horizon, awaiting the first sighting of the paddlers.

“It’s one thing that the tomol has done,” said Alan Salazar, who helped build the elye’wun in 1997 and has been present for every crossing. “It’s brought all Chumash together.”

Hold on. Why, in a story about the revival of the Chumash language, am I talking about a canoe? Language, it turns out, is much like the glue of the culture.

Said Steve Villa, Language Committee Chair with the Barbareño Chumash Council and a founder of Chumash Intertribal Singers, “The language is everything. With the language brings the people, and with the people you can think and see the world as your ancestors saw it.”

Down, but not out

It’s hard to describe the Chumash without fudging some accuracy. The language and culture can be difficult to portray, not just from an outside perspective, but because the way most people think of Chumash is likely very different from how the original Chumash would have described themselves.

In fact, the word “Chumash” was coined by anthropologists. The word is based on a term that literally translated means “islanders,” according to, a site created by Dr. Richard Applegate and the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians.

Before Spanish settlers arrived, Chumash territory stretched from Malibu to the San Luis Obispo region. Today, many Chumash still identify themselves as one of five core coastal groups: Ventureño, Barbareño, Samala (formerly called Inezeño), Purisimeño, and Obispeño, where the densest populations of Chumash lived before Spanish settlement. But such categories were imposed on the Chumash based on the missions into which they were rounded.

Approximately 13,000 years into the existence of this area’s indigenous peoples, Spanish settlers descended on the California coast, according to the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians. By 1831, the Chumash population had fallen from about 22,000 to fewer than 3,000.

Missionaries shipped Chumash to boarding schools where their culture and language were literally beaten out of them.

“They talk about endangered species, and the same is true of endangered languages,” said Dr. Richard Applegate, a Santa Rosa-based linguist helping to revitalize the Samala language.

Applegate said the missionaries’ herding of the Chumash could be termed “assimilation.” Another description is “cultural genocide.” He spoke of one woman who hadn’t taught her children and grandchildren the native language because the missionaries would wash her mouth out with soap and her language “left a bad taste in her mouth.”

Since 2003, Applegate has helped the Santa Ynez, formerly Inezeño, to re-learn their Samala language. By 2008, he had helped the Inezeño compile a dictionary with 4,000 entries, established language classes for tribal members, and created an intensive program with a handful of “apprentices” who help to teach the language to younger generations.

But if it weren’t for a stroke of luck, the Samala language might still be lying dormant in one of a myriad boxes of notes and audio recordings. In 1968, while a graduate student at UC Berkeley in search of a subject on which to write his dissertation, Applegate encountered three stacks of boxes filled with notes on various Chumash languages compiled by 19th century linguist and anthropologist John Peabody Harrington.

Had Applegate chosen the materials in the boxes of the Ventureño or Barbareño language, he may have produced just another dissertation. Santa Ynez is the only Chumash tribe to have obtained federal recognition, and with it, the ability to generate revenue through a casino and fund such programs as those that saved Samala from extinction.

Dr. John Johnson, curator of anthropology at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, said it’s necessary to have extensive financial resources in order to teach tribe members. Applegate said he’s probably as close to fluent in Samala as anyone, but he’d have difficulty communicating if he jumped back in time.

Talk money to me

In the Anthropology Department of the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History—a bland, fluorescent-lit collection of offices not unlike a high school science lab—Ernestine Ygnacio-De Soto was thumbing through a plastic box stuffed with decaying notepads.

On each of the dozens of wire-bound journals were the diary entries, notes, and doodles of her mother, Mary J. Yee, the last native Chumash speaker, who died on July 24, 1965.

“My mother was my shining star,” said Ygnacio-De Soto, a small woman with salt-and-pepper hair.

Ygnacio-De Soto keeps her mother’s notes in the museum for protection, worried that at home she may lose a few precious pages. She often goes to the museum to flip through the books, transcribing her mother’s scribbles from the dry, yellowed pages onto her own books.

For Ygnacio-De Soto, going through the books and rewriting the words is a way for her to learn the language that almost died along with Yee. When Ygnacio-De Soto first started going through her mother’s notes, she remembered thinking, “Oh, God. Was I looking at Yiddish or hieroglyphics?”

Like other Barbareño Chumash, Ygnacio-De Soto has to struggle to learn the language of her ancestors. Despite falling under the broader category of Chumash, languages along the coast can be drastically different. Johnson, the museum anthropologist, explained that anthropologists use Chumash to designate a language family. However, he said, someone from the area near San Luis Obispo speaking to someone from the Santa Barbara area would have as much success as a strictly English speaker trying to converse with someone who only speaks German.

“We don’t have any linguists and we don’t have any money,” Ygnacio-De Soto said of the Barbareño people.

What’s perhaps most frustrating is that the key to learning her language should be easily accessible. From 1912 until 1962, her mother met regularly with Harrington, the linguist and anthropologist. The two would often meet in the morning before Yee went to work as a cleaning woman, and again in the evening when she returned home. Ygnacio-De Soto remembers Harrington as a sort of crazy uncle—the man who used to sit for hours talking with her mother, taking countless pages of notes, recording Yee’s words, and, like any couple who spends that amount of time together, the two would sometimes butt heads.

Ygnacio De-Soto flipped through one of the books to a page with a cartoon scribble of a bird and the words “coo coo,” Yee’s pet name for Harrington when they had a disagreement.

“Somehow or other, he ended up mainly with my family,” Ygnacio-De Soto said.

26 MILES, 6 HOURS Paddlers set out in a traditional Chumash tomol on a 26-mile trip across the Santa Barbara Channel. Beginning at 3:30 a.m., the paddlers made record time to Santa Cruz Island where they were met by more than 100 friends and family. - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • 26 MILES, 6 HOURS Paddlers set out in a traditional Chumash tomol on a 26-mile trip across the Santa Barbara Channel. Beginning at 3:30 a.m., the paddlers made record time to Santa Cruz Island where they were met by more than 100 friends and family.

Today, Harrington’s notes are kept in the Smithsonian Institution National Anthropological Archives. Though Samala has been the most actively taught Chumash language, Barbareño tribal members and people from other Chumash areas are learning and teaching their language to themselves and younger generations to ensure its survival.

Ygnacio-De Soto took me to one of the museum’s exhibits where, in a small nook behind a piece of protective glass, there were photos of her mother, Harrington, and samples of the notes that came from their conversations. She pushed a button and the voice of a woman came through the small, scratchy-sounding speaker.

“Here’s my mother, right here,” she said.

Is it bizarre to hear Yee’s voice speaking her native language so long after her death?

“It was at first,” Ygnacio-De Soto told me. “But not really now—it’s comforting.”

More than words

“The language is part of it, but it’s just part of it,” Mona Tucker said of the current Chumash cultural re-awakening.

Tucker is one of the descendants of Rosario Cooper, the last known speaker of Obispeño, who died in Arroyo Grande on June 15, 1917. Cooper, a mother of 12, spent about six weeks with Harrington in the last years of her life between 1914 and 1915, Tucker said.

With the help of preserved recordings and transcripts, descendants of the Obispeño Chumash can once again call themselves yak tityu tityu yak tilhini, which translates to “the people” of the San Luis Obispo area.

In June, Tucker and other San Luis Obispo Chumash spent 36 hours tracking and recording the movements of the sun across the sky “because the Chumash were incredible astronomers,” Tucker said.

Traditionally, such astronomical measurements were used to determine when to harvest crops and allowed Chumash to determine how much daylight was available before canoeing into open water.

“Incredible intelligence,” Tucker said. “Fascinating intelligence.”

Tucker’s cousin Leah Mata has been attending the nonprofit Breath of Life seminars for the past six years. During the Breath of Life bi-yearly seminars, Mata and others are taught not how to speak their native language, but how to learn to speak it.

“We’re doing this for the yak tityu tityu yak tilhini,” she said. “So technically the goal is for us to put together a curriculum for the tribe. But because there’s no curriculum and we can’t afford to pay somebody to do it for us, we’re doing it ourselves. So we’re becoming those experts because we have to create something for the tribe to use. We’re not doing this for ourselves—we’re doing this for yak tityu tityu yak tilhini.”

‘We see them’

After the loss and abuse the Chumash have endured, it’s understandable that an instinctual sense of protection and defensiveness would creep in. While compiling this story, I encountered many walls of resistance.

I was scolded at one point for not following proper channels for obtaining information. When photographer Steve E. Miller and I went to view the tomol crossing, we were chastised for being there and, again, for not following proper channels—though we’d been invited. People seemed to suspect that we had some hidden agenda, or were there to exploit an important cultural happening. At one point, this suspicion was so marked that we offered to leave before the tomol even launched.

Such wary attitudes are forged by a history of misunderstandings, at best.

On the day before the crossing, as the men and their families mingled in a small Oxnard park, they were approached by a man with mirrored glasses, slip-on shoes, and a pale belly protruding from his Hawaiian shirt. He said apathetically of the tomol, “Who’s dragging that thing? That big ol’ ugly black thing?”

The men said nothing, and a few walked away in quiet disgust.

Several Chumash from various families related that the Civil Rights movement didn’t progress Native American rights as far as it did those of certain other minorities. It’s only recently that many of the families feel sufficiently comfortable to openly celebrate their culture.

“It’s a struggle,” Tucker said.

There wasn’t a distinct starting point for the Chumash language and culture revival. In fact, they never really went away; they were just, perhaps, dormant for a time.

“So our generation, while we know our grandparents were abused for speaking their language, we will not be abused,” Mata said. “So it’s safe to bring the language about.”

At Santa Cruz Island, on a rocky beach encased in fog, more than 100 people watched and sang Chumash songs as the tomol circled in a small bay before it landed. The ocean was uncharacteristically calm for their journey. One year after having to call the trip off because of bad weather, the paddlers made it across in record time, traveling so quickly that the canoe had to circle the harbor while waiting for the morning ferry to arrive.

The crowd that gathered at a small sandy beach helped the paddlers out of the tomol, and carried it over their heads to the shore. They gathered in a large circle and sang. Members of families from every Chumash tribe spoke of unity that day, the pride they felt to be there, and the hope that they were helping younger generations carry on the culture.

After the ceremony, as the families walked inland to spend the weekend on the island, I sat briefly with Deborah Sanchez, co-chair of the Barbareño Chumash Council. She spoke of the Chumash creation story when some of the original islanders crossed a rainbow laid out by their creator to the mainland—dispersing from their birthplace to spread across the coast.

“I just want everyone who can to experience this, because it’s just the incredible harmony and family,” Sanchez said of the tomol crossing.

She has an infectious smile and the warmth of an aunt you only see a few times a year. Sanchez is also the first elected Native American superior court judge.

“It showed us all the things that could be possible,” she said.

A few young girls walked by.

“I love you guys,” Sanchez shouted to them.

“Sing us a song,” they shouted back.

Sanchez sang softly, “Kiy kutiwun; kiy kutiwun.” Translated, it means, “We see them; we see them.” Many sang the same song on the beach when they saw the tomol.

On that day, with the sage in the air and the sound of Chumash songs emanating softly from the circle of families from all across Chumash territory, it felt like everyone had come home. And for a moment, it seemed as if they hadn’t really left.

Sanchez smiled and said, “We’re back together, where we’re meant to be.” ∆

Contact News Editor Colin Rigley at


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