Gift Across Time: A Story of Indigenous Maritime Culture Resurgence"
from Native California Vol. 11, No. 3 (Spring 1998)
more about Chumash History
1993. The water laps gently on the pebbled beach. The moon spreads her fullness
across the water, silhouetting the giant fir and cedar trees on the opposite shore.
Full-throated singing raises goose flesh over my entire body as the pullers in
their ancestral cedar canoes paddle across the midnight waters. I cannot see them--they
must be in the watery forest-shadow--but the rhythmic drumbeat of their paddles
on canoe edges marks their joyous passage. Neither can I see from here the modern
pier at the Heiltsuk village of Waglisla, nor the cars and electric lights. For
a breath, I exist within the 10,000 years before "history" touched Bella Bella,
this beautiful island in British Columbia. For a week, the Heiltsuk band hosts
an international festive gathering of First Nations' canoe peoples. We tell each
other the heartbreaks and victories of being indigenous peoples in a modern world.
We say we will do this again in four years and widen the circle to include absent
canoes, like the Chumash and Tongva plank canoes, and the Hawai'ian voyaging canoes.
1995. Shilshole Bay, Seattle, Washington. A thousand people are gathered in
the chilly morning fog to greet the Hawai'iloa and the Hokulea, Hawai'ian canoes
recently arrived by cargo ship in Puget Sound to begin historic voyages. Observing
timeless protocol, the captains ask permission of the Duwamish and Suquamish peoples
to land on their shores. In stately ceremonial speech, drumming, and song, the
Hawai'ians are welcomed not only by those indigenous to Washington, but also by
hundreds of their own people--island people marooned for now on the mainland.
By the time all come ashore, the sun is beaming off the blue, blue water. We shake
off the cold as we witness the ancient ritual chant and dance kept alive by the
Hawai'ians' cultural diligence. Later, we hear contemporary Hawai'ian music--complete
with slack-key guitar and amped-up sound systems--as we stroll the food and vendor
booths set up pow-wow style. This is the big city. The canoes together will visit
Pacific Northwest maritime nations and then other coastal nations, each in her
own direction--Hawai'iloa to make a grateful journey north to Juneau, Alaska,
and Hokulea to sail south to San Diego with a stop in Chumash land.
September 1995. Twenty
or thirty of us have been waiting for hours. Where are they, why are they so late
arriving? We hear from one of the early returning support boats that Mo'omat Ahiko
(Breath of the Ocean) left Two Harbors late. Much later we hear that navigational
difficulties added some ten miles to the journey. Some of us have brought beadwork
and other crafts to busy our hands, and we are content to wait in the shade of
palm trees lining the harbor beach at Avalon on Catalina Island. We talk and laugh
and tease one another while we watch on one side the endless promenade of tourists
and, on the other side, the harbor crowded with yachts, sailboats, cruisers, ski-doos,
kayaks, you name it. But we know that the hot California sun is actually shining
on the island of Pimuw, ancestral homeland of our cousins and hosts, the Tongva
people. Late in the afternoon something in the universe shifts, sending ripples
across the harbor to us. They're coming. I stand transfixed as I glimpse droplets
of water sparkling off first one raised end of the paddles and then the other,
as they are dipped in unison first on one side of the plank canoe and then the
other. Avalon harbor falls away as Mo'omat Ahiko brings her crew safely home.
Built about five years ago, Mo'omat Ahiko is the first ti'at in two hundred years.
She is the first plank canoe I have seen in the water, an experience I did not
know to hope for and yet long awaited. Unwittingly, most of us reenact the ancient
Chumash ritual weeping, tears streaming down our smiling faces when the canoes
|Pagaling. Luis Ramirez,
Roberta Cordero, Wonono Rubio, Alan Salazar, and Marcus Lopez paddling 'Elye'wun
in Santa Barbara Harbor, 1997.|
1997. Thanksgiving weekend in Santa Barbara, 505 years after. We are still
here. Like the Heiltsuk, Hawai'ians, Duwamish and Suquamish, and the Tongva, we
are gathering the fragments of our culture. Like them, we hear our ancestors telling
us that the canoe is central to our understanding of who we are. We were unable
to join 'Elye'wun to the great canoe gathering during the summer at La Push, Washington,
but one of our board members and her son were there to represent us. Today, we
ceremonially present 'Elye'wun (Swordfish) to the Chumash community and to our
guests from Tongva and other nations. She is the first tomol in decades to belong
to the Chumash people. My heart is in my mouth as she glides through the harbor,
paddle blades glinting under the changeable November sky. She is tiny, fragile
against the backdrop of some of the world's most luxurious yachts, an anomaly.
And yet she is the one at home here, dancing through the waters near Syuxtun,
our ancestral village and hers. She is the only one I see.
('elye'wun) abalone inlay on bow ears by Cresensio Lopez, 1997.||
tomol paddles and one ti'at paddle on beach at Avalon Harbor, Catalina Island,
1997. Whale-tail abalone inlay by Cresencio Lopez.
the missionization and holocaust of the Chumash people, our waters were filled
with Chumash watercraft, especially the redwood plank canoe, the tomol. Until
then, the tomol wove together Chumash coastal and island communities in a complex
system of trade, kinship, and resource stewardship. Like the Heiltsuk, Hawai'ians,
Duwamish and Suquamish, and the Tongva, our ancestors' stewardship of bountiful
natural resources was sustainable over thousands of years and--I have no doubt--would
have sustained us for thousands more. Our ancestors were not perfect, but they
did not fancy themselves to be dominators over Mother Earth. They did not dare
to live outside respect, generosity, and reciprocity, for these are the values
of the properly educated human being, these make up the weave of living balanced
and productive lives together and individually. Our ancestors did not imagine
there was an end to learning from the life-web of which the humans are merely
a strand. Sadly, that web is now tattered and tangled because we have been severed
from the proper stewardship that is both birthright and responsibility.
Bella Bella in 1993, it was told that some of the nations had nearly lost their
canoe knowledge. Through sharing and apprenticing with neighbor tribes, they relearned
canoe carving. They relearned how to become pullers in teamwork with each other
and with the elements. And we heard about the increasing difficulty of finding
cedar trees big enough for canoes, the difficulties of accessing materials for
basketry and other traditions, the fisheries, and other food sources.
Easter sits in 'Elye'wun as Dan Umaña and Marcus Lopez look on, 1997. Liz
Easter said, "I would have gone to that launching if I had to crawl to get
the late eighties, the Hawai'ians decided to build a voyaging canoe using traditional
materials and methods. The remnant of the great Hawai'ian koa-wood forest was
combed month after month in search of trees big enough for a double-hulled wooden
canoe. There were none. In sorrow, they wondered whether to build yet another
fiberglass canoe like the Hokulea and others before her. Instead, they went to
the Tlingit nation of Alaska and respectfully requested to harvest spruce trees.
This was generously granted, and Hawai'iloa was crafted in the old way. The journey
she made to Juneau was thus a grateful journey home. We
in California--the Chumash and Tongva--have had no less trouble obtaining materials
and knowledge. Our ancestors were accustomed to gathering redwood drift logs from
island and mainland beaches. Specialists cured, processed, and stored planks for
use in building canoes. Pine was also used, but redwood was favored. Others were
expert at gathering and processing plant fibers into the mile or so of cordage
to be used along with yop (an epoxy-like mixture of asphaltum and pine pitch)
to join the planks together. These three were the principal materials comprising
the nail-less, peg-less tomol or ti'at, regarded by many cultural anthropologists
as among the most advanced technological achievements of North America's indigenous
peoples. Sharkskin for sanding, red ochre for staining, and abalone inlay for
embellishment completed this work of high craftsmanship and art. Today,
any redwood logs making it to the ocean certainly have not been spotted by any
tomol makers we know. Indeed, it is only because scholars researched the notes
of John P. Harrington that we once again have tomol makers, novices though we
are. Finding red milkweed or dogbane to make high-quality cordage for just one
tomol will take a few years' careful planning, as will gathering yop ingredients.
And so on. In brief, the encroachment of Euroamerican practices and values leaves
indigenous peoples with only shreds of connection to the land and sea from which
we sprang, the land and sea which shaped our ancestors' identify and destiny,
the land and sea which will surely die without a swift return to sustainable stewardship.
The resurgence of indigenous maritime culture invites and signals a return to
the traditional indigenous values of respect, generosity, and reciprocity which
are integral to sustainable relationships with one another as much as with earth
and sea. Learning to use modern boatbuilding techniques and materials to build
'Elye'wun sharpened our curiosity about the tools and skills our ancestors needed
to build tomols in the past. We are learning to make cordage for small uses. Maybe
in a few years some of us will be so skilled we can make cordage for building
tomols. First, many will need to learn plant management for cordage plants to
assure plentiful and high-quality fibers. Maybe some of us will learn to tend
a stand of pines so the trees will stay healthy while giving enough pitch at the
right time of year to help us make yop. Maybe some of our cousins in redwood country
will trade with us for wood we can prepare ourselves. Maybe we can firmly weave
ourselves once again into the life-web in such a way that all our relations can
thrive with us. Roberta
Reyes Cordero is a Chumash Maritime Association member and builder.