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The Chumash Way of Life

Chumash Elder Julie Tumamait-Stenslie

Ojai’s Native Sons & Daughters

By Leslee Goodman

Julie Tumamait-Stenslie wears her history well.  The tribal leader of the Barbareño-Ventureño band of Chumash, a subset of people who numbered in the tens of thousands before the arrival of the Spanish, she is the spokesperson for Ojai’s original inhabitants and culture—a role she carries with seemingly endless patience, as she explains yet again that Ojai does not mean “nest” but “moon,” and advocates for her culture’s vanishing ways and sacred sites.  Church baptism records show that her family is one of only two to have resided continuously in the Valley since the days of the early missions. 

OQ:  How long have the Chumash people lived in the Ojai Valley?

Tumamait:  Anthropologists say that our ancestors have been here at least 12,000 years—longer than all recorded history.  Mitochondrial DNA from the remains of a body found on Santa Rosa Island date back 13,500 years, making this the oldest recorded being on the North American continent.  Artifacts from a village located in what is now Libbey Park date back 9,000-10,000 years.  Although its age is not known, the village of “?Ahwa’y,” which was located in the upper valley and from which the name “Ojai” is derived, was still occupied at the arrival of the Spanish.

Many people don’t realize that Chumash territory extended 7,000 square miles—from Malibu in the south to Monterey County in the north, to the edge of the San Joaquin Valley in the east, and west to the Channel Islands of Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa and San Miguel.  Chumash people traveled and traded amongst the various bands, but our languages retained their distinctions.  Most of us are scattered now and only the Santa Ynez Band of Mission Indians is federally recognized.  Nevertheless, remains of our culture have been found in all of these places.  In 2002, I created the Barbareño-Ventureño Band of Mission Indians as a nonprofit so that those of us with local Chumash ancestry could find and support each other in honoring and reviving our culture.

OQ: What are the most important aspects of Chumash culture to honor and revive?

Tumamait: Oh, there are so many.  Bringing back the language is a major one.  The realization that the culture is still alive is another.  Our culture is not just a collection of artifacts; it’s a different approach to life, based on a realization that the Earth is sacred.  This isn’t just a Chumash belief; it’s common to all indigenous peoples.

I’d like to create a place in Ojai where people could come and experience that approach.  Where kids and adults could get their hands in the dirt and grow Native plants; where they could gather Native grasses and pine needles and weave baskets; where they could collect and pound acorns; where they could learn about eating seasonally; where they could commune with nature and appreciate the natural abundance we are so fortunate to have in this Valley.  Human beings evolved on a seasonal diet, but now, all foods are available all the time, and it’s not healthy.  I’d like a center in Ojai to be a place where people could perform ceremonies and honor and celebrate the seasons as we used to.

It’s also important to recognize and preserve what’s left of our sacred and historic sites—especially because so many have already been lost, built upon, or destroyed.  For example, the way our Valley is surrounded by mountains is what gave rise to the belief that “Ojai” meant “nest,’ yet it is these very mountains that are threatened by the installation of cell towers and weather stations. These mountains were not only sacred to our ancestors, they remain sacred.  It’s up to all of us to protect them—not simply to honor history, nor to “stand in the way of progress,” but to recognize the value of something besides progress.  It’s about realizing that sometimes what you’ve got is worth keeping the way it is.

Leslee Goodman is a freelance writer living in Ojai.  Contact her at www.alchemy.us.com

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