Chumash Culture


As It Was Then, A Chumash Poem by Paul Pommier, Sr., an elder of the Barbareno Chumash Indians, in memory of a lost homeland and beloved ancestors entombed in the earth along the Gaviota Coast, Santa Barbara County, California. The Gaviota Coast contains extensive evidence of long-term human occupation dating back thousands of years. The abundant marine life, coastal streams, and mild climate supported the development of a complex maritime culture before European Contact. These favorable conditions supported permanent Chumash towns in one of the most densely occupied portions of native California.

Geographically, the Chumash occupied the region from San Luis Obispo to Malibu Canyon on the coast and inland as far as the western edge of the San Joaquin valley. In addition, they occupied the Santa Barbara Channel Islands—San Miguel, Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz, and Anacapa. The accompanying map illustrates the location of many coastal Chumash villages and boat routes. Click on the map for a closer view.

The ocean was a very important resource for the Chumash. Fish and shellfish were a mainstay in the Chumash diet.Tomol Their fishing gear and canoes are remarkable in design and eminently practical in use. To travel on water, the Chumash built three types of canoes, the plank canoe, the dugout and the tule balsa canoe. An example of the plank canoe they called Tomol is shown on the left. For fishing gear they had harpoons, fish spears, hook, line and sinker, fish nets, bone gorges and dip nets. With this gear and their sea going craft, the Chumash sustained themselves on what the sea had to offer—fish, seals, sea otters, shark and even sea birds. They fished throughout the year taking advantage of the relatively calm seas of the Channel, and the annual runs of albacore, yellow and blue fin tuna and some of the smaller pelagic fishes such as sardines which the larger tunas preyed upon. In addition, such ocean bounty as abalone shells were used as bowls, carved into fishhooks, and made into beads to adorn artifacts such as necklaces and flutes.

An example of the Chumash people’s belief in their unity with nature is given by the Rainbow Bridge creation myth. Spanish settlement in 1769, with the introduction of European agriculture, began a new era. The tradition of agriculture on the Gaviota Coast continues today.