Pictured: On Sept. 24 at the Ventura County Government Center members of the Chumash Ventureño/Barbareño Band of Mission Indians, stand with the document proclaiming Indigenous Peoples’ Day. From left Brenda Guzman, Gloria Tumamait, Julie Tumamait-Stenslie, Eleanor Arellanes-Fishburn, Raudel Bañuelos. Photo: Submitted.
by Kimberly Rivers
Before immigration and refugee migration, before California was a state, before the Spanish and Mexican fought for control of this land, before the missions, the first people were here. Efforts in the county are bringing important recognition to the value and importance of the culture of the local indigenous people, and protecting lands and spaces of significance to their way of life.
On Sept. 24, the Ventura County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to name the second Monday in October — formerly known as Columbus Day — Indigenous Peoples’ Day. It is a small step aimed at repairing decades of damage inflicted on the culture and lives of the first people to live on this land.
At the hearing, Chair Steve Bennett (Dist. 1) read the proclamation, which called out that the first Indigenous Peoples’ Day was proclaimed 26 years ago following the International NGO Conference on Discrimination Against Indigenous Populations in the Americas.
“. . . [P]art of the 1977 United States Geneva Conference — where more than one hundred Native representatives gave voice to the experiences of their people before an international audience; and Whereas, the Chumash were the first residents of the Ventura region, inhabiting California’s Central Coast from time immemorial; and Whereas, the County of Ventura recognizes indigenous people as valuable members of our local community who contribute greatly to the area’s vibrant culture, rich history, local economy, strong workforce, creative arts, philanthropic efforts and diverse social landscape; and Whereas, the County of Ventura gladly joins the multiple counties and cities nationwide who recognize Indigenous Peoples’ Day as a day to honor, celebrate, and support Indigenous Peoples. Now, Therefore, Be It Resolved that the Ventura County Board of Supervisors hereby adopt this Resolution proclaiming the second Monday of October as Indigenous Peoples’ Day in Ventura County.”
“This is a start. We will be visiting the cities in our landscape . . . there may not be a native presence there . . . but our mountains and sacred places are still there,” said Julie Tumamait-Stenslie, commissioner with the California Native American Heritage Association and chair of the Barbareño/Ventureño Band of Mission Indians (Ojai), in thanking the board for the resolution and mentioning plans to ask other cities to pass similar resolutions.
Tumamait-Stenslie reached out to Bennett’s office about a year ago about this action, and is pleased that county supervisors moved forward with it. She feels that it is important for people across the county to know “they are on sacred land. Our indigenous plants are still there, our spirit is still in that land.”
“Ventura County’s recognition of Indigenous Peoples’ Day is an important step bringing light to our shared history and honoring the First People of the area, the Chumash, as well as the many different Indigenous Peoples who currently reside in the Ventura County from all throughout the Americas,” said Alicia Cordero, First Nations Program Officer with the Wishtoyo Chumash Foundation. “Visibility of the modern Chumash people is vital to our work protecting our traditional homelands and cultural lifeways. And standing strong with our other Indigenous brothers and sisters is essential to all of our collective human rights.”
In expressing appreciation for the resolution, Tumamait said that the time now in the fall before November is Hutash, the Chumash time of gratitude. It is “Our thanks giving time. This is our time right now, where we are having gratitude for mother earth, all of the creator’s gifts…gathering to honor all living beings in this land.”
“When you want to know our shrine places, look for where the cell towers are — we didn’t want interruption either!” Tumamait laughed, noting that the Indigenous people looked to the mountaintops to commune with their deities. More seriously, she added, “But still the presence over thousands of years of our spirit is in that land that can resonate with people once they decide to step in.”
Protecting sacred lands
But “stepping in” can sometimes pose problems as well.
“One of the challenges is trying to convince people they are on holy land,” said Tumamait during a later conversation. She mentioned a site called Sathwiwa on the campus of California State University, Channel Islands (CSUCI). Sathwiwa is the Chumash name for what is today called Round Mountain, a large, looming sand colored mound rising up out of the flat land. “That is sacred land . . . there is going to be a shrine up there. I think that is appropriate for the place. But again, once you start bringing people up into these sacred places they just don’t have any respect for them.”
“I don’t know how many people actually look at this land that they are living in, [and understand it] has had prayer and song, stories and gifts given to this land for over…13,500 years, and I know we were here way longer than that.” Julie Tumamait-Stenslie
“People will start picking things, we are really against picking of things in nature because there’s just too many people.” Tumamait pointed to plans of the CSUCI for a native garden on campus where if folks do want to gather native plants they will be able to do so, leaving the wild and sacred places protected.
The group restored a walking trail, now clearly marked so the site may again be used today, by local Chumash and visited by the public.
The picking of native plants is related to another major problem native peoples contend with, looting.
“We have a whole group of people out here [in the county] who go out to the islands, go up in the hills, to their favorite little bead picking spot … constantly dig things up and sell items. Which is completely illegal.” She says the laws date back to 1901, and include jail and a fine. But there are challenges with enforcement.
Wishtoyo’s Cordero highlights the work happening locally and globally protecting sacred native places. “All around the world, we are witnessing this growing momentum.” She points to a groundswell in Hawaii to protect Mauna Kea, the Standing Rock protests and people of Mexico and the Amazon protecting wild rivers and water rights. In California, the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians in Coachella Valley have secured their ancient water rights and in Sonoma the Kashia Pomo once again own 700 acres of ancestral land. She points not only to the environmental aspects of this work but also the way these protections “restore spiritual and psychological wellness in their community.”
“Here in the Chumash homelands, Wishtoyo Foundation is restoring 100 acres of property as a First Nations Ecological and Cultural Conservancy in Ventura County,” said Cordero. They have also won court cases protecting the instream flows of Utom (the Santa Clara River). “Our most recent legal victory against the Trump administration ensures the designation of critical habitat for our endangered humpback whales.”
Recent work of Tumamait and her tribal family includes observing debris clean up and removal at the two large burn areas in the county, ensuring native sites were not disturbed during the sometimes major dirt moving that occurs. They worked for about two months in the wake of the Thomas Fire, and four months in the Woolsey Fire area.
“Woolsey was a bigger animal, we were there checking and recording sites, bringing tribal knowledge, [sometimes] inadvertent discovering. We were watching the crews doing the debris clean up, in some cases they were close to archeological sites, and in some cases people had built right over archeological sites.” She said the fires way of clearing the land opened up the possibility to find and learn about native sites in places normally inaccessible.
“To be able to step into those places for me was truly amazing, the sense of place, looking at our cultural landscape from that angle…and seeing the damage, the debris, of what the fire did to people it was devastating.” But she said when the crews were done, the area was returned to its “cultural visual presence, and it was so beautiful.” She described the way the plants recovered, “in both of these fires was regenerative immediately. They’re huge, I mean just 3 times their [normal] size, in the middle of all the debris you have native plants popping up. It gives one hope. The land took care of itself and the people are still struggling to find how they are going to rebuild, hopefully, maybe make a smaller footprint.”
“Since time immemorial, indigenous peoples have been the protectors and caretakers of their homelands,” said Cordero. “After centuries of colonization, we are currently in an exciting time where everywhere… indigenous people are coming together to advocate for environmental justice and recognition of sovereignty.”
“I don’t know how many people actually look at this land that they are living in, [and understand it] has had prayer and song, stories and gifts given to this land for over . . . 13,500 years, and I know we were here way longer than that,” Tumamait said. She described the mission period to today as “those 200 years when [the prayers] stopped happening.”
She explained that the common notion that “life began at the mission” is an incomplete history. By example, she pointed to the tiled mural recently unveiled at the San Buenaventura Mission, which she feels is not reflective of the depth of the Chumash experience in the area. When her family met and spoke with artist, Michael O’Kelly during the mural’s development, she understood that it would be “an actual and true timeline. Well, I guess it is an actual and true timeline, depending on whose perspective.” In her view, the mural suggests that the history of the area began with the building of the mission.
Tumamait’s family, like the many native peoples up and down California, lived in the region well before the missionaries came and were involved in building the mission. “My parents, my father’s side, both his parents were Chumash. And it was their parents, grandparents and great grandparents at San Buenaventura that built that mission. They also built a part of the La Purisima Mission [in Lompoc].” She tells how some of her family members were from the islands. “From Santa Rosa Island, my grandmother’s family went to Carpinteria, to San Luis Obispo, to Cuyama Valley and down through Ojai. My father’s father’s side went from Santa Cruz [Island] to Malibu and then through the backcountry through Ojai and down. And they intermarried between those places. Our ancestry is literally looping our territory here.”
Reflecting on the story of the mission, the recent work at the fire sites, Tumamait says, “It just confirms my knowledge of how resilient our people are.” She points to Chismahoo Mountain (peak is about six miles north east of Lake Casitas), “and Rincon all the way to the top of Mulholland and Encinal. We’re up there.” Many homeowners in the fire areas had no idea of where they were. “Some had an idea that they might be in sacred land. I said ‘absolutely. And not only that, it wasn’t my great, great, great, great, great grandparents, but this is a place where my great grandparents were. That is how recent they were here, in their homeland.”
“It is clear that while indigenous people have lived in these lands in a sustainable way for thousands of years…European colonialism has brought untold damage and devastation in the space of just a few generations,” said Cordero. “The truth is now ringing clear throughout the world that we must bring indigenous traditional knowledge back to the center and that by protecting indigenous cultural resources we are protecting the environment as a whole.”
For information on the Barbareño/Venturenño Band of Mission Indians visit: www.bvbmi.com
For information the Wishtoyo Foundation visit: www.wishtoyo.org