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Chumash History in the Front Country

"On a recent hike I was suddenly overcome with the realization that we are not the first to traverse these mountains. It felt like the land was speaking to me and I became filled with a deep impulse to understand the Chumash history and way of life that came before us and share that understanding with others."

~Kristine Sperling, MTF Board Member

Well before the Spanish explored the western coast of what is now known as North America and much earlier than the idea of conquest entered into the psyche of Europe, the Indigenous peoples of this continent lived and thrived. There were millions of Indigenous people living on the continent prior to colonization and the genocide that followed. There were distinct and varied cultures living in small villages to large population centers. It can be startling for those of us not familiar with this history to realize the grandness of the Indigenous civilizations that once filled this country. These were people who lived in direct relationship with their natural surroundings, understanding that their very survival depended on the Earth. They observed the ebb and flow of seasonal changes in season and appreciated the varying bounty of the land and waters. They understood the gifts of the natural world; its plant-life, wildlife, rocks and minerals. They took what they needed for subsistence while offering thanks and gratitude, and giving back to nature, in return. They developed deep, spiritual rituals and rites that reflected their immediate environments. These cultural practices and the languages of Indigenous peoples were nearly annihilated but, thankfully, have survived. Now, a new global awareness is dawning of the importance of this heritage, together with a growing interest in supporting and honoring these Indigenous cultures and practices.

In the Santa Barbara area, the Chumash are a maritime culture built through generations and this culture continues in its relationship with the ocean as well as the mountainous land that arises from the shores of the region. The Chumash name is an endonym, a word used by the Indigenous people of the area to refer to themselves. Their territory extended more than 7,000 square miles (roughly the size of New Jersey) from the beaches of Malibu to Paso Robles and inland to the western edge of the San Joaquin Valley. The local climate, ecology, geography and topography greatly influenced their unique and impressive culture. Yet, after nearly 200 years of colonization, the Chumash people have been left with little access to the land and water that supported them for thousands of years. History is clear: Spanish colonialism and the expansion of the United States decimated the Chumash languages, culture and way of life. In pre-colonial times, however, the local population was robust. People were multi-lingual, with seven distinct languages spoken across their geographically diverse territory. They prospered with a dynamic and sustainable economy, purposeful society, and rich cultural practices that included deep spiritual knowledge and rituals. These customs were directly associated with the natural world of the Channel Islands and Santa Monica and Santa Ynez Mountain ranges. The Chumash Origin Story itself demonstrates their relationship to the specific geography of the area. Evidence of Chumash rituals and spiritual practices are still found today in the hieroglyphs and petroglyphs that survive in the territory.

In the Front Country, where we all enjoy the local trail system, we believe it is important to reflect on the history of colonization here and to know that we are walking on Chumash land. Many of the trails we currently utilize (and that MTF maintains) were used by the Chumash people that lived here. Romero Canyon Trail is an historical trail that connected the people who lived on the ocean side of the Santa Ynez Mountains to those that lived in the valley on the other side. San Ysidro Trail connected the village situated in Montecito to smaller encampments in the hills and to the waterfall and beyond. Hot Springs Trail leads to the hot springs that were used by the Chumash well before world-travelers trekked to its healing sulfur waters. Along the way, the people sourced plant life, hunted and gathered rocks, minerals, building materials and more. The area we all call home was alive with a community of people who had intimate knowledge of the natural resources we see every day. That knowledge, along with the knowledge of language is growing within the Chumash community. We hope the non-Indigenous community may come to share that knowledge as well, not for co-option or appropriation, but with reverence and respect, because the Chumash culture is alive today. Organizations, like our partners, the Tribal Trust Foundation and the Barbareño Band of Chumash Indians are good sources for information about how we can directly support Indigenous cultures at home and around the world.

While we cannot remake history, we can be part of a growing acknowledgment of our shared story and the increasing awareness that the Chumash people, and Indigenous populations world-wide, deserve to be appreciated, honored and supported. The revitalization of these rich cultures and their philosophical foundations, based on love for and belonging to the land, rather than the land belonging to us, may just be what saves humanity from climate destabilization and environmental disaster. It is always the underlying value system of a culture and society that motivates behavior and practices of its people and we must be able to identify these values. So, with open hearts, we can open our minds to see the world around us and specifically the trails we all know and love with a new perspective. Perhaps we can walk them with new soles (and souls). We believe the more we know nature, the more we will work to protect the Earth.

At MTF, to celebrate this new awareness and appreciate and recognize the people who came before us, we hosted Chumash Trails Day; Old Trails, New Soles, in observance of Indigenous Peoples Day, on Sunday, October 10, 2021, at Lower Manning Park. We gathered together, receive a traditional Chumash blessing, and then headed out on the trail of choice on a self-guided a hike to experience the land with a new perspective inspired by our new Chumash Trails Day Maps (available in English and in Spanish).  

Author & Contributors: Kristine Sperling, Barbara Savage, Holly Sherwin, Janis Salin


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