Santa Barbara’s Museum of Natural History Commemorates Chumash Culture

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Illustration by Alyssa Long

Edward Colmenares
Isla Vista Beat Reporter

Native Heritage Month is every November, and the month commemorates the rich indigenous culture of both the past and contemporary times.

This Saturday, Nov. 9, the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History took part in the celebration and hosted a Native American cultural appreciation event titled Supak’a (Chumash translation of “to cause to come together as one”).

The Chumash people are a Native American nation who were the earliest inhabitants of Santa Barbara and other surrounding California territories, such as Santa Ynez and San Luis Obispo. 

The purpose of the annual Supak’a “is to share … culture with the wider community [and] for future generations to continue to preserve … traditions,” according to the pamphlet handed out at the event.

Hence, in attendance were a total of four Chumash sects: the Barbareño Band of Chumash Indians, the Barbareño/Ventureño Band of Mission Indians, the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians, and the yak titʸu titʸu yak tiłhini Northern Chumash Tribe of San Luis Obispo County and Region. 

Entering the museum grounds, the phrase “’apí kiy tiyep štaš hi ši’y iš’išna’nitš hi kiy nohnonotš” (Barbareño Chumash translation of “let us tell each other of the customs of the ancient people”) was proudly paraded on a large welcoming banner, greeting every guest that trickled in.

In total, there were nine demonstration event stations, each showcasing a different aspect of Chumash culture and sectional identity such as a tomol (plank-built boat) display, a Chumash films presentation, an exhibit on the Chumash staple diet of regional plant and animal foods, and four stations introducing each sect.

Within these four stations were traditional arts and crafts pieces from each Chumash band: weaved Juncus plant baskets with complex symmetrical patterns, cultural board games made of wood/plant fragments, etched stone necklaces with geometrical decorations, handcrafted musical instruments, and various other miscellaneous tools used in everyday Chumash life.

The station dedicated to the Chumash diet thoroughly explained conventional hunting, harvesting, fishing, storage, and cooking techniques utilized for centuries.

Chumash men would disguise themselves with deer “stuffed decoy headdresses” and mimic deer movements when hunting. Harvesting was achieved by burning excess vegetation, collecting wild red maid seeds, and utilizing a honed wooden stick to scatter and plant surplus seeds. Large woven baskets were used to store food temporarily while caves were used for long-term storage.

Tomols were fundamental in the fishing process as these large canoes delved into seas with multiple fishermen using nets and harpoons. Cooking the fish, and other foods, required a special type of stone, known as steatite, which could sustain high temperatures and allowed for watertight woven baskets to boil over its heat.

Beyond the toilsome lives of the Chumash, there was plentiful time for song and dance within the tribe, some of which were exhibited at Supak’a. During the peak time of Supak’a, Chumash men and women of all ages gathered in a line and sang customary native songs with guttural and far reaching tones in timed unison.

The lead singer of the tribal line made it a point that video and photography were not allowed, as it is considered disrespectful to broadcast the line through social media. It was explained to be a live-only illustration of Chumash vocals.

For those interested in being part of this historic native tradition, Supak’a will take place again next November at Santa Barbara’s Museum of Natural History.

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