[1999 Commentary by Dr. John Anderson]
Wimat island is located off the coast from Santa Barbara, California. Wimat is the island's Chumash name, which has been changed to Santa Rosa by the Americans.
Title to this island is being negotiated between the federal government and a cattle ranch which has been using Wimat as a grazing land. The current negotiations focus on the year 2011 as a transition year for the island, after which the cattle, elk, and deer introduced by the ranch owners will be removed and the island return to its aboriginal state. This webpage presents information on Wimat island's past use by American private and governmental interests groups. It asks the reader to consider whether the future of the island after the year 2011 should include Chumash Indian residency.
The Chumash Indians lived on Wimat for more than ten thousand years before being driven from their homes by the Spanish and Mexican colonial governments, who exiled the last of the islanders to nearby mainland missions such as Ventura, Santa Barbara, Purisima, and Santa Ynez. See 1812 Earthquake for the story of the evacuation of most of the last Chumash from Wimat under threat of a tidal wave caused by a major quake under the sea. See Museum for an explanation of the dispersal of the islanders into mainland missions. "Eventually the Chumash subgroups combined through intermarriage," this webpage reports, "but island Chumash lineages have persisted and may be traced in many family trees of modern descendants of the original people to inhabit the Channel region."
The federal government took over Wimat island, along with the rest of California, when it annexed the region in the 1850's. The federal government refused to recognize the Chumash land claims at this time, permitting non-Indian ranchers to keep title and run cattle and sheep on the islands. This policy resulted in severe erosion on Wimat, and drastic reduction of native plant life which was grazed heavily by the introduction of the herds. Meanwhile on the mainland, the Chumash had been reduced to a tiny 99 acre reservation after the federal government allowed government agents to seize the Chumash Santa Barbara and Tejon reservation lands.
The ownership of these Mexican land titles was never successfully challenged by the Chumash into modern times, until 1986 when Wimat island was purchased from the last of the cattle companies for thirty million dollars of federal funds.
The stated purpose of the title transfer was to protect the island from further degradation, by adding it to the Channel Island National Park which already held title to large parts of the other Chumash islands. Unfortunately, it was leased back to the cattle company instead of returning to the Chumash. This leasing agreement is expiring, however, providing the federal government with another opportunity to consider the merits of returning the island to the Chumash. But there are many obstacles in the way, especially over environmental issues. The Chumash maintain good relations with environmental groups but some environmental advocates would still like to see the island remain a national park without permanent native American residents.
In 1995 the environmental group called the National Parks and Conservation Association (NPCA) filed a notice of intent to sue the National Park Service over continued degradation of the Wimal island ecology. The Environmental Defense Center filed on NPCA's behalf, charging that the national park agency had repeatedly violated environmental laws in its management of Wimat, the second largest of the five islands administered by the federal government. Of primary concern were the 5,000 cattle and about 3,000 deer and elk (for hunting operations) which foraged on the island. For information on the lawsuit, see NPCA1 and NPCA2
A large number of scholars from the various campuses of the University of California are funded each year to conduct research on Wimat and the other Chumash islands. Federal, state, and private funds are granted in fields as diverse as anthropology, marine science, and botany. The Marine Science Institute, located at the Santa Barbara campus, handles a significant number of grants for research on the Chumash islands.
At this time, I am unaware of any Chumash participation in these grants, nor of any independent grants (or matching funds) being awarded to any individual or Chumash band.
"The University of California and the National Park Service have done an excellent job of facilitating scholarly research on the Chumash islands but have done a miserable job of advocating for the Chumash Indians who are the aboriginal peoples of the islands. My impression from studying various grants which focus on Wimat island is that the University and Park Service have a long history of avoiding the subject of aboriginal rights. This is, of course, self-serving and needs to be rectified in the years ahead." (J. Anderson: September 1998)
John Gherini's article called "Santa Cruz Island: Conflict in the Courts" provides background to the long-standing legal battles over ownership of the Chumash islands. It discusses the 1986 Chumash claim filed in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, and its denial [The Fourth California Islands Symposium, 1994 abstracts. Note that the Gherini family owned a 6,300 acre ranch on nearby Santa Cruz ranch, which has been transferred to the National Park system].
The Chumash (Santa Barbara) Channel oil fields were among the largest on the continent. Many American oil companies drilled these fields, with the profits going to investors and the taxes going to the state and federal governments (not the Chumash). John Hundley (and K.B. Hall, S.F. Fine, and M. Daily; Santa Cruz Island Foundation) wrote "The Oil Story: Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa Islands" which documents the oil industry activities on Wimat island. Exploration wells were drilled on the Vail & Vickers Wimat property. Oil exploration effectively ended on the island after the 1986 acquisition by the Channel Islands National Park(1994 abstracts, Fourth California Islands Symposium).
The Chumash Indians maintained a large population on Wimat island, prior to the appearance of European ships and the subsequent introduction of diseases. See Wimat Sites for further information.
National Parks & Conservation Association
California Wilderness Association
Wimat As a Place of Beginnings