The Lompoc region has been home to humans for as much as 35,000 years, according to historians and anthropologists. Radio-carbon dating shows activity up and down the coast 9,000 years ago, and Chumash artifacts dated 1,000 years ago rest in collections worldwide.

From a thriving culture through near extinction, resilience and recovery, the Chumash people today are once again leaders in every respect in this community they have always called home.

After centuries of colonists — from the Spanish to Russian, French to American — first erased, then attempted to tell the histories of the Indigenous people they displaced, the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians now aims to tell its own story in no minor fashion with its upcoming Santa Ynez Chumash Museum and Cultural Center.

The 6.9-acre site along Highway 246 will house a $32 million, state-of-the-art facility symbolically designed as a village including Welcome House, Heritage House, Traditional Tule House, Samala Language House and Tomol House. An adjacent 3.5-acre cultural park will feature an amphitheater on grounds landscaped with native plants traditionally used for food, medicine as well as home and tool building.

Early anthropologists and historians estimate there were some 20,000 Chumash people in various communities spanning 7,000 square miles from the beaches of Malibu up the coast through Santa Barbara beyond Pismo and well into the Coast Range, then east through Cuyama Valley and onto the Carrizo Plain. While distinct communities and at least eight regional dialects arose, they shared a trade economy well beyond those borders, according to A.L. Kroeber.

According to a study by James T. Davis of trade routes and economic exchange among the Indigenous people of California, the Chumash supplied wooden vessels inlaid with abalone shell in trade with the Kitanemuk of Tehachapi and Antelope Valley. Chumash collections of seeds, acorns, bows and arrows were traded with Island Chumash for chipped stone implements, dark stone for digging, stick weights, fish bone beads, shell beads, and baskets.

With the Yokuts of southern San Joaquin Valley, the tomol-building Chumash provided shell beads, dried starfish, and shells from abalone, keyhole limpets, olivella, sea urchin and cowrie in trade for fish, obsidian, steatite beads, various herbs and vegetables as well as seed foods. From the Tübatulabal of the Kern River Valley came piñon nuts in trade for Chumash asphaltum, shells and fish. To the Salinan went soapstone vessels, and trades as far as the Mojave brought deer skins, fish, even grasshoppers for coastal goods.

Chumash travel routes paved the way, so to speak, for modern travel. Several studies have suggested the evolution of modern roadways and rail lines developed from game trails leading to salt and water, then used by Indigenous people, then military expeditions and later toll and public roads. Indeed, in 2007, Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians Chairman Vincent Armenta mapped the 1769 Gaspar de Portolá expedition through the region. His effort garnered that stretch of Highway 154 historic status and the title “Chumash Highway.”

What's in a name

The Chumash gave us many of the place names still in use today: Pismu’ (“tar”), Nipumu’ (“village”), Kasma’il (“the last”), Lompo’ (“stagnant water”), Khalam (“bundle”), Stuk (“wooden bowl”), ‘Asuskwa (“a stopping place”), Kuyam (“To Rest, To wait”), Sa’aqtik’oy (“sheltered from the wind”), S’eqp’e (“kneecap”), and Nakhuwi (“meadow).

When Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo arrived in 1542 along a stretch of land that would someday be called California, he found a bartering people who greeted him openly, by canoe, from established villages on a very densely populated coastline, according to expedition journals. Here, food was so plentiful, weather so fine, and trade so well established that the people had time and energy to develop and play games, music and story share.

Two subsequent contacts by the Spanish, in 1587 and 1595, found the same, according to historians, though near present-day San Luis Obispo they reported being attacked by native people. And in 1602, Sebastian Viscaíno also noted the friendliness of the native people.

Then came the Spanish-borne diseases that weakened or decimated the tribes.

By 1769, Gaspar de Portolá was leading a Spanish expedition designed to protect Spanish interests in Mexico, Central and South America from Russian and French colonists to the north. The 21-mission chain extending from San Diego to Sonoma was established in Alta California through a combined effort of the military and Catholic church.

Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa in 1772 was the first established in Chumash territory. It was followed by San Buena Ventura (1782), Santa Barbara (1786), La Purísima Concepción (1787), and Santa Inés (1804).

Indigenous people provided construction and farming labor, were converted from their ancient spiritual practices to Catholicism and moved to mission grounds, depleting the religious and social structures of their villages. Eventually, most native people were brought to land claimed by the missions, but those were relatively short lived.

After Mexico claimed independence from Spain in 1810, the mission system began to break down due to lack of supplies and money. Taking advantage of that economic crisis, in 1824 some 2,000 Chumash along with Yokut allies revolted against the Spanish and Mexican presence on their ancestral lands surrounding Mission Santa Inés, Mission Santa Barbara and Mission La Purísima. The arrival of 300 Mexican soldiers quelled the uprising, but nine years later the mission holdings were passed from church to landowners.

By 1831, the number of mission-registered Chumash numbered only 2,788, down from pre-Spanish population estimates of 22,000, according to the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians.

Lands divided

The lands of the Chumash were divided by the Mexican government and their ownership distributed through grants to new landholders. The missions no longer provided the Chumash shelter nor livelihood, but ancestral villages, hunting and gathering lands had been handed over to new landowners.

The estimated 200 Chumash who survived the mission period told their stories and carried on their language and practices to the best of their ability. Some, including Chumash Inezeño/Yokut Tulareño Maria Solares, mixed Chumash/Kern Lake Yokut Juan Valdez, Chumash Obispeño Rosario Cooper, Barbareño Chumash Luisa Ygnacio consulted with anthropologists John P. Harrington, head of the Smithsonian’s Ethnology Bureau, in the early 20th Century to help record and preserve their history, language and culture.

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Nearly 100 years later, Richard Applegate, a linguist hired by the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash, would unbox that research to complete a 4,000-word dictionary of Samala, the language of Inezeño Chumash at the time of first European contact.

The work at hand

While most remaining Chumash worked in Mexican homes or as cowboys on the rancheros, generations later, many like Old Cottage Hotel laundress (1906) María Antonia Piña and daughter of María Solares, were still employed as menial laborers. Their recent ancestors had been chiefs of their villages including Yanonali, Chief of the Chumash town of Syuxtun at the time of the founding of Santa Barbara and José Dolores Solares, Chief of the Santa Ynez Indians at the turn of the 20th Century.

Other displaced Chumash moved to the southern San Joaquin Valley, where they returned to more traditional life with the Yokuts and Kitanemuk. The Chumash, in what is today Santa Ynez Valley, moved to nearby riverbanks and began to rebuild their community and traditions.

In 1901, that bank and surrounding 99 acres was established as the Santa Ynez Reservation for the only federally recognized Chumash tribe. The tribe is a self-governing sovereign nation and follows the laws set forth in its tribal constitution, according to its website.

Members of 13 additional bands federally register with the Tejon Indian Tribe of California.

Over the decades to come, Chumash numbers swelled, and their people continued serving not only their bands but the surrounding communities and the U.S. at large. Among them, Cooper’s great grandson, James Allen Lathrop served in the U.S. military. Ventureño Chumash Philip Rodríguez, son of Juana María Rodriguez (nee Rios) deployed to Japan during is WWII service in the U.S. Army. Leroy Trejo, great-great grandson of Cooper served in the U.S. Air Force in the 1960s.

In the 1970s, Rosa Pace led the way in establishing the Santa Ynez Tribal Health Clinic (SYTHC) in a small trailer. Upgraded in 2002, the facility now provides medical, dental and behavioral health services to members of the tribal community and community at large.

As their numbers, political and economic strength grew, so did their reservation.

In the 1970s, another 38 acres were added to the Santa Ynez Reservation to accommodate United States Department of Housing and Urban Development low-income housing. The reservation expanded again in 2014 with the 6.9 acres adjacent to Chumash Casino Resort placed into trust for the cultural center.

In 2019, the reservation grew more than 1,400 acres when Camp 4, a parcel the tribe purchased from Fess Parker in 2010, was put into trust through federal legislation. The intent of the purchase was to provide 142 new homes and a small tribal hall, and is also home to the tribe’s Camp 4 Vineyard, originally planted when Fess Parker held the property.

Growing their business

In 2004, Chumash Casino opened its doors as a 190,000-square-foot gaming complex including casino and hotel. Two years later, it employed 1,587 people, spent more than $185 million on labor, goods, services and distributions of income in Santa Barbara County, collected $16.6 million in state and federal payroll, and generated $366 million of gross sales in Santa Barbara County, according to the 2008 California Economic Forecast Project.

Ten years later, the casino resort expanded its impact and potential with a $100 million upgrade also saw a 60,000-square-foot expansion of the gaming floor and a 215-room, 12-story hotel tower that led to litigation filed by valley neighbors.

In spite of the brutal history of the modern epoch, the Chumash retain that friendliness Cabrillo and Viscaíno noted. Today, the University of San Diego estimates some 2,000 people of Chumash descent remain.

In recent years, Northern Chumash Tribal Council Chair Fred Collins, a Northern Chumash descendant of Avila Beach and San Luis Obispo County, led the ongoing charge to establish the proposed Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary. Upon his death in October, his daughter, Violet Sage Walker, took up his mantle.

Today, tribal chairman Kenneth Kahn leads the Santa Ynez Band’s business committee with Mike Lopez its vice president and members Raul Armenta, Gary Pace and Maxine Littlejohn. They oversee the workings of a community with its own educational, vocational and professional development programs, health center, and casino. The tribe has gifted countless hours of its members time and millions of dollars to philanthropic interests with a focus on education, health and culture throughout the region.

Nationally recognized winemaker Tara Gomez turns grapes grown on the tribe’s Camp 4 Vineyard into award-winning wines in KITÁ Wines facility. The first recognized Native American winemaker in the U.S. can be found offering sips and in-depth wine analysis in the tasting room in Lompoc’s Wine Ghetto.

Today’s Chumash, through leaders like Eulalia Armenta Ochoa, Chanse Zavalla, Veronica Sandoval, Nakia Zavalla and Jessica McCool, promote and teach traditional ways, lobby for their people’s needs, and provide tutoring services, guidance and financial support through the Reservation’s learning center.

They provide for the community at large through generous donations to everything from the Atterdag Village expansion in Solvang to MOXI in Santa Barbara, CASA countywide, and Cabrillo High School Aquarium closer to the coast. Through its casino and a variety of fundraisers, not the least of which is its annual charity golf tournament, Santa Ynez Chumash are regular contributors to Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, Santa Maria Discovery Museum and more.

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