Wishtoyo Builds Chumash Bridges in Malibu

Luhui Isha prepares guests for one of the ceremonies that takes place at the Wishtoyo Chumash Village, located in Malibu.

This story has been updated. Please see editor’s note below.

When Mati Waiya founded the Wishtoyo Foundation in 1997 with a friend, the idea was not only to pay homage to his ancestors whohave lived here for some 15,000 years, but also as a way to preserve a culture that is fast disappearing in the wake of calls for the canonization of Father Junipero Serra, the Franciscan friar who brought Christianity to native Southern California peoples, along with disease and subjugation. The crown jewel of Wishtoyo’s efforts is the reclamation of an 8,000-year-old Chumash village near Nicholas Canyon County Beach.

Some 14 years ago, Waiya started lobbying to create Wishtoyo Chumash Village on a site that once housed his ancestors. Ten thousand dollars in grant money allowed him to start clearing the land and removing the invasive species crowding out Nicholas Canyon Stream, which runs through the area. The Army Corps of Engineers, California Coastal Commission, L.A. County Board of Supervisors, City of Malibu, hydrologists, architectural boards all had to sign off (as he called it, “all the white tape”) on Waiya’s plans.

Throughout the past 14 years, Wishtoyo has raised about one million dollars through public and private donations, the Prop 12 and Wetlands Recovery grants for the ongoing riparian habitat restoration and native plant garden, and other funds from private donors. Wishtoyo is continuing to raise funds to complete the Village, which, according to Waiya, as of today, is about halfway complete.

At the village, there are a half dozen circular “aps” or huts with central openings in the roofs to let smoke escape, typical of Chumash design. Whale rib bones protect the entrance.

“You don’t buy this stuff at Home Depot,” Waiya said. “Everything here was gathered and built by hand, as my ancestors did.”

There is a large, traditional, ceremonial hearth, dug into the sand, shaded, yet open to the sky, in which Wishtoyo welcomes spiritual gatherings to the “Apanish” (village). Their visitors have been eclectic. 

“We had a group of 50 Israelis here the day before they started bombing Gaza last summer,” Waiya said. “Twenty-five Palestinians and 25 Jewish Israelis. We talked about how to save their culture.”

Also on site is a circular “ap’a’yik” (sweathouse), a large, round birthing stone and a traditional Chumash “tomol” — a long, sewn-plank canoe. Wishtoyo has established groups like the Chumash Women’s Elders Council to help restore and preserve native customs like basketry, and formed a Chumash and Tribal co-management group to develop a network of Marine Protected Areas throughout the Channel Islands. They’ve used 21st-century agencies to steward the land and waters of generations going back 15,000 years.

“The Chumash have endured three invasions,” Waiya’s wife, Luhui Isha, said. “The Spanish missionaries, the Mexicans for a short while and then the ‘Americans.’ We’ve never gone away. But each invasion tried to destroy our culture.”

Waiya, who grew up in Ventura County in a Chumash community, and Isha, who is of the Barbareno Chumash from Santa Barbara, are tribal elders and advisors to a number of coastal and governmental agencies that control what happens to their ancient coastal territories. This assures them a place at the negotiating table as much as possible in an era when galloping development is radically changing the coastline of their ancestors.

“Our ancestors are buried under these rich people’s houses,” Waiya said. “In Playa del Rey, they’ve removed the bones of 1,200 of our people. Today, we must fight to get back our heritage. The only way to move forward is through education.”

According to Waiya and Isha, the world is moving into an era that does not reflect the peaceful and sustainable culture of their people. And they aim to change that direction as much as possible through education and example. Functioning largely on private donations and grants, both public and private, Wishtoyo (which means “rainbow” in Waiya’s dialect), the couple have rebuilt one of the Neolithic villages that dotted Malibu’s coastline back when it was called Humaliwo (meaning “where the surf sounds loudly”).

“We just want the truth out about our history,” Isha said, who feels that California education curricula pay scant attention to its original inhabitants. “We’d love to see the state Board of Education update their curriculum for local schools. Because the story of our history is really the story of their history as well.”

Accordingly, Wishtoyo sponsors field trips of inner-city students who have no knowledge of the cultural chronicle of coastal Southern California. 

“Our culture is still vibrant and alive,” Isha said. “When I go speak at schools, the teachers ask if I can bring something to show their children that it is not dead.”

“Wishtoyo is trying to build a bridge to the future,” Waiya said. “We do that by teaching about how to preserve our environment and our culture. This is about a world that sustains us. It’s not just biology.”

To find out more about Wishtoyo or to arrange for a visit to the Chumash Discovery Village, visit wishtoyo.org.

Editor’s note: a previous version of this story listed incorrect information about the grant amount that helped start Wishtoyo, as well as incorrect information about where Luhui Isha was raised. Additional information about fundraising efforts has also been added.