Syukhtun tomol

Chumash pictographs | Links to Native California sources
Pre-holocaust map of California | Genocides of California
Barbareño/Ventureño Band of Mission Indians

El Baño pool (original site of Syukhtun)
(photo by Tom Tuttle)

Update June 13, 2018: Chumash Return 10,000 year-old “Tuqan Man“ to San Miguel Island

Row Jimmy: Urchin diver Scott Thompson's miraculous survival
after 5-hour night swim in SB Channel, January 2022

Syukhtun is the modern spelling of an ancient Chumash town on the coast of southern California. Anthropologists say that this town was inhabited for eight thousand years by the Chumash, one of the few truly ocean-faring cultures in California. Today the site of ancient Syukhtun is located in Santa Barbara, where Theo Radic´and his Swedish wife lived for three years. Five villages flourished in what is today Santa Barbara: Mispu (now occupied by the City College); Syukhtun, chief Yanonalit’s large village between Bath and Chapala streets (later called “El Baño”, site of El Baño pool); Amolomol at the mouth of Mission Creek; and Swetete, above the present bird refuge. The term “Chumash” originally referred to Santa Cruz islanders, and now refers to all the Chumashan-speaking people. The earliest known mention of Syukhtun is in the logbook for Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo's epic voyage in 1542.

Cabrillo set sail northward from Acapulco (then known as Navidad) on June 27, 1542 with two poorly built ships along the coast of Baja (lower) California. Under harsh conditions the expedition made it as far as Cape Mendecino, north of San Francisco Bay. Cabrillo was a Portuguese mariner sailing for Spain, considered by the historian Herrera as “persona muy platica en las cosas de la mar“ (a person very experienced in matters of the sea). On their way to assess the northernmost portions of “New Spain“, they became the first Europeans to lay eyes on Alta (upper) California. When the two ships arrived in the calm Santa Barbara channel, the seamen observed very much activity in the busy maritime culture of the Chumash. The priest who kept the log wrote that this coastal Chumash province was called Xexu, and extended from the pueblo (village) Las Canoas (“the canoes“), or Xucu (modern day Ventura), to the windy point at Humqaq.

Humqaq is still today a sacred shrine for the Chumash, considered the Western Gate to the continent. (Compare to Montauk, the Eastern Gate) Cabrillo named it Cabo Galera (because its profile resembled a galley ship), and found shelter under it from the fierce north winds that he would later battle on the way further north. Sixty years later, the navigator Sebastián Viscaíno sighted the point at Humqaq on the feast day of the immaculate conception, and gave it the name by which it is known today: Point Conception (Punta de la Limpia Concepción). For more on Point Conception, see John Anderson's website Point Conception.


Cabrillo was given friendly assistance by the Chumash villagers from all parts of this coastline. The logbook is very concise in recording village names and locations. Among those mentioned is Ciucut: “The ruler of these pueblos is an old Indian woman, who came to the ships and slept two nights on the captain's ship, as did many Indians. The pueblo of Ciucut appeared to be the capital of the rest, for they came there from other pueblos at the call of this ruler.”(1)

Ciucut is remembered in the modern spelling Syukhtun. It is said to mean “it forks“, possibly referring to the “fork“ visible in the Milky Way. The Chumash realm stretched as far north as Big Sur, as far inland as the San Joaquin Valley, and as far south as Malibu. Most of the channel islands were inhabited by the Chumash, and the major town for this vast and ancient realm was Syukhtun. In Thomas Blackburn's much-read book December's Child, the Chumash town plays a role in several myths recorded by John Peabody Harrington. “Coyote Visits the Swordfish People“ begins thusly: “Once Coyote was walking along the beach near syuxtun, feeling happy and half-drunk, dancing and singing to himself and feeling like one who has drunk toloache.“ (I too have walked this beach, intoxicated not on toloache, but on the beauty.)

Various Chumash groups are very active today in protecting the sacred places on this coastline like Humqaq and Shalawa Meadow from vandalism and development. Several of these groups, like the Coastal Band of the Chumash Nation and the Barbareño/Ventureño Band of Mission Indians, are not federally recognized and are at a great disadvantage compared to federally recognized tribes. The grounds for being federally recognized are not always clear. Certain full-blooded descendants of Californian nations are not “recognized“ as such by the state and federal governments. An attorney specializing in Native American legal matters, George Forman, writes: “The state has been the tribes‘ bitterest adversary for the last 150 years or more.” (News from Native California, Fall 2003) Being a federally recognized “tribe“ is however not always desired. Certain native Hawaiians - Kanaka maoli - do not wish to be federally recognized, seeing this as a continuation of the colonialization process which devastated their culture, exterminated 95% of their people, and turned the survivors into second class citizens forced into submission by the invaders of their homeland. In fact, very many Kanaka maoli still regard Hawaii as a sovereign nation as it was prior to the violent annexation to the US in 1893, and understand “recognition“ by the US government as an obscene joke only worthy of their contempt.

Santa Barbara
(photo by Tom Tuttle)

What are locally considered as ”old” ranching families in Santa Barbara county, like Hope and Hollister, are in fact quite young when compared to the 13,000 years of habitation of this land by an unnamed people who are only recently called ”Chumash”. Oral tradition relates how wealthy Hope Ranch was stolen from the Samala Chumash through fraudulent transactions. Euro-American ranchers and families who have lived many generations in the “New World” now claim that they have inhabited the land long enough to be considered “indigenous” as well. Using the same logic, art treasures plundered by the nazis from Jewish families during World War II which are now in museums or private collections can be considered legitimate possessions of the new owners because sufficient time has passed since the original theft.

”The history of the United States is a history of settler colonialism - the founding of a state based on the ideology of white supremacy, the widespread practice of African slavery, and a policy of genocide and land theft.”
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States

Shishilop (”port-on-the-coast”), just east of the Ventura river mouth, was the largest Chumash village in what is today Ventura county. It was settled about one thousand years ago, and was a thriving maritime community like Syukhtun when Cabrillo and Viscaíno made contact with its inhabitants. In those days Coyote was a messenger for the 'antap (Council of Twenty) on Limu (Santa Cruz island) who named this region Mitsqanaqa'n (”lower jaw”). The hills east and west of the river mouth looked like two toothy jaws to Coyote. A large hill back of Ventura was called the tongue. Part of ancient lore involves two civil wars: one on Limu and the other on the coast at Mugu, which suggest power-struggles among the Chumash, who were actually several distinct ”tribes” with related but different languages. The Chumash were not the idyllic residents of paradise that many people may want to believe. They were in fact ”a society ridden with factionalism and constant bickering between neighboring chiefs.” (Brian Fagan)

Fernando Librado shearing sheep

Kitsepawit (Fernando Librado) described the 'antap: ”It was conceived that the siliyik [governing body] should be composed of twenty officials under the Kwaiyin [”wise man”]. The Kwaiyin would be between the common people, 'emechesh, and the siliyik. This would be the form of government. It was further conceived that the siliyik should be divided into twelve 'antap [official] and eight shan [sub-official]. [...] When the twenty were all together as a body, they would be called 'antap, but when they were all separated, they would be distinguished as the twelve 'antap and the eight shan.” (The Eye of the Flute, Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, 1977) The Pacific Ocean (Sxamin) impregnates the ancient Chumash culture much as the Nile impregnates Egyptian culture. In the Chumash view of the universe, all creatures in the Pacific Ocean have counterparts on land. Sardine’s counterpart is Lizard. Lobster’s counterpart is Jerusalem Cricket. The terrestrial counterpart of Swordfish (’Elye’wun) is the Chumash people.

Listen to "Swordfish Song" recorded by J.P. Harrington
September 20, 1916 (sung by Rosario Cooper):

"This is the swordfish song that accompanies
the dance with the crossed head feathers." (J.P.H.)

The above map shows how the Channel Islands were inhabited by both the Chumash and the Tongva to the south, the heart of whose nation corresponds with Los Angeles today. Ghalas-at, Kinkipar and Pimu were Tongva islands. The natural boundary between the two nations ironically corresponds to the boundary between Los Angeles and Ventura counties (map: where the pale purple north of Los Angeles ends on the coast). The Tongva port of Swa'anga was the largest Tongva town, observed by Cabrillo on what he named the Bay of Smokes (San Pedro Bay) because of the many lodge fires along this densely populated coast. His first landfall in Alta Calfornia was on the island of Pimu, where he witnessed sacred Tongva rites with great contempt. (The Tongva occupied most of what are now Los Angeles, Orange and Riverside counties.) As the Chumash would do days later, Tongva paddlers rowed ti'ats (plank canoes) out to meet Cabrillo in 1542 off what is now San Pedro.

On the island of Tukan (renamed San Miguel today) Juan Cabrillo suffered a fall and broke his arm near the shoulder. It is testimony to the courage and endurance of Juan Cabrillo that, with his broken arm, he proceeded with the plan to find the northern passage to the Atlantic which was thought to exist. The logbook reveals horrifying conditions even for a healthy man. Cabrillo nonetheless made it to Cape Mendecino north of the Golden Gate and back south to the very same island where he broke his arm, and where he died and was buried. Tukan was named La Posesión by Cabrillo and renamed Isla Juan Rodríguez by his crewmen before they departed for Mexico, after obeying his last wish of sailing even farther north, where they reached the modern California-Oregon border. No one knows the location of Cabrillo's grave.

The Chumash Sacred Coast

There are three other well-documented maritime voyages in the 16th and 17th centuries in the Santa Barbara channel. In 1587 Pedro de Unamuno left the Philippines and sailed over the Pacific to California before returning to Mexico, as did Sebastián Rodriguez Cermeño in 1595. (A Spaniard and a Philippino from Unamuno's expedition were killed in a skirmish with the Chumash. Many persons were wounded on both sides.)The English pirate Thomas Cavendish seized and looted Cermeño's treasure-laden ship Santa Ana off Cabo San Lucas, put its crew ashore with provisions, and set fire to it. A Basque merchant named Sebastián Viscaíno led the group that put out the flames of the Santa Ana, saving the hulk for rebuilding. After an unsuccessful attempt to colonize Baja California, Viscaíno convinced the Spanish viceroy to give him another chance at colonizing Alta California. In 1602, Sebastián Viscaíno made a similar voyage up the Californian coast as that made by Cabrillo. He too saw the tomols (plank canoes) of the Chumash gliding over the Santa Barbara Channel toward his ships.

The first map of the Santa Barbara Channel, drawn in 1602 by the priest accompanying Viscaíno, Antonio de la Ascención, shows several villages on what the Spaniards called la costa segura de buena gente (the safe coast of good people). Among the villages on the map is pueblo grande (big town). This may have been Syukhtun as well, which Cabrillo had described sixty years earlier as the capital of the realm. Many of the place names of today evoke Vizcaíno's voyage: Point Conception is one of the oldest European place names in North America, along with other names given by Vizcaíno still in use today: Cojo Canyon (for a lame Chumash man seen there); Espada Canyon (where the Chumash stole a sword); Gaviota (where one of Vizcaíno's soldiers shot a seagull); and la Carpinteria (”the carpinter's workshop”) on the beach where Vizcaíno witnessed Chumash boat-builders constructing their traditional ocean-going craft called tomol. Carpinteria today occupies the site of the Chumash village called Misopsno. Viscaíno's diary gives us another vivid view of daily life among the Chumash near Syukhtun:

Passing between the first (island) and the mainland, a canoe came out to us with two Indian fishermen, who had a great quantity of fish, rowing so swiftly that they seemed to fly.They came alongside without saying a word to us and went twice around us with so great speed that it seemed impossible; this finished, they came aft, bowing their heads in the way of courtesy. The general ordered that they be given a cloth, with bread. They received it, and gave in return the fish they had, without any pay, and this done they said by signs that they wished to go. After they had gone five Indians came in another canoe, so well-constructed and built that since Noah's ark a finer and lighter vessel with timbers better made has not been seen.(2) (excerpt from Hitch-Hiker in Hades)

The tomol ’Elye’wun passing under
the natural bridge at Anacapa island, 2001

(courtesy of Paul Pommier)

Viscaíno's logbook goes on to relate how one old Chumash mariner in this canoe was so skilled at making himself understood by sign language ”that he lacked nothing but ability to speak our language.” Unlike the priest Boscana at mission San Juan Capistrano (built over 160 years later), who believed these people to be ”monkies,” these early Spanish mariners marveled at their intelligence and skill at seamanship and handicrafts. Vizcaíno's diarist went on to write how this same old Chumash mariner who came aboard the flagship ”was so intelligent that he appeared not to be a barbarian but a person of great understanding. We showed him lead, tin and plates of silver. He sounded them with his finger and said that the silver was good but the others not.”

The tomol was used not only for fishing but also for trade between the islands and the mainland, a lucrative enterprise for Chumash merchant mariners, counterparts of the Spanish merchant mariners who anchored in their channel. In the 13,000 years of Chumash habitation of this region of North America, the tomol came late: ”As island and mainland population densities rose, the Chumash ate more and more fish. Sometime later, about 2,000 years ago, the tomol came into use, allowing people to fish farther offshore.” (Brian Fagan) Like the European mariners, the Chumash mariners also perished in shipwrecks. Anthropologists excavating on Isla Cedros, an island hundreds of miles to the south off the coast of Baja California, have found the wreckage of southern Californin plank canoes washed up on the shore. Tomol ports along the coast and islands were linked in a network of traders regulated by the ”Brotherhood of the Canoe.” Cargo bound for the islands included bundles of milkweed fiber, deer, bows, arrows, seeds and acorns. Cargo bound for the mainland included handcrafted products made from shell, bone, stone, as well as baskets and sea otter pelts.

A third use of the tomol was taking passengers to and from the islands for a fee of shell beads or trade goods. When the Spanish invaded the Chumash homeland and the missions were built, the tomol tradition continued sponsored by the church for the profit of its own maritime trade, mostly sea otter pelts. ”At Mission Santa Barbara the canoes operated out of what is now the harbor, the former village of Syuhtun.” (Travis Hudson) The traditional Chumash 'altomolich, ”maker of tomols”, became a tomolero during Spanish occupation. During the revolt of 1824, Syukhtun's two tomols were used to transport ”neophytes” who might join the rebellion to Santa Cruz island with a mission priest. These two tomols used during the revolt were built by two tomoleros, islanders who moved to Syukhtun, José Sudón and his friend José Venadero. They were members of the ”Brotherhood of the Canoe” who eventually abandoned their tomols sometime in the mid-1830s. ”No canoes were seen in the Santa Barbara region after that date.” (Travis Hudson, ”Chumash Canoes of Mission Santa Barbara: the Revolt of 1824,” Journal of California Anthropology 3:2, 1976) The tomol tradition had seemingly ended.

Tomol built in 1912.
Fernando Librado (the white-bearded man on the right), and J.P. Harrington
(the tall figure wearing a hat), during the tomol's construction.

The art of constructing tomols would have died out had not John P. Harrington taken meticulous notes from the reminiscences of Fernando Librado (1839?-1915) who, as a child, had been a witness to traditional tomol construction. Fernando was the last 'altomolich (”tomol maker”), a craft he learned from a relative. In 1912 Harrington hired Fernando to build the tomol seen above, which now hangs in the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. In 1974 museum curator Travis Hudson found a beat-up tomol in the basement storeroom of the Museum of Man in San Diego. In his meticulous research trying to find the history of the canoe, Hudson uncovered 3,200 pages of notes on tomol building taken by John P. Harrington. Harrington's notes provided the blueprint for the reprise of this ancient tradition. Not long thereafter the first authentic tomol made after Fernando Librado was constructed by Chumash people, Travis Hudson and other anthropologists using Harrington’s notes. It was named Helek (Falcon), and was paddled around the channel islands on a ten-day adventure in 1976.

Helek is the spirit totem of the ”Brotherhood of the Canoe,” and is almost always the captain of the tomol in the myths, accompanied by his shipmates He'w (Pelican) and Mut (Cormorant). More recently, in 1997, the tomol ’Elye’wun (Swordfish) was launched in Santa Barbara (Syukhtun) harbor in a historic reprise of the ancient maritime tradition, after nine months being constructed. In 2001, Chumash men and women again paddled ’Elye’wun, this time from the mainland to Anacapa and then Santa Cruz islands. This crossing is remembered as a joyous and historic event. Again in 2004, after an arduous 10-hour paddle from Oxnard, ’Elye’wun reached Santa Cruz island and the jubilation of 200 people awaiting her on shore. Another tomol crossing took place on September 8, 2007. The most recent tomol crossing took place on September 9,10,11, 2011, almost 100 years after Fernando Librado built and launched the first tomol since the 1830s.

Tomol update
June 21 (summer solstice) 2008

In the current issue of News from Native California Roberta Cordero recalls growing up in Santa Barbara in the forties and fifties in an environment where her Chumash culture was seen as very vague and relegated to the past, even deemed extinct by certain pessimistic scholars. In 1993 she attended a “gathering of the canoes” in British Columbia in which even Native Hawaiian canoe people participated. The tomol tradition at that time lay mostly in the anthropological notations of J.P. Harrington, although the Helek had already been constructed and paddled in the Santa Barbara Channel in 1976. The canoe people in British Columbia encouraged Roberta Cordero: “Why don’t you have a canoe? You’re a canoe people – tell your people to get busy. You go home and build a canoe.” She was presented with an eagle feather before her departure back to Santa Barbara and the building and paddling of the ’Elye’wun described above. To date, the ’Elye’wun has made five crossings of the Santa Barbara Channel. “It’s a huge success to have children who grow up with the canoe as an ordinary part of their lives.” (Roberta Cordero)

It is interesting to note that in 1542, and again in 1602, long before the Spanish had begun their campaign to colonize California, the natives told the Spaniards that they had seen bearded men like themselves in the interior of the country. Who were these men? Deserters from the harsh life of a Spanish foot-soldier who took native wives? It has been assumed that these ”bearded men” were a detachment from the Coronado expedition (1540-1541) in the southwest desert. (Already in 1539 Marcos de Niza entered the Southwest with his soldiers looking for the fabled cities of Cibola.) Considering the extremely harsh conditions of Spanish foot-soldiers, which made desertion a reality of the time, unwritten stories we will never know may also explain the appearance of ”bearded men” in the interior. Of course, very much happened in the distant past that was never written about.

In September 1792, the Spanish scientist José Longinos Martínez briefly visited the Chumash. The visit was part of an arduous overland trip from Cabo San Lucas, at the southern tip of Baja California, to Monterey, then the capital of California. Longinos Martínez was very impressed by the Chumash, and described them in great detail. Their baskets were of “utmost delicacy,” and he noted that their soapstone bowls and pots were “handed down from father to son” and never wore out. Chumash bows and arrows were “different from those of other nations, excelling them in workmanship, beauty and effectiveness.” Being a scientist, he also gave special attention to the ancient Chumash use of medicinal plants, listing some that he thought were suitable for commercial purposes.(3)


Excerpt from Hitch-hiker in Hades

For years I have returned to Shalawa Meadow in Santa Barbara to see if the longed-for waves (ideal for surfing) were breaking on Hammond’s reef, and to observe the Chumash medicine circle claiming the field as sacred land. The local people know it as Hammond’s Meadow, after the people who bought the land in 1928. Most are yet unaware that the correct name is Shalawa, a large and ancient Chumash village in what is now the wealthy township Montecito.

The village sites have been totally developed, and now the burial ground of Shalawa, on a bluff overlooking the Santa Barbara Channel, is on the agenda for development. A persistent battle has been fought to save the meadow from Los Angeles developers, resulting in a halt of this desecration – for the time being. With the rapacity of the American Dream leaning heavily on the flimsy chain-link fence surrounding it, Shalawa is now experiencing the precarious safety of magic.

I often walk on the meadow and observe the seasonal transformations of the medicine circle of stones laid in regard to the cardinal directions, and was gradually struck with awe over this David-like defiance of Goliath big money, corrupt politics, vandals and grave-robbers. Here, the arrogant boast of Manifest Destiny does not reach the Pacific shore, but is obliged to stop one hundred meters short of it. The medicine is working.

George Catlin wrote much about encounters with ”medicine.” It is used all over the continent to denote ”mystery” or ”riddle,” and that is precisely how the medicine man, or any sane man, sees the universe – a mystery, a riddle. Thus the medicine circle on Shalawa Meadow is a microcosmic symbol for the entire universe.

After a year abroad, I returned to see the base of the painted medicine pole, in the center of the circle of stones, completely overgrown with the pungent-smelling power-plant called Momoy (datura). Large lily-like flowers, white with golden phalloi, adorned the luxurious growth, which covered the small offerings of previous years. Above, perched on each end of the cross-bar on the medicine pole, two small hawks watched for intruders, flying away at first eye contact.

Momoy (datura)
(In my mother's backyard)

"Momoy is a dangerous plant that should not be used to induce hallucinations.
The dose that must be used to induce a hallucination is nearly the same dose that can kill."
(James D. Adams, pharmacologist at USC, News from Native California, Summer 2003)

Last week I walked from the beach up to the meadow, and the hawks again flew away when I looked up. Then I noticed a new transformation of the medicine circle over which they keep vigil. Momoy (Grandmother Momoy in the myths, who teaches the youth Yowoyow to be a good hunter and a man of spirit) has been removed and the entire circle cleaned and readied for the coming solstice ceremony. Top soil has been laid over the field to protect the graves, and the sacred inner space is raked in concentric circles as in a Zen garden, so that the artist could immediately tell by footprints if an intruder had been there. His name in Chumash means ”obsidian,” and with his wife (whose name means ”dolphin”), he has been protecting the meadow from the ravages of developers, vandals, university-trained grave-robbers and rich senior citizens who allow their dogs to defecate inside the sacred medicine circle. He says the meadow has been a place of ceremonial gatherings since his earliest childhood, and back many generations to the ancient times of these dead ancestors buried here, among whose bones the many gophers now make their homes. [...]He has contacts with Native American communities all over the state and as far away as Montauk Point, Long Island, eastern gateway of the Atlantic to the Shinnecock people. The Chumash are the caretakers of the western gateway of the Pacific at Humqaq, now known as Point Conception, and the two tribes maintain ceremonial contact. [...]

He was taken to Shalawa Meadow by the elders as an infant, when his training as a doctor began. (At that time he only recalls the tobacco ceremony being performed there.) He dislikes being called a ”shaman” and says he doesn’t know what this word means. He attended public school only because he was forced to. [...]

There has not always been a medicine circle on the meadow. In 1979 he became disgusted over local residents throwing litter, draining dirty oil from their cars onto the ground, vandalizing and robbing graves – they get $500 for a complete Chumash skull. [...] The Chumash cemetery had to be protected from the American Dream. ”Obsidian” put up a small painted medicine pole in the middle of the meadow, as if to say ”this is sacred ground.” When he returned the next day, the pole was stolen.

As the months went by, several replacement poles, successively sturdier and sturdier, were in turn stolen. In 1985 ”obsidian” and ”dolphin” made a small circle of stones around the medicine pole, which they took down after each ceremony to prevent another theft. Then they erected a very big brightly painted pole which thieves simply found impractical to steal. The vertical pole is the umbilical cord connecting the people to the earth mother Xutash. The horizontal cross-bar is the duality of the world. From colored yarn at each tip seagull feathers dangle in the wind. Seagull is the cleanser. Midway up the pole are deer antlers, and beneath these the bands of four symbolic colors: blue for Ocean, red for Earth, black for Owl’s Wing (sky), and white dots (Milky Way).


From a small circle of stones ten feet in diameter, the medicine circle has grown around the pole like ripples left in a calm lake after a pebble is tossed in. Now it is about forty feet across and the circle of large stones, very laboriously placed there by ”obsidian” and his helpers, surrounds twelve large boulders for the twelve months. He maintains these premises along with his wife, their children grand children and several other Chumash families. Along with his owl clan, there are three other clans now operating: Turtle, Blackbird and Northern Bear. These clans organize several ceremonies yearly. On Shalawa Meadow they celebrate the solstices and equinoxes. [...]

At the western approach to Shalawa Meadow ”obsidian” and his wife ”dolphin” have erected an artistically designed stone monument with colorful inlaid ceramic tiles adorned with lizards, birds and flowers around this inscription:

The Sacredness
of the land lies in
the minds of its people.
This land is dedicated
to the Spirit
and memory of
the ancestors and
their children.

On either side of this inscription are two bas-relief dolphins in turquoise ceramic. A day or two after this monument was finished, vandals broke off the heads of the dolphins and the general defacement continues to this day. Over all this the painted medicine pole stands enigmatically with the two seagull feathers dangling in the wind from colored yarn, and the two tiny hawks perched on the cross-piece. One of these was tamed by ”obsidian.” The other is a wild friend.

Offerings beneath the monument

Santa Barbara Independent, May 31, 2018:
Chumash Attend Public Meeting on Sacred Site

[Note: In his book Kuta Teachings John Anderson writes of the Chumash medicine pole Spon Kakunpmawa, ”pole of the Sun”, adorned with two long feathers from a condor, also a ”cleanser” like the seagull. The Chumash storyteller Kitsepawit (Fernando Librado), who spoke often with John Peabody Harrington at the beginning of this century, said that this pole was part of the ceremony surrounding death, burial and reincarnation. Personal possessions of the deceased were scattered around the base of the pole, located at a memorial shrine removed from the main village serving as a ”trap” to entice the dead soul away from the living and onto the complicated path of reincarnation. The dead person’s possessions had been burned except for those scattered at the base of the pole, so that the soul lingered at these shrines instead of in the villages, comforted by the many familiar objects.

In this way, the surviving family members were spared being haunted by ”ghost sickness”. The soul watched the shadow made by the medicine pole to orient itself on its way to Shimilaqsha, Land of the Dead. Anderson continues: ”These poles symbolized the ’climbing’ of the soul of the dead into the heavens on the celestial tree, the Milky Way.” He writes that catholic priests prevented these ancient ceremonies, forcing the Chumash to bring the deceased into the mission to lie in state beside two burning candles before being buried in a catholic cemetery. For this the priests charged the family an exorbitant fee, as did the priest in Ventura who told Kitsepawit that ”Our Lady of Los Angeles demanded that.”]

$19 (209 pages)

The creator of the Shalawa Meadow Medicine Circle tells this Chumash story:

”It begins with a worm who is eaten by a bird. The bird is eaten by a cat whose self-satisfaction is disrupted by a mean-looking dog. After devouring the cat, the dog is killed by a grizzly bear who congratulates himself for being the strongest of all. About that time comes a man who kills the bear and climbs a mountain to proclaim his ultimate superiorty. He ran so hard up the mountain that he died at the top. Before long the worm crawled out of his body”.

Listen to:
for two guitars
composed by Theo Radic

Medicine pole in disrepair
July, 2000

Fallen medicine pole placed beside monument
June, 2002

Fallen medicine pole with rotted base, beside monument
June, 2002

Bamboo replacement inside medicine circle
June, 2002

Bamboo replacement inside medicine circle
June, 2002

July, 2003:

small circle of stones in the center of
the high brambles which now
completely fill the medicine circle

February 12, 2006:

update: Jan. 10, 2018, day after devastating mudslide in Montecio

April 6, 2013:

photos by Richard Cordero

Panorama of Sespe

(click on image for enlargement)

"The Birth"

xx xx


xx xx

Chumash pictograph from Kern County
(photo: Campbell Grant)

These painted rocks are called pictographs to distinguish them from petroglyphs, images that are scratched, pecked or incised into the rock. Color is embedded in the Chumash myths like the pigments in these rock paintings. The Chumash acknowledge three sacred ”bodies”: earth, air and water, and three related elements: wind, rain and fire. The rainbow is the shadow of these elements that compose the world, itself shining with three main colors. The sun is god over these elements, as if the ancient Chumash knew, like Newton, that sunlight is the source of the color spectrum. Such mysteries, such aesthetic grace, lie at the core of the rock paintings.

The age of the above pictographs is unknown. In Crystals in the Sky (1978) Hudson and Underhay write: ”Some rock paintings were quite possibly products of this ritual complex [the ’antap brotherhood], undertaken by the sun priest or his assistants to invoke supernatural powers at the time of the winter solstice. Motifs such as frogs, salamanders and water striders […] may well be linked to concepts pertaining to the rejuvenation of the earth. […] How far back into antiquity these practices go can only be speculated. […] Perhaps the abundant rock art found throughout the rugged interior of Chumash territory was the result of increased spiritual activity initiated to placate the bringer of death – sun – in response to introduced European diseases and other cultural stresses which began to decimate the otherwise densely populated Chumash region during early historic times.” (See also Rock art and Science)

(left) La Piedra Pintada (right) pictograph in the cave of La Piedra
(photos by Richard Cordero)

The Painted Rock on California's Carrizo Plain goes back to the time of Cortes. The legend says that a vaquero named Sequatero told rancher Archibald McAlister about his Mohave mother who fled her husband, a Mohave chief, after an adulterous affair that resulted in Sequatero's birth. She fled with the child over the wide Mohave Desert in search of the legendary Painted Rock she had heard about in tales told by her mother and grandmother. She told her young son that runners from far away Mexico came to the village near the Rock (then unpainted) to announce the arrival of Cortés. An aging seer there declared that the new arrivals were the saviors of the native people. Then came news of the murder of Moctezuma, bloodshed, rape and plunder. The people lost confidence in the old seer's prophecy.

A younger seer, seeking to establish his legitimacy, sacrificed his daughter before the gathered people in order to protect their homeland from the invaders. With this gruesome deed, he put a curse on all those who would attempt to take their homeland. He mixed the blood of his sacrificed daughter with the pigments that were used to paint his pictographic warning on La Piedra Pintada. Sequatero grew to manhood in the nearby village, and told the legend to the rancher who hired him. Whether true or not, the legend has attracted local tourists, many of whom carved their initials in the Rock to such an extent that the images are virtually destroyed today. So luring was this legend that the first photograph of the remote Painted Rock was taken in 1876, used by Kroeber in his Handbook of the Indians of California to show how it looked before destroyed by vandalism. (excerpt from The Whetting Stone)

See also:
The Shamanic Tradition in Chumash Rock Art

In present day California, the native cultures are thriving, at least what is left of them. Of the 120 languages of Native California existing at the time of Cabrillo, less than two dozen are spoken today. At times, only one or two old people know the language, and have no one to speak to. In 2002 Dorothy Ramon, the last speaker of the Serrano (Maarringa’yam) language, passed away. The terrible results of the colonization of California are hard for Euro-Americans to grasp. But what if you reading these lines were the last speaker of English? What a catastrophe that would be! Books from Syukhtun Editions partially address issues concerning Native California. This is done with a deep feeling of respect on the part of the author. The poetry, prose, music, paintings and prints advertised on this website have been created over decades with two main sensations in the heart of the artist: love for his wife and longing for California.

Sunset over the site of Syukhtun
(photo by Tom Tuttle)

1. Relation of the Voyage of Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo, 1542-1543, included in Original Narratives of Early American History: Spanish Exploration in the Southwest 1542-1706, edited by Herbert Eugene Bolton, Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, 1916.
2. The Diary of Sebastian Viscaíno, 1602-1603, edited by Herbert Eugene Bolton.
3. Contested Eden. California Before the Gold Rush, Ramón A. Gutierrez and Richard J Orsi, editors, UC Press, Berkeley, 1998.


Travis Hudson
Yellak: The Making of the Colorado River
Tomol Crossing 2013 (video)
Brian Fagan: "The Chumash" An excellent report on the history of tomol-building and Chumash pre-history.
Early California History
Gold, Greed & Genocide
Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History
Ballena Press
Malki Museum
Morongo Band of Mission Indians
Heyday Books

News from Native California
Santa Inez band of Chumash Indians
Wishtoyo Foundation preserving Chumash culture and history
Satwiwa ("the bluffs")Cultural Center Chumash, Tongva and other Native Peoples of the Americas
Winnemem Wintu (Mt. Shasta region) note: Winnemem means "middle water" referring to the McCloud river.
Costanoan Rumsen Carmel Tribe Chino, California
Ohlone/Costanoan Esselen Nation (San Francisco Bay Area)
Muwekma Ohlone
Elem Nation
Coast Miwok (Graton Rancheria)
The Kawaiisu Tribe of Tejon
Cabazon Band of Mission Indians
Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla
San Manuel Band of Mission Indians
Welcome to Puvungna (ancient Tongva village site of major importance in Long Beach)
Tongva Nation Homepage (Los Angeles and Orange Counties)
The Gabrielino/Tongva Springs Foundation
La Jolla Band of Luiseño Indians
Soboba Band of Luiseño Indians (also known as Payomkawichum, "people of the west")
Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians
Juaneño Band (also called Acjachemem Nation from San Juan Capistrano region)
Agua Caliente Band (Cahuilla from Palm Springs region)
Pala Band of Mission Indians (Oceanside/Pala)
Kumeyaay (San Diego region)
Tachi Yokut
The Sacred Salt Songs of the Nuwuvi (Southern Paiute) People
Fort Mojave Tribe
Pomo tribes
Tolowa (Smith River Rancheria)
Table Bluff Wiyot
Tataviam (People facing the Sun)
Esselen Tribe of Monterey
Modoc Tribe of Oklahoma
Big Sandy Rancheria (Mono)
Picayune Rancheria of the Chukchansi Indians
Maidu (Konkow Valley Band)
Big Valley Band (Pomo)
Buena Vista Rancheria (Me-wuk)
Blue Lake Rancheria (Wiyot, Yurok)
Laytonville Rancheria (Cahto)
Achumawi (Pit River)
Hoopa Valley Tribe
California Indians Page
California Indian Storyteller's Association
Sherman Indian Museum (former Indian boarding school in Riverside)
Southwest Museum
Mitchell Robles (Chumash artist)
All California reservations

Sandspit at Requa
February 16, 2006
(photo: Theo Radic)

Songs of Three Southern California Indian Nations
by Ernest H. Siva

This newly published 48-page book includes ancient songs which appear for the first time in print. The album is beautifully illustrated with color photographs of the region and is published by Ushkana Press, the publishing arm of the Dorothy Ramon Learning Center in Banning, California. ("Ushkana" refers to Dragonfly.) Along with the sheet music and song texts in southern Californian languages is a CD with Ernest Siva playing the flute, and singing the words unaccompanied.

Price: $35 plus 7.75 percent California sales tax if applicable
Please add $5 for shipping contact us for wholesale and educational rates:
Ushkana Press
P.O. Box 1510
CA 92220 USA

sacred Lakota mountain ..................... sacred Lakota mountain defiled

This famous mountain, blown apart in the 1930s and misnamed after an insignificant New York lawyer, is really called Tunkasila Sakpe (Six Grandfathers), one of the sites on the legendary vision quest of Lakota medicine man Hehaka Sapa (Black Elk). Which version truly possesses beauty?


brick in the botanical garden of
Malki Museum, Banning, California

top of page

Home | Books | Sheet music for guitar | Visual arts | Biography

Copyright © 2024 Syukhtun EditionsTM, All Rights Reserved domain name is trade marked SM , All Rights Reserved