Chanting, music, dance celebrate Chumash heritage

One of the silly topics of conversation we tolerate from each other all too often in Southern California is how we all come from somewhere else. At Malibu Bluffs Park Sunday there was a public festival attended by many people whose forebears come from right around here.

Chumash Day 2000 marked the second annual gathering of Native Americans in Malibu. Festivities included performances of traditional art forms such as chanting, music and dance. Lots of colorful booths offered beaded handiwork and chicken barbecue.

Beverly Folkes is a suburban housewife from Thousand Oaks who’s raised a couple of kids. She’s on the board of the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History and has acted in an advisory capacity to the Native American Cultural Resource Advisory Committee (NACRAC) of Malibu, one of the day’s sponsors. She also has a story about her maternal grandfather, who was “the last remaining mission Indian,” according to his obituary in 1941. Folkes describes her ethnicity as “Fernandeno Chumash,” or Chumash from the San Fernando Valley. “My great grandfather was killed by a bear in the Lancaster Mountains,” she said.

The NACRAC of Malibu has other concerns in addition to hosting this annual festival. Chair Francine Greene, of Yaqui ancestry, and her husband Harold are attempting to restructure the Malibu city ordinance on archeology, to make it less ambiguous and more user friendly. “It’s an ordinance that deals with land use,” Harold Greene said. “We’re simplifying the language so that people will understand it before we need lawyers explaining it.” He quoted an example from the present ordinance. “We will replace ‘stratigraphic integrity’ with ‘undisturbed’,” he said, referring to an attribute significant in archeological circles.

Gil Unzueta sat in a booth at the festival with his girlfriend and distributed fliers about the California condor. A consulting archeologist and a staff associate with the Santa Barbara museum, he explained about the Chumash, among whom he counts himself a member. “There are only about 5,000 Chumash left,” he said. He explained the method of measuring the group population. The Federal Repatriation Act during the early ’90s provided money to do a search through mission records. Information was also acquired from the 1990 U.S. census. People with at least one part in 64 were counted among the measured ethnicity.

“The [Chumash] blood line is very thin. Within 100 years the Chumash will be gone. We will preserve our culture by teaching our children and the general public at events like this,” Unzueta said.

During the festival, some of the traditionally garbed Chumash dancers expressed reluctance to be photographed or interviewed, after the fashion of fundamentalists in many traditions. Photos were discouraged during the Chumash dance presentation.

Bill Neal, a performer of Cherokee ancestry, said he is also known as Mah-Na-Che-Ah-Shun, or “he-sings-with-his-heart.” He played a wooden flute he called an “elk whistle,” which uses a different tonal scale than that of European tradition. The finger holes are burned into the wood rather than cut. The sound he produced was at once breathy and piercing, an ululation that resembled the chanting remarkably. “Indians are taught about in schools as museum pieces,” he said. “We should not speak of them in the past tense.”

The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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