The Chumash Era


(by Ellen Darby)

The word “Chumash” is derived from Michumash, the name in mainland language for the people of Santa Cruz Island. The name was later used for all local Indians. It meant “makers of shell bead money.”

Simi Valley’s name derived from the Chumash word Shimiji, which refers to the stringy, thread-like clouds that typify the region. Three Chumash settlements existed in Simi Valley during the Mission period in the late 18th and early 19th century: Shimiyi, Ta’apu, and Kimishax or Quimisac.


The Chumash territory was from Malibu up the coast to San Luis Obispo and inland. The Chumash lived along the coast in summer where different varieties of fish, shellfish, seals and seaweed were plentiful. The Indians moved inland in search of food in winter months.


There were several regional dialects within the Chumash language.

Chumash Food Sources:

The Indians did not raise their food [practice agriculture] but ate certain native plants growing in this area such as: acorns from the California live oak, other nuts, roots and bulbs from plants, and leaves from native plants. They hunted animals such as deer, antelope, rabbits, birds and seals.  Beached whale was a treat!

Food and Beverage Preparation:

Acorns were cracked and shelled, dried in the sun, then pounded into fine flour using a mortar and pestle. The flour was spread in a basket and water was poured over it several times until the bitter tannic acid was washed away. The acorn flour was mixed with water in a cooking basket; hot rocks were dropped into the basket, until it cooked into a thick mush.

Chia seeds were toasted, ground into a powder (using a metate and mano), and eaten dry or made into a gruel (thin broth).

Drinks were made from chamomile, rose hips (from California wild rose) and manzanita.

Life Styles:

Chumash society was divided into three classes, upper, middle and lower. The Upper Class was one quarter of the population. This group held all the important positions:  chiefs, canoe builders, craft specialists, and members of the ‘antap religious cult. Their wealth and positions were usually hereditary. The Middle Class was one half of the population.  These were mainly hunters, gatherers, fishermen and general workers. The Lower Class was made up of social outcasts, lazy and unproductive people and even some outlaws.

Each village had its own chief called “wot” (rhymes with boat), who was leader and moral authority of the village. Women sometimes served as “wots.” The ‘antap was a group of advisors to the wot who performed rituals. This group was made up of various kinds of shaman: doctors, astrologers, singers and dancers.

The village was usually built on high ground near a fresh water source: a stream, lake or spring. Marshy areas nearby could provide tules (Spanish word for bulrush or cattails) for making their tule huts. The Chiefs house was the largest in the village.

There was always at least one sweathouse called a “temescal”. The temescal was used for cleansing the body and also for masking human scent with the help of the aromatic herbs. This was essential for hunters when stalking deer. The sweathouse was built partly underground, with an arching roof of poles and was covered with mud and thatch. It was entered through an opening in the roof. A fire was built inside and hot coals or stones provided heat. Sometimes green leaves or branches were added to the fire to produce a humid atmosphere. After sweating, the Indians would leave the sweathouse and plunge into a nearby lake or stream.

Each village had a playground, a ceremonial dance ground and a cemetery. Certain areas were used for chipping stone tools such as knives and arrowheads. Sometimes there were areas for canoe building or making shell beads. Often there were large outcroppings of rocks where the women would crack and pound the acorns (bedrock mortars).

Each village had certain hunting, fishing and collecting grounds.  Some would be nearby, others far away. Groups of Indians would go to different areas at certain times of the year to gather or hunt for food, then return to their permanent village. When there were disputes between villages over hunting and collecting grounds, it might be settled by a ritual battle of warriors from the two villages. They would meet, then take turns firing arrows at each other. The battle ended after several men were killed.  Other quarrels would be settled by taking revenge and burning down the enemy village. Most often, though, the chiefs were able to make peace without violence.

Chumash Music:

Music was used to accompany dances at festivals, rituals and ceremonies; also for recreation and for curing the sick. Musical instruments included whistles, flutes, rattles and bull-roarers (flat sticks held by a string and whirled in the air above one’s head to make a humming sound).


Chumash Beliefs:

The Chumash believed that the universe was made up of three worlds, which were arranged one above the other like flat, circular trays. The “upper world” was the supernatural powers: the Sun, the Moon, the Morning Star, and certain stars and planets. The “middle world” was the surface of the Earth, believed to be an island surrounded by an ocean. The “lower world” was inhabited by dangerous creatures called “nunashish”, which came up to the middle world at night to frighten them.

Chumash / Spanish / American Times:

The first European contact with the Chumash came in 1542 when Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, a Portuguese explorer for Spain, came into the Santa Barbara Channel. He reported the Indians as friendly. The first few contacts with the Europeans did not change the Chumash way of life very much. Then, after Sebastian Viscaino’s visit in 1602, it was another 150 years before any further contact was made. Spain had set up a large empire in Mexico and South America. They became worried when the Russians and English began establishing settlements to the north. Spain needed Alta California to protect their trade route across the Pacific to the Philippine Islands. As a result, Gaspar de Portola’ in 1769 led an expedition to establish missions throughout Alta California.

There were two reasons for this expedition:

  • political–to protect Spain’s interests
  • religious–to convert the Indians to Christianity.

A few years later, in 1776, Juan Bautista de Anza led a group of colonizing settlers to Alta California. Santiago de la Cruz Pico with his wife, Maria Vastida and their seven children, came with Anza.]

The padres (priests) were eager to convert the Indians; when they did convert them, the Indians were made to stay at or near the missions where they were taught how to weave, farm, work iron, masonry, etc. The Indians were required to work regular hours and had a regimented way of life. The padres told them when to eat, work, sleep, and worship God. The Indians were kept away from their villages and their religious wise men. The padres were afraid they might revert back to their old ways if they went back to their villages.

Within fifty years of the founding of the missions, the Chumash were reduced to just a fraction of their former numbers. Many died of European diseases.

When Mexico gained its independence from Spain in 1822, many changes began. In 1834 Mexico took control of the missions from the padres and the Catholic Church and put those lands in the hands of private landowners. The Chumash no longer had a home or someone to tell them how to live day by day. They could no longer live at the missions and they could not go back to their Indian villages because new landowners controlled that land also. Most of the Indians had to become servants and cowboys. A few were able to return to their Indian ways far away from the coast, to the inland valleys and mountains.

The Indians’ lives were disrupted again when California became a territory of the United States and gold was discovered in Northern California. This brought new white settlers looking for gold and land. The laws in those days did not protect the Indians. They were mistreated and many were killed. The Chumash were afraid to admit they were Indians. They taught their children to speak Spanish and English and to blend into the society. As a result, most lost their heritage. Today many are interested in tracing back their ancestry to find their proud Indian roots.


  • The Chumash did not know about the use of metal. They were truly a stone-age people.
  • They did not make pottery.
  • They did not have a written language. Their traditions were passed along from generation to generation by word of mouth.