Archeological Record of Malibu's Chumash Legacy Is Fascinating and Frustrating
BY SUZANNE GULDIMANN
The City of Malibu is preparing for the 13th annual Chumash Days event on April 16-17. The festival is an annual reminder that Malibu residents use Chumash place names daily, and live in a landscape covered with Chumash cultural sites.
There were major Chumash communities at Leo Carrillo, Trancas, Point Dume, and the Malibu Lagoon, and smaller settlements in nearly every canyon in Malibu, but despite the fact that they had a sophisticated culture that endured for millennia, few tangible reminders of the ancient Chumash presence remain.
Archeological evidence reveals the Chumash to have been a highly organized and sophisticated culture with an impressive knowledge of astronomy, woodworking, shipbuilding, navigation, stone carving and the natural world.
A team of Oregon archaeologists excavating on Santa Rosa Island announced discoveries last month that suggest that long-distance trading networks were in place in Southern California 12,000 years ago.
However, despite extensive archaeological evidence and information collected from surviving Chumash representatives, as recently as the 1980s textbooks have taught that, in the words of one book, "the culture of these Southern California Indians was primitive in character. They had no agriculture. Their calendar was extremely crude. Their art-forms were limited in number and elementary in design."
Chumash culture was also regarded by many as extinct until relatively recently.
Activists continue to work to obtain tribal recognition for the approximately 5000 living California residents who have Chumash ancestry and to dispel longstanding stereotypical depictions of the Chumash as "digger Indians," a derogatory term that implied the Chumash were almost subhuman.
An ongoing renaissance of interest in Chumash culture has recently generated the first Chumash language dictionary and has led to the creation of Chumash teaching centers, including the Wishtoyo Chumash Demonstration Village at Nicholas Beach in Malibu.
Wishtoyo is constructed at the site of a prehistoric Chumash settlement.
Malibu, which was home for thousands of years to Chumash communities, retains a handful of Chumash place names, including the city's name, adapted from a Ventureño Chumash word that means "where the surf sounds."
According to Chumash language specialist Richard Applegate, Lechuza, Spanish for "barn owl," may be folk-etymology derived from the area's original, somewhat similar sounding Chumash name, "Lisiqsihi." According to Applegate, Arroyo Sequit, may also derive from Lisiqsihi. Applegate suggests that the name may have evolved from the Ventureño word for "beachworm."
British explorer George Vancouver is credited with naming Point Dume for Father Francisco Dumetz, whom he visited the same month he named the peninsula in 1793. However, there is evidence to suggest the word "Dume" may have come from the same root as Zuma—the Chumash word "Sumo," which reportedly means abundance.
Vancouver named Point Mugu for the Chumash community of Muwu shortly before assigning the name Dume, not Dumetz, to the eastern point. "This Point I will call 'Point Dume,'" he wrote, not "Point Dumetz."
Frederick Hastings Rindge, who purchased the entire 13,300-acre Malibu Rancho in 1892, called the point "Duma," and stated the name was derived from Zuma.
His view may be supported by information provided by Chumash elder Ferdinando Librado to ethnographer John Peabody Harrington between 1912-15, who said that "Sumo extends out to sea and at the end of the point there was a hill." Librado added that "Sumo is called in nautical language Dume."
Regardless of how, or for whom, it was named, Point Dume was a significant Chumash population center. The portion of the point that is now part of Point Dume State Beach was reportedly an important shrine site. Other portions of the point, now developed, contained the remains of large villages and several cemeteries.
Archeologist Chester King in his 1994 publication "Prehistoric Native American Cultural Sites in the Santa Monica Mountains," states that Sumo may have referred to the entire Point Dume area extending as far as the marine terraces at Little Sycamore Canyon and possibly as far east as Malibu Canyon. "Abundance is reflected by the diversity of archeological sites in the Point Dume area," he wrote.
Archeologist E.K. Burnett, in a monograph published in 1944, describes numerous finds excavated by a team attempting to survey and catalog sites before road crews bulldozed them. Many of the most important Chumash sites in Malibu are buried under Pacific Coast Highway.
The black and white photos of the stone objects excavated by Burnett that accompany his monograph unfortunately remain the only record of many of the artifacts, which have apparently vanished into private collections, or the basements of museums.
Native American activist and Malibu resident Edward Albert argued passionately in the 1990s that Malibu should have a Chumash Museum.
Ironically, the most extensive collection of Chumash archaeological artifacts is not in California, but in Paris, at the Musee de l'Homme.
Fortunately for Malibuites, the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History has a well-curated collection of Chumash cultural objects, ranging from stonework to baskets. The nearby Santa Barbara Mission offers a chilling reminder of the devastation the mission system inflicted on the Chumash.
The Stagecoach Museum in Newbury Park, has an extensive display of authentic and recreated artifacts. The displays are geared primarily for children, but offer a good introduction to the Chumash culture for all ages.
The Chumash Interpretive Center in Thousand Oaks also offers an assortment of authentic and reconstructed artifacts, although documentation for some of the displays is vague and the visitor may leave with more questions than answers.
On weekends, the Chumash Cultural Center offers guided tours to a rock overhang in Oakbrook Park, that features two examples of rock art and a variety of mortar stones and cupules—small ceremonial depressions carved into the stone.
The faded but still clearly visible image of a swordfish was painted in ochre on the wall of a rock shelter centuries before contact with European explorers.
The opportunity to see this small pictograph in situ offers the visitor a tangible connection with a vibrant and ancient culture.