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Chumash help Malibu residents honor beloved marine ecosystems

Honor the Ocean attendees gather around a Tomol, a Chumash plank canoe, during the event at Zuma Beach in Malibu. Karla Henry/22nd Century Media
Barbara Burke, Freelance Reporter
8:48 am PDT October 4, 2016

The Chumash, the indigenous American Indian maritime people who have inhabited Malibu and nearby areas of the California coast for more than 15,000 years, could teach us a thing or two about protecting our precious maritime ecosystems.

Honor the Ocean – A Celebration of Los Angeles’ Indigenous Maritime Peoples and Marine Protected Areas brought this to light on Sept. 24, at Zuma Beach in Malibu. 

The unique celebration of Malibu’s marine ecosystems and the indigenous peoples of the area focused on the fact that, long before Malibu was incorporated, the Chumash inhabited this area and preserved maritime ecosystems. The wisdom of their ancient culture, still practiced today, and the focus of their Wishtoyo organization focuses on keeping humankind and nature in balance. The Chumash were the original caretakers of Coastal California from Point Dume to Point Conception, through San Luis Obispo and inland through Santa Ynez, San Emigdio, Sierra Madre, Santa Monica, the Santa Susana Mountains and the Simi Hills. 

Saturday’s event, organized by the L.A. Marine Protected Area Collaborative, began with a traditional Chumash ceremonial blessing, followed by the rare opportunity to see a Tomol, a Chumash canoe. 

Mati Waiya, Executive Director of Wishtoyo, provided the ceremonial blessing of the Chumash community’s Tomol named XaxAloỳkoy (Great Dolphin), which tribal members brought to the surf at Zuma Beach for the occasion.  

The redwood plank canoe measures a full 24-feet long and requires five paddlers with 11-foot long double-bladed paddles. It is used for the tribe’s annual Tomol channel crossing to Scorpion Harbor in Santa Cruz Island, an arduous journey of approximately 25 miles.

“This event today is about community,” said Ray Ward, caretaker of the Tomol. “Not just about the Chumash community — about the entire human community.” 

Ward was referring to the Chumash belief that human beings are impacting maritime and other resources at a pace that has led to the extinction of far too many species, pollution of the water we drink, of the air we breathe, and of the land.

Waiya’s ceremonial blessing entranced those on the beach and in the surf. He led the Chumash in a vocal ritual with singing. Nearby surfers and onlookers paused, joining in with those from the Chumash tribe and others attending the Honor the Ocean event.

He’ L’ O’ Kal ‘Anikis√ — a Chumash principle meaning Water is Life — was the central theme of the Chumash ceremony and of the entire Honor the Ocean gathering. The Chumash believe in protecting the environment by looking through the eyes of the ancestors. 

“We all have to come together as a family and share our prayers, hopes, dreams and visions to celebrate in love the spirit of the waterways and all that live in it,” Waiya said. “We use the conch to acknowledge our ancestors, to show respect, to open the vortex, the window, between us and our ancestors. We never walk alone. There is co-existence of all of our communities. We all need to come back to a sustainable type of relationship with the ocean and to understand the cycle of life.”

Luhu Isha, the Cultural Resource and Educational Director of Wishtoyo, explained that the intent of the ceremonial blessing was aimed at the Chumash belief in the upper and lower world and the world where we living beings stand and their belief that the only way to have harmony in the environment is to have a balance between this physical world and our ancestors. 

The partner agencies who co-sponsored Honor the Ocean with the Chumash Community included the City of Malibu, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, Heal the Bay, LA County Lifeguards and LA Waterkeeper. 

Representatives from all those organizations were on hand providing marine science, watershed and environmental protection education.

“This event bridges two important aspects of Malibu; the vibrant marine ecosystem off our coast and the rich Chumash culture that has protected it for hundreds of years,” Mayor Lou La Monte said in a statement provided by the City of Malibu.

Calla Allison, Director of the MPA Collaborative Network, said all members of the collaborative join together at such events to celebrate the special coastal areas in Malibu.

“The MPAs offer citizens great educational and recreational opportunities. They go from the Oregon coast to the Mexican border,” Allison said. “They are a protected string of pearls along the California coast.”