The name “Chumash” comes from “Michumash”, or ‘makers of shell bead money’, the name given by coastal villagers to the Santa Cruz Islanders. The Spanish applied the name to all related villages. The Chumash were a stone-age people with a complex culture and a wide trade network. They were hunter-gatherers and skilled at fishing at the time of the Spanish colonization. Their plank boats called tomols were built from driftwood (preferably redwood) sewn together with twisted plant fibers and calked with moss and asphaltum, tar. The Chumash, having no metals, fastened everything from houses to tools together with ‘string and glue’.
Villages were always located near a good source of fresh water. Marshy area nearby provided plenty of tule (bulrushes) as a building material. The chief’s house was the largest, because he was allowed to have more than one wife. There was a huge storehouse for acorns and other foods near the chief’s house, a playground, a sweat house, and a circular dance area for ceremonies. Each village had a cemetery nearby, and clearly-defined hunting, fishing, and gathering areas.
There were three villages within our Simi Valley area, sharing a chief and a shaman. The largest was Ta’apu (meaning of word unknown) in Tapo Canyon; the second was Simiyi (“windy clouds”) north of Strathearn Park, and the smallest was Quimisac at Oak Park on Easy Street just before Moorpark College. The names have been spelled many different ways.
Houses were made by inserting the ends of willow or sycamore poles into the ground in a circle, tying them together at the top to make a dome, then tying horizontal poles to make a framework. Rows of dried grass or tules were hung to thatch the house, starting at the bottom and working up to the top. The builders left an east-facing doorway and a smoke hole and, rarely, a window. Branches tied around the houses over the thatching kept the walls from being blown away by the wind.
Clothing and Food
Because of our rare, mild Mediterranean climate the Chumash needed very little clothing. The men mostly wore a belt of twisted cord to carry a pouch for useful tools up until the Spanish period, when breechclouts began to be common. Women wore a soft leather wrap-around skirt open at the front, with a front apron. Both men and women wore animal-skin capes in poor weather, and bead necklaces and ornaments. Ceremonial clothing was often made of twisted fibers with feathers, fur, and shells added for decoration. Open sandals were woven of tules.
The Chumash had an unusually wide range of foods available to them throughout most of the year, with a long harvest period. Any one of several basic foods could be found in large enough amounts to last the tribe for most of a year. These foods sources were spread out over a very wide area, from the seashore to the inland mountains, hillsides, and valleys. The Chumash traveled from place to place, gathering seasonal foods and living in hunting camps or caves near the collecting grounds. Women, children, and elderly adults collected and prepared the many kinds of seeds, nuts, wild fruits, and acorns while the men hunted small game and deer. Foods were dried and stored for the leaner winter season and the return of the rains.
Acorns in particular took much effort to prepare properly. Acorns, gathered in the fall, must be shelled and dried thoroughly before storing. Before cooking they must be ground, sifted and reground, then put into a leaf-lined basket or sandy hole. Quantities of water must be poured through the acorn flour until all the bitter tannin had been leached away. Then the meal was cooked by dropping hot stones into the water in the cooking basket until the hot mush was ready to eat. It tastes rather bland, like nutty oatmeal.
The Chumash of the Santa Barbara Channel relied most heavily on the sea and our rich local kelp beds for their food, but inland villages also sent groups to harvest and dry the plentiful harvest of fish and shellfish and to hunt the large sea mammals. The summer tuna migration was a particularly busy time.
Men were the tool makers and the basket weavers. Every child learned basic skills, but particularly talented workers would be trained as apprentices, then paid for their work.
With knives, saws, scrapers, chisels, axes, hammer-stones, drills, and other tools made from wood or flaked stone and fitted with wooden handles, the Chumash made a variety of beautifully formed articles and ornaments. They made perfect bowls from oak burls, magnificent baskets of all shapes and sizes, stone mortars, pestles, manos, and metates for grinding, carved steatite (soapstone) for ornaments and effigies, and fashioned beautiful musical instruments. They did not make pottery because there was plenty of clay but not enough wood to fire it.
Shells became bowls, scoops, and storage containers. Smaller shells were collected, bored, and strung, particularly those of the purple olive shell. It is found nowhere else in the world but on the Chumash’s beaches from Malibu to San Luis Obispo. ‘Money’ made from these shells has been found as far away as the Mississippi River area, showing how far away our Chumash trade items were valued. A string of beads was wrapped around a hand to determine its value (one wrap is one ‘dollar-equivalent’, etc.)
The Chumash were some of the world’s finest basket weavers. Each maker had his own distinctive style and patterns. Baskets of all shapes and sizes were woven from juncus grass and other plant materials These were gathered and dried, then soaked to soften and dye with the desired colors just before weaving. The stem was split, then wrapped around a core of fibers and sewn into a small button-shaped core, sewing each row onto the previous one as the coiled shape grew. Flat baskets were used as platters and as gambling trays; tall baskets with lids were made waterproof for storing water by lining them with tar melted to the inside by shaking it with small hot stones. They also waterproofed cooking baskets. Deep burden baskets, like a woven backpack with a strap over the forehead, were often worn over a basket cap. A small woven seed-beater was used to tap tiny seeds like those of the chia sage into the gather basket. Stored foods could be kept in huge covered baskets, stored on racks to keep the bottoms off the damp ground.
Clever use was made of many different resources. Crushed minerals mixed with oil or bird egg made paints for body or cave. Points from deer antlers were used to flake chips of stone from flint, chert, limestone, or obsidian to make pointed tips for their arrows, spears, and harpoons. Awls made of animal bone were used to drill holes in leather or for basket weaving. Twisted plant fibers, such as milkweed, was crushed and made into strong string or braided into ropes. A pointed yucca leaf, crushed, scraped, and twisted into string, had its own attached needle. In fact, every part of the yucca was useful. Nothing was wasted.
The Chumash were good at using all their natural resources without using them up, always leaving enough of any plant for the animals and for reseeding. The Chumash respected the earth, and they thanked the animals and plants for giving themselves while they were hunting or gathering. They considered themselves caretakers of nature.
The Chumash had some grasp of astronomy. They knew when the winter solstice was, and prepared ceremonial sites to make certain the seasons returned. The large cave of paintings at Burro Flats have several hundred years of paintings, including one shape made of five concentric circles The rays of the rising sun strike in the center of this shape at exactly 10:31 on the December morning of the winter solstice.
The shamans conducted the ceremonies. They taught the Chumash beliefs and laws to the young with teaching-stories. They were not only priests but medicine men, supposedly able to bless and to curse. So when their people began to die from European diseases to which they had no resistance, the Chumash blamed and killed most of their shamans. The Chumash way of life was almost completely lost at that point, and only fairly recently has more information begun to appear. There are thousands of sites, including rock carvings and paintings, in our area. Preserving the pictures, tools, and artifacts from Chumash sites helps us to understand their way of life and to fill in gaps in our knowledge.