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How the Santa Ynez Chumash will showcase their 8,000 year history in a new museum

Aerial museum.jpg
Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians
An artistic drawing of what the Santa Ynez Chumash Museum & Cultural Center will look like from the air. 20,000 artifacts and items that have been collected, donated or created for the museum including hand woven baskets, knitted skirts and musical instruments.

The story comes from KCLU’s podcast The One Oh One. You can listen to the full episode here.

Land from Malibu all the way up the coast to Paso Robles was once Chumash Indian territory. Today, their territory is significantly smaller but you’ll still find tribal members in the Santa Ynez Valley north of Santa Barbara and close to the city of Solvang.

The reservation is 140 acres with about a hundred homes on it. Groves and farmland surround the boot-shaped reservation that has a creek running through the center of it.

“We are descendants of the village of what's known as Kalawashaq. And that is about a mile from the existing reservation,” said Kenneth Kahn, the chairman of the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians – the only federally recognized Chumash tribe.

“We have a thriving local economy. Our tribe is very active in a lot of tribal issues around the state, around the nation,” Kahn said.

Kahn says with his job every day is different. He could be taking part in a roundtable discussion about tribal issues with the Vice President of the United States; or leading the project to expand their casino; and sometimes even helping someone look for their lost dog on the reservation.

He’s always balancing his tribe’s past and present.

“Nowadays our hunting and gathering is through and our local supermarkets. But we do have some folks that are able to have traditional hunts and participate in some of the more traditional ways of filling up their food pantries. We joke around sometimes that our ancestors would, you know, they'd be taking the modern way to speed things up as well,” said Kahn.

The connection between a tumultuous past and the present is integral to the tribe whose history in this region goes back around 350 generations.

Before the arrival of the Spanish in the 1700s, historians say the number of Chumash in our region numbered over 20,000.

But with the establishment of missions on tribal lands, and the introduction of foreign diseases, the Chumash people were decimated.

Chumash historians say by the early 1800s just under 3,000 Chumash remained.

Kahn balances a dark past with the present day as they continue to fight for their prosperity.

“There have always been influences that have made it challenging for our tribes to be able to provide for themselves and for their future generations. And so we're continuously fighting to make sure that there's equal opportunity for our membership,” said Kahn. “And it's important that we also fight to take care of those around us as well because we live in an absolutely beautiful community.”

How will the Chumash tell their story?

This fall a museum and cultural center is slated to open on the reservation. The tribe says it's a way to share their history with tribal members, the local community and visitors. The museum has been years in the making.

In 2009 a committee was formed consisting of 14 tribal members. Their purpose was to advise what they wanted their museum to be like. They traveled all over the country to get inspiration – to a dozen museums in half as many states.

“We really got to see from the grand National Museum of American Indian at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., to the Pequot Museum in Connecticut, both two of the largest facilities that I've ever been in. But also being able to travel around the country and see other tribal museums,” said Kahn.

Kahn says it was a process of finding what was the right fit for them.

“How do we tell our story? How many square feet fits our community, fits our tribe and fits our storytelling ability,” said Kahn.

The Tribal Hall building on the reservation is where tribal members come to check in on services. In the lobby you’ll see examples of how the future museum’s exhibits will tell the story of the Chumash and their land. There’s a huge bird – a California condor – on display.

“The California condor is very significant to the Chumash. The Museum of Natural History donated this display case to us years ago. This used to be in their exhibit hall, and the bird that we're looking at today is known as AC 8,” said Kahn.

This bird was part of a condor breeding program, during a time when the prehistoric looking creature almost went extinct. Data was collected on AC 8 for 20 years. Sadly the bird was shot by a hunter but the tribe sees the bird as deeply connected to their past.

“We're able to carry on the story and share more and use AC 8 as a teaching tool,” said Kahn.

Also on display in the Tribal Hall lobby is the bust of a woman whose stories have played a huge part in the design of the museum.

“We have a statue of Maria Solares. A lot of our members have descended from Maria. She's worked really hard with preserving our language, preserving some of our stories. The actual height was her height. And so that was strategic. So this way, when people walk in, they can actually see you know what it was like to be in her presence,” said Kahn.

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Michelle Loxton
Kenneth Kahn, the chairman of the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians, pictured here at Tribal Hall next to the statue of Maria Solares – a Chumash ancestor. Solares died a hundred years ago and was a preserver of Chumash history, culture and language. 

You’ll hear more about Maria and her stories later on in this piece. But the language that Maria worked hard to preserve is an essential part of the museum and cultural center.

The reawakening of the Chumash language

“So our language was what we like to say. It was sleeping, was stolen from us. We couldn't speak it,” said Kathleen Marshall. She’s a tribal member and their lead language and culture teacher.

Marshall says there was a time when the tribe didn’t speak their indigenous language because it hadn’t been passed down – it had been lost.

But then about 15 years ago their language was rediscovered.

Here’s what Marshall says happened. In 1912 an American linguist interviewed Kathleen Marshall’s great, great, great, great grandmother – Maria Solares (remember the bust in Tribal Hall). He sat with her for about four years documenting the Chumash language.

Those notes were owned by the Smithsonian and later ended up at UC Berkeley where another linguist, Dr. Richard Applegate, discovered them in a basement by chance and decided to create a dictionary of the language.

The tribe heard about this and hired Applegate to work with them to bring their language back. Kathleen Marshall now teaches the tribe what she learned from Applegate.

“It's moving slowly because it's very hard to teach a language that nobody speaks,” said Marshall. “Unfortunately, we have to teach it with grammar because that is how our linguist taught us. It's not like we learned it from our grandparents or our mothers or our family growing up, we didn't hear it because nobody was speaking it. There were people on the reservation that knew words here and there and knew some songs, but there was no fluent speakers at all.”

Through this process they unearthed more than just their language.

“We went through all the notes and our grandmother said we were Samala Chumash, our language was Samala. And we just found that out 15 years ago that that's who we were, we're Samala Chumash,” said Marshall.

It was a full circle moment for Marshall realizing this discovery came from her own ancestor. I asked her what that moment was like.

“It makes you want to cry right now because wow, that was taken from us. We didn't even know what our name was. We didn't even know there was a name out there for us,” said Marshall. “So finding that out, really, it filled my heart and my soul, and it did to everyone that was around us at that table when we told them that. And since then, our tribe has chosen to be Samala Chumash because that's who we are.”

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Michelle Loxton
Kathleen Marshall is a Santa Ynez Chumash tribal member and their lead language and culture teacher. She’s pictured here with a Samala-Chumash dictionary. The tribe’s language was lost for decades and was only rediscovered about 15 years ago.

I interviewed Marshall just outside Tribal Hall. It’s a warm day and she noted the smell of California sage in the air. She says living on the reservation with her family means so much to her.

“This is where I work. This is where I live. This is where I raise my children. This is where I was taught everything that I needed to know as a child,” said Marshall. “Living on a reservation is very special because you really live next door to your family. Everybody on the reservation is related in one way or another.”

She says she can feel her ancestors on this land.

“You can feel our family through here. The land is alive. You know, we believe that,” said Marshall. “When we do ceremony or when we're getting ready to sing and dance, you can really feel our ancestors here with us. This is where we're from.”

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Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians
A story from the Samala-Chumash dictionary entitled ‘The Story Of Woodpecker And The Flood’. 

A museum filled with 8,000 years of Native history

A short drive from Tribal Hall is the construction site for the Chumash museum.

The tribe chose the architect Johnpaul Jones who was also involved in the design of the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. and many other projects in Indian country.

Kathy Conti is working very closely with the architect. She is the director of museum programs, research and resources for the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians.

We put on hard hats and reflective jackets. Conti, who’s not part of, but works for the tribe, is taking me on a tour. It’s very much a construction site when I visit and all sorts of work is going on with machines buzzing in the background. The museum is definitely beginning to take shape.

Michelle Loxton
The Santa Ynez Chumash Museum & Cultural Center is starting to take shape. In the distance construction workers install delicate skylights. 

When you arrive at the museum you will walk along what they’re calling their entry procession where you’ll meander a footpath that is almost like following a river – the Santa Ynez River more specifically. Along that footpath will be an illustrated timeline showing the tribe's long, long history.

You’ll notice as you follow the river that all the museum buildings have large boulders of different sizes, part of the structure, placed close to the foundations. They’re called grandfather stones.

“They're very large, and they're meant to sort of ground those buildings and link them to the ground, link them to the heritage,” said Conti. “They were sourced at the Lompoc Quarry, which is a type of stone that early Chumash would have used as well.”

One of the buildings you’ll pass along the entry procession is the Heritage House which will be used for events for the tribe and as a rental space. This room will have a unique ceiling – with the help of special effects it’ll be like staring up at the sky the way it looked a longtime ago, living in a Chumash village.

“It's going to have two views – a daytime view, which is going to have lovely blue sky and a few clouds and probably a couple of hawks swirling into that sky,” said Conti. “In the view of the nighttime sky they're going to see the Chumash constellations and the Milky Way.”

A multisensory experience

We walk up to the first building you’ll enter when you visit the museum. Giant bronze doors with large handles in the shape of clapper sticks, a Chumash musical instrument, will make way into a large dome-shaped room.

This room is styled in the way the Chumash built their homes hundreds of years ago.

“We are now standing in what is called the Welcome House. This building has been designed after original Chumash architecture, which were houses built out of tule and willow,” said Conti.

Tule being reeds that grow by the water’s edge – Conti had brought a bit of tule for me to see. The reeds are light brown in color and a bit like styrofoam. A sturdy, hard outside layer with a spongy inside. It has a crunchy sound when you handle it. The Chumash would use tule for the building of their homes, the weaving of mats and baskets.

It’s a special day for Conti and her team when I visit as delicate round skylights are being installed in the Welcome House and elsewhere. She’s very excited to see something she has worked on for so long come to fruition.

“And they put the glass in, and this is the first time that I've seen this after planning this for a few years,” said “You'll see that there are Chumash rock art motifs in there as we look up to the sky.”

Hundreds of years ago there would have been a round hole in the tops of the Chumash homes – a hole that would let the smoke out from the fire.

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Michelle Loxton
Round skylights are installed in the top of dome-shaped rooms. Hundreds of years ago the Chumash had holes in the top of their dome-shaped houses to let the smoke from the fire out. Chumash rock art motifs are printed on the glass. 

The tribe wants this to be a multi-sensory experience. On the walls you’ll see paintings of all sorts of Chumash dancers.

“There's going to be the Barracuda Dancer, Swordfish, Bear and ’Antap dancer, Blackbird dancer and a Condor dancer,” said Conti.

But it’s not just what you’ll see. It'll be what you’ll hear too.

“We're going to hear sounds that would have been behind these paintings, sounds of the ocean waves lapping to the shore, sounds of hawks calling across this space that would have been in the Chumash world that are currently in the Chumash world. Sounds of fire crackling and so on. Along with greeting words in Samala Chumash,” said Conti.

Lost stories rediscovered

A hallway decorated with feather banners, that the Chumash used to mark special places, leads away from the Welcome House and takes you to Maria Solares Discovery Center – remember the bust of Maria back at the Tribal Hall. Maria, who died a hundred years ago, was an avid storyteller. Her tales are an integral part of the museum.

This particular room is themed around Maria’s stories about the three worlds that the Chumash believed in – the upper world – being the the things we see above us – the moon, sun, thunder and birds; the middle world – the world we’re in now; and the lower world – filled with malevolent beings.

“I'm very excited for people to see that because it's kind of an unknown story. Not that it's been a secret, but I think this is going to be its debut for the world,” said Conti.

The museum will have more than 45 exhibits, 30 of them interactive. 20,000 artifacts and items that have been collected, donated or created for the museum including hand woven baskets, knitted skirts and musical instruments.

Once you’re finished with the indoor exhibits, you’ll make your way outdoors to the three-and-a half acre cultural park. The tribe says they have a very unique relationship with “Mother Earth Father Sun”, and it's extremely important that they incorporate the outdoors in their museum and in a way that is ecologically responsible.

There will be an amphitheater, a tomol house for the tomols or canoes that were carved out of Redwood trees. There will also be a native garden where there will be 11,000 plants that have all been part of the Chumash history.

Authenticity has been essential to Conti throughout this process. Her research has taken her all over our region and world, sourcing and researching Chumash artifacts that have ended up in museums overseas.

“To make sure that we're telling the authentic story that when people come here, that they see that this is a native place. When Chumash people come here, they should see themselves in the exhibits, they should see their ancestors and see and hear and feel their own story. And it should be very profound,” said Conti.

Conti says elders have told her they can’t wait to visit with their grandchildren.

“This incredible museum and cultural center. First and foremost, is for the tribe,” said Conti.


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