In Search of a Shaman's Lair

The day after Lorrie's birthday party Doug Brotherton came over for brunch. He is a friend and colleague at the UCLA Rock Art Archive headed up by Jo Anne Van Tilberg and housed in the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology, next to the Fowler Museum. He introduced me to the Rock Art group some two or three years ago and his knowledge of Native American archaeology far exceeds mine, but since moving to Ojai I have been interested in the possibility of finding traces of the local Chumash culture in the local trails, rocks and creek beds.

The rock art that we have focused on in our work at UCLA relates to an area in the Mojave deep in Shoshone cultural territory. Living in Santa Monica Canyon, where a neighbor found a massive store of obsidian in his back yard, and Gabrieleno sites were scattered on the beach headlands and creeksides of the canyon I was also, effectively, in Shoshone territory - the local tribes having been re-named by the Spanish after the local missions. Coastal Shoshone used the Lakic branch of the broad Uto-Aztecan language family, while their desert brethren used Numic, and bands closer to the Sierras, Tubatulabalic. The Shoshone held sway over a wide swathe of Southern California, from the coast east to Death Valley, the Mojave and the Colorado River.

The Chumash established their dominion from what is now Malibu (ethnographically Maliwu, original meaning: sound of crashing waves) north to San Louis Obispo and east to where the 5 now bifurcates the state. This small, coastal influenced territory, wedged between the Pacific (but including the Channel Islands of Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa and San Miguel) and the Shoshonean, Yokuts and Salinan cultural areas, has been home to the Chumash for perhaps 6,000 years ( See Class of 2010, 10-06-01) and here they developed perhaps the most advanced material culture in Native California.

'So Doug', I asked, 'is it true that all Chumash rock art uses paint?' I didn't get a definitive answer; there may be none. Versions of the universal pit and groove motif exist in Chumash territory, most notably at the inland village of Soxtonocmu, close to S&S seeds in the eastern Santa Ynez Valley (Where Native Meadows Come From 2010-04-14) where cupules and incised grooves may have been part of a fertilty ritual (Georgia Lee, Journal of California & Great Basin Anthropology, vol.3 no. 1, 1981). But certainly the most well known Chumash rock art sites feature painted motifs. My interest is parochial; I want to find pecked or painted rock art somewhere in all this great mess of boulders and rock outcroppings that are the Topa Topa foothills. Paint is inevitably ephemeral, but pecked motifs can date back 10,000 years or more, and in this area, that would take us beyond the Chumash to the Oak Grove people of the milling stone horizon.

Doug suggested that given the significance of the Topa Topa rock face to the Chumash a rigorous archaeological mapping might be undertaken from the base of the spalled face on up. Somewhere, he suggested, there must be a Chumash trail leading to a shaman's lair. I told him that in these foothills there is reputed to be a vast field of chia, the remarkable grain that sustained super human efforts of endurance running amongst Native Americans. Talk turned to the Tarahumara (more properly, the Raramuri -the running people), natives of Copper Canyon in Chihuahua, Mexico, who use chia to fuel their epic runs through the rocky canyon bottom.

A year ago I attended a talk at The Santa Barbara Archeological Society with Jay Fikes showing the BBC documentary, Tales from the Jungle: Carlos Castaneda, 2007, which featured both him and local archaeologist Richard De Mille (yes, son of Cecil B.) debunking the validity of Castenada's work. Much of their complaints centered on doubts of Don Juan's native identity. Castaneda suggests that Don Juan is Yaqui, and his seminal work The Teachings of Don Juan, UC Press, Los Angeles, 1968  is subtitled A Yaqui way of Knowledge, for which he was awarded a PhD by the UCLA School of Archaeology. But hiding out in Mexico for months and years while his wife waited in Westwood, Castaneda had reason to obsfucate his whereabouts. The recent book Born to Run, Christopher McDougall, Knopf, New York 2009, suggests that he may have been hanging out with the Tarahumara in Copper Canyon, where the drug fueled partying that is intrinsic to their societal structure would have suited Castaneda, a philanderer not averse to altered states of consciousness.

I had a date marked in my calender in the spring of 1998, to go see Carlos Castaneda at Local Hero in the arcade where Feast now is (in the good old days when there were two independent book stores in Ojai) but this engagement was cancelled a couple of weeks before the day and a little while later the world learnt that he had died of liver cancer on 27 April 1998.

On the Monday after seeing Doug - without aid of chia, but instead a small cup of green tea for me and a glass of water for my son Will, he and I ran up the Sisar trail to the ridge-line fire road seven miles distant. From there we were some way west of the Topa Topa face and, at around 6,000 feet the impression was that we were almost looking down on its rugged imperfections off in the distance. A marine layer swirled along the coast far beyond us, but Point Mugu was visible as a spine emerging from the fog bank. At that elevation the Manzanita is dwarfed and dominates the scrubland, but scattered under it was sometimes the beautiful piinkish red Turkish Rugging (Chorizanthe staticoides), yellow Mariposa Lilies (Calochortus plummerea), and Blue Larkspur (Delphinium parryi). Here it is still spring, and the Manzanita has yet to flower.

It would be a long run, albeit slightly down-hill to the base of the Topa Topas, and that day we had no intention of taking it: instead, we returned to White Ledge Camp and then back to the Sisar trail head. A more direct route from Koenigstein would be up Bear Canyon, but I have yet to find a trail beyond the spring tributary which feeds the year-round creek.

But perhaps a Chumash Shaman continued on, clambering directly up the rocky gorge carved deep into the canyon by winter rains. Perhaps he ran up it, and perhaps he was barefoot, like the Raramuri and, then perhaps, he pecked at the sandstone base of the Topa Topas with a palm sized chunk of quartz he had carried in his medicine bag and immortalized his entoptic vision.


  1. Well, there is a well-known (although deliberately unmarked) "Indian cave" up a stream north of Alder Creek above Fillmore, with some very trippy (and genuine) cave paintings. I could probably help you find it, if you wish to visit.

    Going up the bluffs? Man, it's rugged up there.

  2. Hey neighbor, I may take you up on your offer. Thank you......back from our 'back east' vacation see Thinking MYA