‘Elye’wun sliced through the ink-black water with relative ease. Phosphorescence glowed beneath the surface as four Chumash Indian paddlers navigated their 24-foot long plank canoe under the cover of darkness, 22 miles to their ancestral land, Limuw.

’Elye’wun (pronounced “El-E-ah-woon”) means swordfish in Chumash. It’s the only functional Chumash plank canoe in North America.

I had the pleasure and honor to follow along with the Chumash on their historic path, paddling my kayak across the channel while photographing their incredible journey. At 3 a.m. on Aug. 26, 19 Chumash paddlers gathered on a quiet dock in the Channel Islands Harbor in Oxnard. A plume of smoke billowed from an abalone shell, the strong scent of sage signifying another day to be spent at sea.

By 5 a.m., the tomol was at the harbor mouth; four paddlers gradually stroked into open ocean. Somewhere out there Limuw beckoned. Another 90 minutes passed while the ocean remained calm. When we were five miles beyond the harbor, the first rays of light brightened overcast skies. Oil platform Gail loomed on the immediate horizon, but it was the soft pink hues on Anacapa and Santa Cruz that greeted the four silhouetted paddlers.

With the first light of a new dawn, other Chumash paddlers on a support boat called out to their brothers, sounds of encouragement bellowing across the open ocean.

In the sea

Limuw, now known as Santa Cruz Island — part of the Channel Islands National Park — was home to the largest Chumash village, Swaxil, with a population of roughly 2,000 villagers. The Chumash have now made four successful crossings to the site in their traditional canoe (called tomol) since 2001, revitalizing a historical journey of their distant ancestors. Prior to the first crossing in 2001, the last Chumash tomols were reportedly used for fishing around 1850. The Chumash once thrived throughout their traditional region from San Luis Obispo to Malibu, and were one of the largest Native American populations on the west coast of North America. They also inhabited the four northern Channel Islands with 11 villages on Santa Cruz, eight on Santa Rosa and two on San Miguel. Due to the lack of a reliable water source on Anacapa, the narrow islet was inhabited only seasonally.

The Chumash were a true maritime culture, hunting, fishing and reaping the natural resources provided by the ocean and the coastal mountains. Historically, their tomols were made from redwood trees found floating in the ocean, anywhere from eight to 30 feet long. Each was constructed of a single piece of wood for the floor, with three or four rows of planks. Milkweed, yucca, dogbane or sinew from mule deer was used as cordage to bind the tomol together. Yop, a glue consisting of a mixture of readily available natural resources — pine pitch and asphaltum from natural oil seeps — was used to seal the space between planks. “It’s our Super Glue,” said Chumash elder, Marcus Lopez. Always resourceful, the Chumash used Sharkskin for sanding, red ocher for staining and abalone to decorate the tomols. A swordfish is inlayed on one of the ears of the ’Elye’wun.

The tomol linked the islanders with the mainland villages that numbered well over 100.

According to the National Parks Service Web site, Michumash is the word from which Chumash is derived. Translated, it means “makers of shell bead money,” and is the term mainland Chumash used to refer to those who lived on the islands. ‘Achum, or shell bead money, was made by the islanders using small discs of Olivella shell and drills manufactured from Santa Cruz Island chert. ‘Achum was used to trade with mainland villages for goods that were unavailable on the islands.

Songs for the journey

Reggie Pagaling, a member of the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians, sang a melodious tune as they reached the center of the channel. As he steered the tomol, his words inspired a steady rhythm, and the four paddlers worked in unison toward their historic quest.

“They’re just happy songs,” explained Pagaling, a Chumash tribal elder. “It makes the crossing more enjoyable and takes the paddlers’ mind off the task at hand, while unifying them.”

It worked with me as well, the monotony of the crossing washed away as I observed their heavy paddles pulling through capping seas as they paddled on their knees, leaning forward into swell and wind.

With six more miles left in their wake, the Chumash made another transition of paddlers from the support boat. Four new paddlers forged ahead into the shipping lanes. As large as these cargo ships are, it’s a classic case of “now you see them, now you don’t.” It seemed as though they weren’t moving fast until we got fairly close to one, a steep wave cresting off its bow.

We came across four of these super freighters and, personally, I’ve never felt comfortable in the channel until well clear of the shipping lanes.

Building bridges

“The crossing is meant to create bridges for different communities,” said Lopez, a Chumash Maritime Association member and, along with Pagaling, captain of ’Elye’wun, “both internally and externally.”

However, the Chumash have been crossing the channel for millenniums and, according to Chumash lore, the first Chumash people came from Limuw. Hutash, the Earth Mother was married to Alchupo’osh, Sky Snake, the Milky Way. The Chumash were created from a magic plant, and Alchupo’osh used his tongue to make lightning bolts, building fire to keep the Chumash warm and to cook food. Now introduced to fire, the Chumash lived more comfortably and proliferated as their island villages grew. Limuw became crowded and the noise increased annoying Hutash. She decided to move some of the Chumash off Limuw to the mainland, where no people lived.

According to NPS, Hutash created a rainbow, long and high stretching from the tallest mountain on Limuw ( Diablo Mountain) to the Tzchimoos, the tall mountains near Mishopshno (Carpinteria). She told the Chumash to cross the rainbow bridge and proliferate the world. As they made the journey, some made the mistake of looking down to the fog swirling below. Some got dizzy and fell into the ocean. Hutash didn’t want anyone to drown, so she transformed them into dolphins. The Chumash consider dolphins their brothers and sisters.

For a brief moment, a small pod of common dolphins greeted us with the sun directly overhead, breaching out of windblown waves toward our bows. Hoots and hollers followed, coming from the support boat, before their pelagic siblings dove deep beneath our boats.

Coming home

The ridge line from Cavern Point was clearly distinct, running evenly toward the southeast end of Santa Cruz before descending into Scorpion Anchorage. Two of the younger Chumash were now paddling the tomol to Limuw, paddling in rhythm with Lopez at the helm.

Several weeks earlier, Lopez told me the crossing was one way to involve the next generation into a rich culture of boat builders, artisans and fishermen. The boat builders were historically in the upper echelon of Chumash society.

“We’re trying to train the younger generation,” said Lopez, who has helped build five tomols, “so they can gain that balance and harmony.”

I’ve never seen Scorpion Anchorage so crowded. At least 200 Chumash and well wishers greeted the 19 Chumash paddlers as the tomol reached the cobbled shore. The women sang ancient songs as the tomol approached, and a throng of Chumash helped carry the tomol up the beach.

“We’re part of that revitalization,” said Ray Ward, who, with his two sons and brother, Matt, were part of the paddling contingent across the channel. “We really don’t want to disappear.”