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Becoming Chumash: The Great Seafarers of Southern California

Updated: Mar 4, 2023

As a boy, the first book I read that wasn’t a child’s story was “Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce” tribe. I daydreamed of being a warrior in that tribe and, as they say, “counting coup” in battle. Not killing your enemy, but passing by them close enough to touch them without being killed. I felt it was a much more honorable way of proving yourself than actually killing.

After spending 27 years living with my ear to the ground and gathering all that the natural world had spoken to me. After understanding that every one of my foot steps, every interaction and conversation with friends, family and strangers, were moments wherein I saw that we’re all connected to something; call it God, spirit, the Universe or whatever you will.

At 27 I met Red Star of the Ventureño Chumash, a seafaring tribe known for their excellence in fishing and having a mastery of their “tomols” or what we might call kayaks. They were quite adept at “surfing” their canoes into shore, and they ranged from Port Hueneme (“Wynema,” or “half way point”) to Anacapa Island (known as Anypax or “illusion” due to the effect the Santa Ana winds had in making it appear much larger) and Ventura (known as Shisholop or “in the mud” before white contact). They’ve occupied Southern California for thousands of years.

Red Star and I met through a surf magazine I was publishing at the time and I wanted to include his voice. We experienced three Sweat Lodges, (the intensity of which I had never experienced) together with the elders and younger tribesman and spent a lot of time talking about the relationship between the coastal tribes and the Ocean.

After that third Sweat Lodge, we stepped into the river and thanked the wind and the water for cooling us. We took deep breaths and smiled at each other knowing we’d endured the heat and challenge of the fire and that we had shared in a tradition that spanned millennia.

It was decided soon after that I should become an honorary member of the tribe. When they told me about my honorary membership, I felt like it was the culmination of a life lived. I was honored and elated. And I felt very close to Chief Joseph and my new friend Red Star.

We then played Chumash football and were photographed by the LA Times as it was an “official” Pow Wow known to the outside world. I’ve since lost those photographs but they are very much alive in my mind’s eye.

It’s been 28 years since and I have to say I’d like to think that I’m closer now to what they believed me to be than on that wonderful day in August of 1994. I was far too young then. And internalizing the entire breadth of another culture can take decades or even a lifetime.

If there’s anything I might offer you all from my experience, is that we all should be living our lives, heartily, fully, and as stewards of the earth for the 7th generation and to be mindful of the future of our children, our grandchildren, their grandchildren and so on.

So, in closing I say, “A ho,” thank you, and “might I have permission to enter” your heart, as we said before entering the sweat lodge, and, as Hawaiians say, “A hui ho.” See you when I see you and “Mahalo Nui Loa,” thank you from my heart.

Remember your elders and be mindful of the coming generations.

This story is not complete and likely will never be complete for me, but my hope is that it might embolden you to seek a deeper connection that might resonate for decades or even millennia from now. None of our stories are ever complete if only in the eyes of the seventh generation.

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