Chumash Indians

Making their home along the Channel Islands and Santa Monica Mountain region of California, extending from Morro Bay in the north to Malibu in the south, the Chumash also occupied three of the Channel Islands: Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, and San Miguel, and the smaller island of Anacapa was likely inhabited seasonally due to the lack of a consistent water source.

Chumash Archeological Evidence

Archaeological evidence demonstrates that the Chumash have deep roots in the Santa Barbara Channel area and lived along the southern California coast for millennia.

Native Americans have lived along the California coast for at least 13,000 years. The first settlements started near the Santa Barbara coast.

Archaeological evidence of Native American presence in what were later the Chumash lands datea to at least 11,000 years before the present.

The name Chumash means “bead maker” or “seashell people.”

Chumash Pre-Contact Subsistance

Before the mission period, the Chumash were semi-sedentary hunter gatherers. They lived in over 150 independent villages, speaking variations of the same language.

They lived in domed houses made of willow branches and used long, wooden canoes, called tomols, to fish and travel between the tribe’s villages.

The tribe lived in an area of three environments: the interior, the coast, and the Northern Channel Islands. These provided a diverse array of materials to support the Chumash lifestyle.

The interior is composed of the land outside the coast and spanning the wide plains, rivers, and mountains.

The coast covers the cliffs and land close to the ocean and, in reference to resources, the areas of the ocean from which the Chumash harvested. The Northern Channel Islands lie off the coast of the Chumash territory.

All of the California coastal-interior has a Mediterranean climate due to the incoming ocean winds. The mild temperatures, even in winter, made gathering easy, so the Chumash had established villages, which they left periodically for short foraging trips.

What villagers gathered and traded during the seasons changed depending on where they resided. During the colder months, they harvested what they could and supplemented their diets with stored foods.

Chumash Culture

Much of the Chumash  culture consisted of basketry, bead manufacturing and trading, a varied cuisine of local abalone, clams, fish, and land animals, and herbalism which consisted of using local herbs to produce teas and medical reliefs.

They regularly used controlled burns to rejuvenate the land areas.

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 could have played a role in the development of social complexity in Chumash society.

With coasts populated by masses of varied species of fish and land densely covered by trees and animals, the Chumash had a diverse array of food.

Abundant resources and a winter rarely harsh enough to cause concern meant the tribe lived a sedentary lifestyle in addition to a subsistence existence.

Villages in all three areas they inhabited contained remains of sea mammals, indicating that trade networks existed for moving materials throughout the Chumash territory.

Such connections spread out the land’s wealth, allowing the Chumash to live comfortably without agriculture.

The closer a village was to the ocean, the greater its reliance on maritime resources.

Due to advanced canoe designs, coastal and island people could procure fish and aquatic mammals from farther out. Shellfish were a good source of nutrition: relatively easy to find and abundant. Many of the favored varieties grew in tidal zones.

Shellfish grew in abundance during winter to early spring; their proximity to shore made collection easier. Some of the consumed species included mussels, abalone, and a wide variety of clam species.

Haliotis rufescens (red abalone) was harvested along the Central California coast in the pre-contact era. The Chumash and other California Indians also used red abalone shells to make a variety of fishhooks, beads, ornaments, and other artifacts.

Ocean animals such as otters and seals were thought to be the primary meat of coastal tribes people, but recent evidence shows the aforementioned trade networks exchanged oceanic animals for terrestrial foods from the interior.

Any village could acquire fish, but the coastal and island communities specialized in catching not just smaller fish, but also the massive catches such as swordfish.

This feat, difficult even for today’s technology, was made possible by the tomol plank canoe. Its design allowed for the capture of deepwater fish, and it facilitated trade routes between villages.

Before contact with Europeans, coastal Chumash relied less on terrestrial resources than they did on maritime; vice versa for interior Chumash.

Regardless, they consumed similar land resources. Like many other tribes, deer were the most important land mammal the Chumash pursued; deer were consumed in varying amounts across all regions, which cannot be said for other terrestrial animals.

Interior Chumash placed greater value on the deer, to the extent that they had unique hunting practices for them. They dressed as deer and grazed alongside the animals until the hunters were in range to use their arrows.

Even Chumash close to the ocean pursued deer, though in understandably fewer numbers, and most of the land meat the coastal villages needed, they acquired from smaller animals such as rabbits and birds.

Plant foods composed the rest of Chumash diet, especially acorns, which were the staple food despite the work needed to remove their inherent toxins. They could be ground into a paste that was easy to eat and store for years.

Coast live oak provided the best acorns; their mush would be served usually unseasoned with meat and/or fish. They also made flour from the dried fruits of the laurel sumac.

Cave paintings and rock art found throughout their lands document the Chumash’s rich spiritual heritage.

The Chumash formerly practiced an initiation rite involving the use of sacred datura (moymoy in their language). When a boy was 8 years old, his mother would give him a preparation of it to drink.

This was supposed to be a spiritual challenge to help him develop the spiritual wellbeing required to become a man. Not all of the boys survived the poison.

The scorpion tree was significant to the Chumash as shown in its arborglyph: a carving depicting a six-legged creature with a headdress including a crown and two spheres.

The shamans participated in the carving which was used in observations of the stars and in part of the Chumash calendar.

A matriarchal society, they elected both men and women as chiefs. Their monetary system was based on beads and seashells, and they traded herbs, fine baskets, and tools, among other things.

First Contact with Europeans

Some researchers believe that 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 (and this contact has left no genetic legacy), others have given the idea greater plausibility.

The Chumash advanced sewn-plank canoe design, used throughout the Polynesian Islands but unknown in North America except by those two tribes, is cited as the chief evidence for contact.

Europeans first visited the Chumash in 1542. They were met by sailing vessels under the command of Juan Cabrillo, who wintered in the Santa Barbara Channel during the winter of 1542–1543.

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.

With the arrival of the Europeans came a series of unprecedented blows to the Chumash and their traditional lifeways.
Numbering roughly 10,000 to 18,000 people, the Chumash encountered the Spanish in the 1760s. By 1769, the Spanish had established five missions in Chumash territory.

Spain settled on the territory of the Chumash in 1770. The settlement of the Spanish devastated the Chumash culture. They founded colonies, bringing in missionaries to begin Christianizing Native Americans in the region.

Due to the large mission and Christian influence, Chumash villages began moving to the many missions springing up along the coast. The Chumash people moved from their villages to the Franciscan missions between 1772 and 1817.

The many diseases brought by Europeans caused illnesses that decimated the tribe. By 1831, only about 10% of the tribe’s population remained.

They became part of Spanish society, working primarily as laborers on farms and ranches. By 1900, their numbers had declined to just 200.

Mexico seized control of the missions in 1834. Tribes people either fled into the interior, attempted farming for themselves and were driven off the land, or were enslaved by the new administrators. Many found highly exploitative work on large Mexican ranches.

After 1849 most Chumash land was lost due to theft by Americans and a declining population, due to the effects of violence and disease. The remaining Chumash began to lose their cohesive identity.

In 1855, a small piece of land (120 acres) was set aside for just over 100 remaining Chumash Indians near Santa Ynez mission.

This land ultimately became the only Chumash reservation, although Chumash individuals and families also continued to live throughout their former territory in southern California. Today, the Santa Ynez band lives at and near Santa Ynez.

The Chumash reservation, established in 1901, now encompasses 127 acres.

Today, the Chumash are estimated to have a population of 5,000 members. Many current members can trace their ancestors to the five islands of Channel Island National Park.

Chumash Language

No native Chumash have spoke their own language since Inesño, the last speaker who died in 1965. Several Chumash families are working to revitalize the language.

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.

Chumash Bands

There are 14 bands of Chumash Indians.

Barbareno Chumash, affiliated with the Taynayan missions and the Kashwa reservations.

Coastal Band of the Chumash Nation, their historical territory, north of Los Angeles, includes parts of the coastal counties of Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, Kern, and Ventura. The Coastal band of the Chumash Nation applied for recognition in 1981.

Cuyama Chumash, from the Cuyama Valley
Island Chumash, from the Channel Islands

Kagismuwas Chumash, from the southwestern-most region of the ancestral Chumash land. Their historical lands are now part of Vandenberg Air Force Base.

Los Angeles Chumash, formed when members of the traditional Malibu, Tejon, and Venura bands were relocated in the 19th century.

Malibu Chumash, from the coast of Malibu. Descendants of this band can now be found among the Ventura, Coastal, Tejon, and San Fernando Valley bands.

Monterey Chumash, from the Monterey peninsula.

Samala, or Santa Ynez Chumash. The Santa Ynez Chumash people in 2012 went to federal count to regain more land. The Bureau of Indian Affairs approved the request; the land was to go toward tribal housing and a Chumash Museum and Cultural Center.

However, protesters and anti-tribal groups have spent approximately $2 million to disrupt or stop the land acquisition.

San Fernando Valley Chumash, once slave laborers at the San Fernando Valley Mission. They intermarried other tribes who also worked at the mission.

San Luis Obispo Chumash, northwestern-most Chumash people.

Tecuya Chumash, most of this band of Chumash tribe were probably Kagismuwas. This band was established as an anti-colonial group, who took residence in the Tecuya Canyon along with the Tejon Chumash.

Tejon Chumash, part of the Kern County Chumash Council. Tejon is the Spanish word for “badger,” and its name was given to the Tejon Rancheria.

Ventura Chumash, lives in the traditional Chumash domain of the Owl Clan.

Modern Day Chumash Tribes

One Chumash band, the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Mission Indians of the Santa Ynez Reservation is a federally recognized tribe, and other Chumash people are enrolled in the federally-recognized Tejon Indian Tribe of California.

In addition to the Santa Ynez Band, the Coastal Band of the Chumash Nation, Chumash Indians of Southern California, and the Barbareño/Ventureño Band of Mission Indians 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.

Other California Indian Tribes