Chumash Life during Missionization
The Chumash Indian homeland is found along the coast of California, between Malibu and Paso Robles, as well as on the Northern Channel Islands. Chumash lived in 150 independent villages before the Mission Period and had a total population of about 18,000 people. People spoke different but related languages in different parts of the region. This area was first settled about 13,000 years ago. This paper is focusing on the political, religious, cultural, economic, and professional and health life of the Chumash community during missionization period and their current status.
There was a hierarchical political system which involved chiefs who acted as brokers in the exchange relationships among the Chumash community. These leaders were also responsible for the scheduling of ceremonies, feasts, and celebrations which were essential to inter-village conflict resolution and social interaction. This political organization acted as the pillar which held the economic system together in the face of environmental perturbations and the threat of competition from mutual enemies. The system, however, was so sensitive to the missionization effects. The system collapsed when the population was declining, the abandonment of villages, political decentralization, and resultant food provisioning failure period. (Michaelsen J. et al 1.)
With time, the Chumash population increased and people adapted their life ways to the local environment. Resources were accessible in the villages along the coastline both in the interior and on the island. These resources were used for trade by the population along this region. Seagoing plank canoe, or tomol, that was invented about 2,000 years ago, made it possible to trade. Chumash were also known of their fine basketry, and their money made from shells. Currently, there are still many people who can trace their ancestry back to these historic Chumash communities. The large majority of more than 60% migrated to the missions between 1798 and 1802. The reason that could have made them to decide to move to the missions may have been due to the desire to minimize risk and was considered an acceptable alternative under the pressures of several interrelated catastrophic events.
The community is also characterized by different clothing modes among different members of the family and the society. During the missionization period, Chumash community didn’t wear much clothing. Women mostly wore a two-piece skirt of deer skin or plant fiber. The skirt hung to about knee length and had a narrow apron in front which had a wider piece that wrapped around the back. Men and boys remained naked, but they sometimes wore a belt or a small net at the waist which was used for carrying tools that they needed. During cold weather, people could wear capes of animal skins for warmth while the Chiefs and leaders, often wore a waist-length bearskin cape as a sign of his special status. For festival occasions, the Chumash wore more body paint and jewelry. Dancers and singers at ceremonies had special outfits with feathered skirts and headdresses
The Chumash really became a separate community that could be defined immediately after the Initial Early Period during the Terminal Early Period which is about 5000 years ago. They became settlements and a Matriarchal Linear Society. The female Chumash ran and organized the settlements through group decisions, councils, and a ‘Wot’, chieftain. Matriarchal Linear (or Lineage) basically meant that the family name stays on the mother’s side. With the increase in the Chumash population levels there was a greater dependence on exchange of food from one settlement to the next. This allowed groups to meet their basic needs when there were shortfalls within a village’s catchment. With the increase in population, subsistence strategies intensified and expanded and settlements became increasingly interdependent and mutual trade became important to subsistence success. The value of the money barely depended on the labor invested to make it and the rarity of the shell that was used. They would measure the value of a strand of beads according to its length. This depended with the number times it would wrap around a person’s hand. The disk beads made from the callus (the thick part of the shell near its opening) were worth twice as much as the disk beads made from the wall of the shell, because many more beads could be made from the wall, so they were less rare. (Trafzer C. E. et al 22).
The Chumash population encountered harsh climatic variations during the missionization period. The period between 1780 to1830 was characterized by droughts, and significantly elevated sea-surface temperatures. This was a particularly difficult period of high subsistence risk and the traditional buffers of trade and political alliances failed. Compounding these conditions were several epidemics that decimated the Chumash people. (Mancall P. C, et al 29)
Chumash had many similarities with their neighbors (Tongva) who used be hunters, the northern Chumash territory was occupied by Spanish beginning in 1772 within the establishment of a mission San Louis Obispo. There were no deaths that were recorded for the Chumash population at the period of 1772-1788. However, it is recorded that very few children survived in the early period. There was also pronounced gender imbalance as many epidemics swept over the Chumash population during the mission which took forty nine years. This is the period of the occupation by the Spanish and Mexican authorities. The overall average rate of mortality was 66 deaths per thousand people. Other epidemics that invaded the Chumash population were diseases like typhoid, syphilis, pneumonia, which killed a large number of the population. How ever, the Chumash religious leaders did less to counteract these epidemics which further disillusioned their loyalty to the level they seemed to have lost authority and power. (The most devastating epidemics that happened to the Chumash life happened between 1800-1802 which was Diphtheria (cerramiento de garganta). The disease is believed to have originated from San Gabriel and spread to the Chumash population ( Michaelsen J. et al 1)
Chumash being native people in their land, they turned inward to explain, interpret and contend with the foreign invaders. These invaders introduced ill health, deadly diseases and social anomie. Majority of the native California Indians did not abandon their ancient belief systems and become Christians. They were strongly loyal to their religious beliefs. However, some of the missions Indians adopted Christianity and synchronized compatible elements of the old and new religion. (Michaelsen J. et al 1)
With mission rule extending throughout most of Southern California, only a few Indians in the region escaped the consequences of missionization. Most of the intensive mission took place in Southern California among Indians. From the total of 3000 Indians in South California in 1769, the number declined to approximately 1250 by 1910. Chumash group together with the Luiseno, Gabriliano and Juaneno are today wholly extinct. (Mc Williams C. 29).
Males married into the female’s family. ‘Wot’s’ were often male and they would lead activities beyond the settlement. This is especially evident with many Native American families. The Chumash in the Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties were extremely peaceful. They defined themselves for the last thousands of years as highly, skilled crafters- home builders, money makers, canoe makers, basket weavers, etc…
The Chumash were warm and kind people who carried with them strong beliefs in the creator and respecting life. They sincerely had a, deep understanding of community and sharing with the peoples of the earth which included the trees, plants, animals, and spirits. A great lesson can be remembered and learned here- Root, Pattern and Destiny. Learn from the past, apply in the present and protect the future. The largest uprising of the California Indians during the mission era (1769-1834) selected both religious and secular targets in their revolt. (Michaelsen J. et al 1.)
With missionization of the Chumash community, Christian effort began by Franciscan formation of Louis Obispo. The Chumash community was characterized by a cross section of all aspects in life from political, religious, cultural, economic and professional life. It is only 200 descendents were left by the start of 20 century down from twenty thousand during the time of missionization. The community had elaborate political system and leaders, strong cultural values and viable economic system. The community in the ancient times they embraced the available technology through use of transport system and tools and equipment. Their governance could be emulated even in the modern times.
Brenda J. Baker, Lisa Kealhofer. Bio-archaeology of Native American adaptation in the Spanish borderlands. University Press of Florida, 1996
Trafzer C. E., Diane E. Weiner Medicine ways: disease, health, and survival among Native Americans Rowman Altamira, 2001, 22
McWilliams C. Southern California: An Island on the Land
Gibbs Smith, 1973, 29
Mancall P. C. ; Merrell J.H. American encounters: natives and newcomers from European contact to Indian removal, 1500-1850 Routledge, 2000, 29
Michaelsen L. ; Johnson J. 1994 Missionization among the Coastal Chumash of Central California: A Study of Risk Minimization Strategies. American Anthropologist 96(2): 263-299,