Prior to 1769, on that day before California, the Chumash population is estimated at around 20,000 (The Day Before America, William MacLeish, Houghton Mifflin, New York, 1994). Although there had been sporadic contact with Europeans since 1542 when Cabrillo arrived on the scene, their complex hunter gatherer society remained intact until the eighteenth century apocalypse of disease and missionization. By the early 20th century they numbered less than 200. They had been decimated and then decimated again in the literal meaning of the word. Remarkably, a group of people now thrive in the State who identify themselves ethnically with the Chumash and in some cases are direct descendants of that small band of holocaust survivors.

A week ago Lorrie and I traveled down the Chumash Highway (154) to visit one of the four towns of the Santa Ynez valley and I was quietly pleased that the highway’s name reflected the fact that it followed the path of the old Chumash trade route between the Chumash villages of Syuxtun in Santa Barbara to Soxtonokmu and Kalawashaq in the Santa Ynez valley via the San Marcos pass. My pleasure derived, in part, from a conception that there was - in part of Sacramento’s bureaucratic machinery housed in some musty wood paneled office on the fourth floor of an Italianate pile from the 1920’s (serviced by a rickety elevator) - a wizened and bespectacled bureaucrat who had made the naming decision on the suggestion, perhaps, of the Santa Barbara Archaeological Society. This notion was founded on a childish faith in the benign intent of an entirely mythical, paternalistic (and comfortably autocratic) government.

The naming rights to State Highway 154, I now learn, were bought and paid for by the Casino Industry by way of political contributions to Assemblymen up and down the State. The highway’s name reflects the fact that the Chumash Casino, in Santa Ynez, is now the preeminent cultural institution of the Chumash people.

On the way back to Santa Barbara, we stopped at the Painted Cave, in the foothills above the coastal plain, inland from Goleta. This tiny State Park is marked by a small sign at the road where there is room for a couple of cars to pull off to the side of the narrow road. A set of steep rock steps takes you above the road, past a shallow sandstone cave and then to a larger cave opening securely barred with steel gates.

Between the bands of steel we shone our flashlights and illuminated the amazingly vibrant iconography of the Chumash shamans - limned in red ochres, grey, black and white set against the buff colored rock of the cave. Rattle snakes (guardians of the spirit world), a centipede (representing death) and sun-like circles are depicted as well as a black disc which is thought to represent an eclipse from the late seventeenth century. In pristine condition, the work is reputed to be the finest example of rock art paint in the western United States. More significantly, it stands as testament to the intrepid work of the shaman - who broached pathways to the spirit world by the simple act of entering the cave and then recorded his findings on the rock wall. Absent such human conduit to the spirits of the Chumash world it is doubtful if their culture can now, in any sense, be considered intact.

Yet their casino does, in an ironic and perverted way, represent a kind of cultural continuity. For the Chumash people had a highly developed economic system in which shell beads were used as currency. Their mint was located on the Channel Islands and plank canoes, or tomols were the means by which goods were exchanged between the mainland and the islands. The demand for the currency from large population centers near the coast as well as more isolated groups of villages (such as those clustered around Ojai) served as an impetus for this intensive bead making industry. In turn, the currency provided a mechanism by which food and other commodities could be exchanged between communities. These currency beads have been located as far afield as the Great Basin and the Southwest. (The Chumash World at European Contact, Lynn H. Gamble, U.C. Press, Los Angeles, 2008). Chumash society, pre-contact, represented a peak of neolithic achievement.

Despite their proto-modernity, the Chumash retained, like all Native peoples of the Americas, some sense of a cosmic-biological connection to their landscape. And it is to this sense that we continually return in our romanticization of their ancient lifeways. They were fully sentient: we are domesticated creatures forever alienated from our environment. As MacLeish puts it, “Environmentalism signifies a concern for one’s surroundings, and early Americans seem to have had little sense of being surrounded. They were part not apart.”

Lorrie reminded me over dinner this evening that it was Farley Mowatt in his autobigraphical study, Never Cry Wolf, McClelland & Stewart, Toronto, 1963, who claimed to have eaten wood rats to more fully understand the nature of the wolves he was tracking. He wanted to ingest what they ingested - to be part, not apart.

While the Chumash were heirs to the Neothermal - that post ice-age warming trend that we still enjoy and that made agriculture possible - their agricultural practices were confined to low-level environmental interventions such as fire to encourage grass seed yield, or sometimes to drive out rabbits. Jan Timbrook notes that the Southern Californian Cahuilla people burned stands of chia to improve their productivity and the Chumash may well have done the same.

But here in the chaparral, acorns, cherry, toyon, elderberry, chia and grass seeds were in ample supply while rabbits, bobcats, mule deer, grey squirrels, ground squirrels and foxes provided furs and meat. The Chumash lived off the landscape and therefore fully lived in it. Their bead currency allowed for societal savings - to purchase a hatful of acorns or chia in lean times. Alternatively one commodity might be traded for another such that one hatful of chia was worth five of acorns (Timbrook).

That connection to the landscape is now lost. The remnant, contemporary Chumash are truly apart from the natural world living, instead, off the netherworld of gambling where Blackjack, Let-it-Ride, 3, 4, and 5-card Poker, Ultimate Texas Hold’em, Omaha High/Low, Slots and Bingo provide a kind of sustenance.

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