Chumash Indian Tribe of California

Published on October 21, 2010 by John

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Rafael Solares, a Samala chief
Rafael Solares, a Samala chief.
Captain of Soxtonoxmu, capital village in the Santa Ynez Valley.
Photograph by Leon de Cessac, late 19th century

The Chumash, pronounced CHOO-mash, of the Pacific Coast are the only North American Native peoples who built boats out of planks. Other Indians used planks to make houses but never applied this technology to boatmaking, instead either carving dugouts from single logs or fashioning boats by stretching bark or skin over a wooden frame. Chumash craftspeople split logs of cedar with antler wedges and smoothed the lumber with shell and stone rubbing tools. Then they lashed the planks together with animal sinew or plant bindings, and caulked them with asphalt to form 25-foot double-bowed hulls. A crew of four paddlers could handle these boats in ocean waters. The Chumash—probably eight different bands lived in the vicinity of present-day Santa Barbara in central California, on the mainland and on the three closest of the eight Channel Islands. It is thought that they used their boats for passage among the different Chumash villages, as well as for fishing and hunting sea mammals. The Chumash are sometimes referred to as the Santa Barbara Indians. The Chumash language, or Chumashan, is an isolate within the Hokan language phylum. The Chumash shared many traits with other CALIFORNIA INDIANS. They were politically organized by villages rather than by tribe; they hunted small game and fished; they prepared various foods from acorns; they lived in domed houses covered with various plant materials; and they wore little clothing. The Chumash culture was more maritime than that of their inland neighbors. For that matter, the Chumash depended on the sea for food even more than did the coastal Salinas and COSTANOAN to their north, between them and San Francisco Bay. The Santa Barbara Channel’s kelp beds drew many different species of fish, which in turn drew many sea mammals. To honor the marine life so essential to their existence, the Chumash carved exquisite animal figures in soapstone. The Chumash supposedly were the first California coastal Indians in contact with explorers for Spain, namely Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo and Bartolomé Ferrelo, who reached the Santa Barbara Channel in 1542. For the next two centuries, the Spanish used the channel as a stopover for galleons making the Pacific crossing from Mexico to the Philippines, and the early impact on the Chumash was minimal. But then the Franciscan order of Catholic priests began building missions in the region in 1772 and began converting the Indians to a new religion and a new agricultural way of life. In 1834, 13 years after gaining independence from Spain, the Mexican government secularized the missions and released the Indians from their servitude. But by that time, many Native peoples no longer had the skills to survive in the wilderness. With the Euroamerican population increasing, especially because of the California gold rush of 1849 and California statehood in 1850, the Indians suffered from further losses of land and culture, as well as from white violence and diseases. The Chumash, although nearly driven to extinction,with only a few tribal members remaining by the early 1900s, have rallied. Descendants hold the Santa Ynez Reservation in Santa Barbara County, California. A casino on the reservation has helped the tribe gain economic independencce. Tribal members have strived to revive traditional crafts, dances (one of them the Dolphin Dance), songs, and storytelling. The Chumash Interpretive Center in Thousand Oaks maintains permanent exhibits of tribal artifacts and sponsors events such as drum circles.

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Based on the collective work of, © 2015 Native American Encyclopedia.
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