Chumash Cross Channel in Tomol to
Santa Cruz Island
By Roberta R. Cordero
Member and co-founder
of the Chumash Maritime Association
Photographs by Robert Schwemmer, Channel Islands National
portion of our indigenous homeland stretches from Morro Bay in
the north to Malibu Point in the south, and encompasses the northern
Channel Islands of Tuqan, Wi’ma, Limuw, and ‘Anyapakh
(San Miguel, Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz, and Anacapa). This great,
elongated bowl with its irregular rim of coastal mountain contains
and nurtures a breathtaking array of maritime habitats. The ancestors
of the autochthonous people of the region—we are now known
as Chumash—were so well-integrated into and adapted to their
habitats that they were able to thrive here continuously and sustainably
for some thirteen thousand years before European contact.
As for many
indigenous maritime cultures, the canoe is central to our understanding
of who we are as a people on this specific place on the earth.
Until the missionization of the Chumash people, our waters were
filled with watercraft, especially the redwood plank canoe, the
tomol, among the most advanced technological achievements of
North America’s indigenous peoples. Used for both fishing
and transportation, these elegant and versatile canoes wove together
coastal and island communities in a complex system of trade, kinship
and a resource stewardship that was sustained over thousands of
The old Brotherhood
of the Canoe governed the manufacture and use of the tomols until
it was formally disbanded around 1834 because of the decimation
of the people and the tomols. However, 142 years later, in 1976,
Helek (Peregrine Falcon) was the first tomol to be built in modern
times. Her design based on ethnographic and historic accounts
as well as archeological data, she was paddled by a crew comprised
of ten members of the modern Brotherhood of the Tomol from Tuqan
to Wi’ma and then to Limuw in a grueling
and much-celebrated journey.
The tomol, ‘Elye’wun (Swordfish), was
built by the Chumash community in 1996-97 under the leadership of
the Chumash Maritime Association. On September 8, 2001, ‘Elye’wun
made her first and historic crossing from the mainland to Limuw,
completing the island circle begun by Helek. This crossing culminated
in a cultural celebration with about 150 Chumash families and friends
encamped on the island, marking the first time for almost all of
us to make this return to an important origin place of our people.
11, 2004, ‘Elye’wun again
made the arduous journey from mainland to the village of Swaxil (at
the present day location of Scorpion Valley) where some 200 Chumash
and other Native people were gathered to discuss issues affecting
Sacred Sites. The 2004 crossing was truly a milestone for the
community in that the crew landing ‘Elye’wun were five
Chumash youths aged 14 to 22, marking a significant passing on of
knowledge and experience to our young people. These are part of the
generation who are now accustomed to the awesome sight of a traditional
canoe in our home waters, giving some of us older ones—who
did not even know to hope for such a thing in our own youth!—a
profound sense of accomplishment and satisfaction.
As with other coastal indigenous
nations, Chumash people are restoring our heritage of intimacy
with the sea for the dual purpose of protecting her and as a means
of rediscovering our dignity and identity as a people sprung from
this place. Against overwhelming odds, what we are seeing is a
cultural spirit so compelling that the tree once considered dead
has sent up strong, resilient shoots and branches. The resurgence
of the canoe is but one example, but one that stands as an icon
for what is happening in the hearts of many Chumash people as we
strengthen the knowledge of our heritage.
The 2004 Crossing was jointly sponsored by Barbareño Chumash Council
and Chumash Maritime Association with funding from Seventh Generation Fund
and others. Special thanks are due to Jack Byer and support vessel Just
Love; Bob Duncan and support vessel Jack Tar; Channel Islands National Marine
Sanctuary’s Chris Mobley and Bob Schwemmer for support vessel Xantu and
camera; Ed Cassano, friend and skipper par excellence; Channel Islands National
Park’s Ann Huston and especially staff at Scorpion Campground.
‘Elye’wun’s 2004 crew: Perry Cabugos (Captain),
Marcus Lopez (Captain), Michael Cordero, Roberta Cordero, Michael
Cruz, Tom Lopez, Rick Mendez, Oscar Ortiz, Reggie Pagaling, Alan
Salazar, Jacqueline Scheinert, Steve Villa, Mati Waiya. The Landing
Crew: Marcus V. O. Lopez (Captain), Tano Cabugos, Diego Cordero,
Jimmy Joe Navarro, Michael Sanchez
Cordero, J.,“Like I’d Been There Before, The Tomol
People Back into Balance,” News from Native California,
Vol 2, No. 3, pp. 7-12.
Cordero, R., “Our Ancestors’ Gift Across Time, A Story
enous Maritime Culture Resurgence,” News
California, 1998, Vol 2, No. 3, pp. 4-6.
Cordero, R. and G. Sanchez, “Full Circle, Chumash peoples
on Santa Cruz Island to celebrate a historic tomol crossing
the Santa Barbara Channel,” News from Native California,
Vol 15, No. 2, pp. 10-15.
Hudson, T., “At Sea with the Helek,” The Masterkey,
ed., Hudson, T., J. Timbrook and M. Rempe, Tomol: Chumash
Watercraft as Described in the Ethnographic Notes of John
Harrington, 1978, 190 pp.
Wilkinson, C., Messages from Frank’s Landing: A Story
Salmon, Treaties, and the Indian Way, 2000, 118 pp.