John R. Johnson, Ph.D.
Curator of Anthropology, Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History
Why did the Chumash chiefs marry differently than other people in their society? Why did men who were chiefs have more than one wife, while others were monogamous? Why did most Chumash men move to their wife's community while the chief's wives followed their husband? Why did chiefs' families intermarry and why did their spouses often come from distant towns? These are some of the questions that have been raised through studies of Chumash social organization over the past decade.
When the Chumash Indians were first contacted by Europeans, they lived in a society that differed sharply from the one to which the newcomers were accustomed. Rather than possessing a national identity, the basic units of Chumash society were independent towns and villages. Sometimes a particularly effective chief would have authority over several towns, but he was by no means all-powerful. While the basis for his leadership may partly have been determined by birth, it was more dependent on personality, the ability to control certain economic activities, and success in creation of alliances with other chiefs.
Unfortunately, no fully-detailed descriptions of the social and political workings of Chumash society were written down during the Spanish Period. Several generations were to pass before anthropologists like John P. Harrington began to unveil the Chumash past through ethnographic investigations. By this time, pre-European social and political patterns had long been forgotten.
Although the Franciscan missionaries did not describe Chumash social life, the meticulous records they kept of Indian baptisms and marriages at each mission comprise a remarkable source of information for anthropological research. Over the past two decades, I have systematically collected data contained in the mission records to study Chumash marriage and family patterns. From this effort has emerged a regional view of how Chumash economic and political relations were reinforced through intermarriage.
A highly significant piece of information obtained from the study of mission register data is that the Chumash practiced matrilocal residence: that is, the husband would usually move to his wife's community upon marriage and live among her relatives. The discovery that the Chumash were matrilocal was unexpected, because anthropologists had previously believed the Chumash to be partilocal like neighboring cultural groups who surrounded them at the time of European contact.
Chumash chiefs were different than the rest of their society in the way they married and where they lived after marriage. This summer I was invited to attend an Institute in Comparative Anthropological Research sponsored by the National Science Foundation. This gave me the opportunity to pursue research in marriage patterns of political leaders in the 14% of the world's cultures that practice matrilocal residence. I discovered that the Chumash were not unique--chiefs in other matrilocal societies often deviated from the general population in their marriage habits. In the majority of cases I studied, chiefs would bring their wives to reside with them when they ascended to political office. In most societies with matrilocal residence, polygamy was limited to chiefs only. This contrasted with polygamy in patrilocal societies, where any man could accumulate wives based on his ability to support them.
It would seem, therefore, that living with one's wife's relatives, as is the case with matrilocal societies, is the major factor determining what kind of polygamy is allowed. Chiefs vary from the rest of society, not only because they usually live among their own relatives, but also because their authority is partly based on economic and political alliances that can be built through marrying additional wives from other chiefs' families. Throughout the world, marriage practices tend to influence other aspects of cultural behavior. Understanding Chumash marriage and family patterns will allow us to further our knowledge about a culture whose history is still being written.
[Originally published in Bulletin of the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, No. 188, November & December 1996, p. 1]