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  People of the Sky: Birds in Chumash Culture
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by Jan Timbrook and John R. Johnson
Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History

Paper presented at the 22nd Ethnobiology Conference,
Oaxaca, March 10-13, 1999

Abstract. Since ancient times, birds have been an integral part of life for California’s native peoples. Archaeological avian remains, indicating both dietary and material culture uses, are among the earliest evidence of human occupation on the Santa Barbara Channel Islands. These remains document prehistoric changes in species distribution as well as subsistence differences between island and mainland peoples. Ethnographic data shows that birds figured prominently in Chumash placenames, myths, ceremonies, symbolism, and even medicinal practices. Feather regalia was particularly important in dances and other rituals. Many of these special relationships with birds continue among Chumash descendants today.

Introduction: The Chumash
Today, several thousand Chumash Indians live in their ancient homeland, the south central coast of California in the vicinity of Santa Barbara. Their ancestors first arrived in the region at least 10,000 years ago. Until the Mission Period began in the late 18th century, these people made their living solely by hunting, gathering and fishing.

Although many Chumash people are still with us, much of their traditional culture has been altered or lost. Archaeological research, historical documents, and early ethnographic studies show that, among the many kinds of living creatures with which the Chumash shared their world, birds played a very special role. Birds can reveal cultural and environmental changes, provide insight into another philosophy and world view, and enrich our understanding of the relationships between people and the natural world.

Early evidence of human occupation in North America has been found on San Miguel Island off the Santa Barbara coast At Daisy Cave, occupied from about 12,000 until 700 years ago, the faunal remains include bones of an endemic species of flightless goose called Chendytes, which formerly nested in great numbers on the island. Chendytes bones are abundant in the archaeological record until about 4000 - 5000 years ago, after which the species rapidly became extinct, perhaps as the human population increased.

Two other birds commonly found in island archaeological deposits but not seen in the area today are Snow Goose and Short-Tailed Albatross. Cormorant, a marine bird still numerous today, was probably captured on its island rookeries at night. Charred Cormorant bones indicate the legs were cooked and eaten by native people.

In archaeological sites on the mainland, we see evidence of different birds being utilized. The most common food species were California Quail, American Coot, Ruddy Duck, and Pied-billed Grebe. Bones from a number of other birds are also found -- woodpeckers, blackbirds, hawks, owls, and so on. Due to cultural practices in handling bones of certain species, their differential preservation, and changes in species distribution, not all potentially usable local birds are represented in the archaeological record.

Insights into interpretation of bird use in the past can be found in ethnographic and ethnohistoric sources. Of particular importance is the information recorded by the linguist John P. Harrington from Chumash elders early in this century. His notes include details on subsistence and material culture, as well as on less tangible aspects such as language, placenames, myth, cosmology, and symbolism.

California Indians hunted birds from blinds, trapped them with snares or maze traps, placed traps over nest holes, captured them by hand at roosts, and sometimes raised captured nestlings. The Chumash caught quail with nets or maze traps, herded ducks into bulrush enclosures, and killed blackbirds with a horizontal pole that pivoted on a post when pulled with a long rope. They made duck decoys and shot the birds with arrows, which were fletched with Red-tailed Hawk, Eagle, Crow, Raven, or Condor feathers.

A very diverse array of material culture items were made from bird parts, but by far the most important were clothing and dance regalia. The Chumash made many different kinds, and we will mention just a few.

Clothing and Ornamentation
Although they wore little clothing, the Chumash people did use blankets for sleeping and capes to wear in colder weather. Feathered garments were made in several ways: (1) sewing large pieces of bird skins together; (2) weaving strips of bird skin which had been twisted around plant-fiber cordage; or (3) twisting feathers or feather down into the plant fibers while making the cordage, then weaving that. One Indian woman who lived alone on San Nicolas Island from 1835 to 1853, when rescued was wearing a long, sleeveless dress made from squares of Cormorant skins sewn together.

Ornaments made with bird bones included hairpins, often decorated with feathers, worn by both men and women. Hollow bird bones were cut into segments and worn as necklace beads. Segments of quill from Turkey Vulture or Condor feathers were threaded crosswise onto multiple-strand bead necklaces to make them lie flat. Eagle claws were sometimes perforated for wearing as pendants.

Ceremonial or dance regalia made from feathers was among the most important Chumash uses of birds. Most dancers wore a skirt fashioned from dogbane or milkweed cordage twisted together with Eagle down, hanging in strands from a waistband and tipped with whole feathers. This type of skirt appears in the only known photographs of a Chumash Indian wearing traditional costume, Rafael Solares in 1878.

Another type of feathered skirt was a net that hung from the waist to the knees, covered with layers of woodpecker, magpie, gull, vulture, or hawk feathers. One example from another tribe is made with Golden Eagle feathers, and another features 70 feathers of California Condor. Much longer feathered net robes that covered the dancer from head to toe were made by some native peoples, as seen in a Northern California example in Russia, although it should not reveal the dancer’s face.

There were two principal kinds of Chumash feathered dance headdresses. The first was a flexible forehead band made from feathers trimmed, pierced and threaded together with fine string so they lay closely parallel. Long bands were worn hanging down the back or served as banners to decorate outdoor dance enclosures. The favorite feathers for these bands were the bright orange quills of the Northern Flicker. One 66 cm long example was made with 412 Flicker feathers -- the wings and tails of at least 14 individual birds. Other species were also used: a cave cache of ceremonial regalia contained 33 such feather bands made from wing and tail feathers of many different birds: Flicker as well as Crow, Brown Pelican, Condor, Red-shouldered Hawk, Snowy Egret, Bald Eagle, Jay, and Pigeon.

The second dance headdress, also seen in the early photo of Rafael Solares, was a topknot of short feathers mounted onto a framework, with a much longer projecting central bunch of black Magpie or Roadrunner tail feathers. The example in our Museum exhibit is of split Turkey feathers, a bird introduced to the Chumash in historic times.

Dances and Music
Dances were performed for both religious and secular purposes, and some of them were inspired by animals. In the Blackbird Dance, the dancers imitated the singing, bathing, and scratching steps of the blackbird and were painted to resemble the Blackbird, with a speckled face and red patches on the shoulders. The Condor dancer struck two sticks together, enabling him to fly long distances quickly. Wearing their feathered regalia, the dancers were transformed from their human state into spiritual beings. Connections between people and the forces of nature were strengthened through these ceremonies.

These dances continued to be performed as late as the 1870s. In the last 20 years, Chumash people have begun to do many of the dances again and to make their own regalia, largely based on the information that Harrington had recorded from their forebears. In the Crane Dance, Antonio Romero and Pete Zavalla re-create Sandhill Crane movements while blowing bird bone whistles.

Native dancers throughout California commonly blow bird bone whistles to accompany their movements. The shrill sound of the whistles was not appreciated by the 18th century Spanish explorer Pedro Fages, who encountered them among the Chumash. These people have been playing bird bone whistles for 3000 years, up to the present day. Archaeological examples include whistles made from wing or leg bones of Short-tailed Albatross, Snow Goose, Red-tailed Hawk and Cormorant.

Ritual Paraphernalia
Birds figured in various religious practices, both public and personal. Prayer shrines were marked with tall poles embellished with tufts of black feathers from Turkey Vulture, Crow, Condor, Raven, or Eagle. A talon, a skull, or a whole head from one of these birds might be worn suspended from a cord around one’s neck as a personal talisman. Effigy carvings thought to represent birds like Pelican or Cormorant may have been intended to bring their owner success in fishing.

Because they fly so high and can spot things on the ground, Vultures and Condors were considered to be expert at finding lost objects. Special stones found in their nests could confer these powers on the finder. To collect such a stone, Fernando Librado said, you steal one of the vulture’s eggs, boil it hard, then secretly return it to the nest. When she sits on her eggs, she realizes something is wrong with one of them and flies away. You keep watching until she comes back with a rock and places it right against the egg. At once the chick hatches. As soon as she leaves the nest, you take that stone, for by that stone you can get whatever you want-- hidden things and things pretty far away.

Feather down was deposited as an offering at shrines, scattered to bring rain, and used to “feed” ritual objects. One ceremony involved sprinkling white goose down, chia seed, and red ochre over an arrangement of stones, followed by singing and dancing. This was done to cure the sick, bring rain, put out fires in the mountains, and make war.

The sunstick used in solstice rituals was kept in a wood box filled with white Egret or Goose down. The Kitanemuk also kept ritual stones called tishait in their homes to protect them from weather and to use in treating illness. The stones were wrapped up with feather down and other ritual “food,” which was burned and replaced each year.

Feathers also had a role in specialized medical treatments. For serious illnesses that did not respond to folk herbal remedies, the Ant Doctor might be consulted. This doctor would take the patient to an anthill in the mountains, pick up the red ants with an Eagle feather and wrap them in balls of Eagle feather down, and give them like pills for the patient to swallow. After fainting from the ant venom, the patient would recover.

Birds thus appeared in nearly every aspect of Chumash life-- food, clothing, tools, ritual and medicine. They also appear in the names the Chumash gave to the world around them. Harrington recorded many placenames that reflect occurrence of particular bird species or elements of myth. As the soul prepares for its journey after death, said María Solares, it passes some rocks near Point Conception, where two giant Ravens peck out its eyes. This spot is called humqaq’ ‘The Raven Comes.’

Other birds recognized in Chumash placenames include Roadrunner, Kestrel, Golden Eagle, Peregrine Falcon, Turkey Vulture, and Scrub Jay -- sometimes just the bird itself, in other cases its nest. Another feature of birds is acknowledged in the Santa Rosa Island village of Qshiwqshiw -- ‘lots of bird droppings.’ Although many other Chumash placenames are still in use today, unfortunately none of these bird-oriented ones are.

As in many languages, Chumash names for birds often reflected the sound the bird makes. This pattern appears particularly true for vocal species like ducks and geese, owls, hawks, pigeons and doves, woodpeckers, and corvids. Other examples include‘Quail,’ takak; ‘Meadowlark,’ ts’iyukqwili; and ‘Hummingbird,’ yuxnu’ts. Interestingly, ‘Northern Flicker,’ syit, has the same name as the dark orange base of Juncus rush stalks used in basketry. The Chumash did have a generic term for bird, ’axonowon ‘flier.’ The Ineseño generic term wits’ for ‘small bird’ is very similar to the Santa Barbara Chumash word wit ‘Condor,’ which has a nine-foot wingspan. Perhaps that was a joke.

Oral Traditions
The rich oral tradition of the Chumash includes many stories and myths featuring birds. Condor, an all-white bird, flew too close to the fire and was burned all black except for his armpits. Coyote wanted to get a beautiful red head just like Acorn Woodpecker’s, and Woodpecker tricked him into putting a burning red-hot coal between his ears. The myths take place before humans appeared in the world, when animals were people.

In the time of these First People, the animals had a society organized much like that of the Chumash who came after them. Golden Eagle was chief of all the animals. Coot, or Mudhen, was the ceremonial messenger. Among the Chumash themselves, the ceremonial messenger was called k’sen ‘coot’ and when acting in official capacity wore body paint that symbolized the bird’s markings, white over black.

In mythic times, Pelican and Cormorant were highly respected fishermen and canoe owners. This may explain the purpose of the pelican-shaped talisman stones found in Chumash sites. A person was believed to have a better chance of success in life if he developed a relationship with a personal spirit guide, or “dream helper,” contacted in Datura-induced visions. Many of these dream helpers were animals; some of them were birds. Doctors often had Owl as their dream helper. Fernando Librado told of an actual disaster at sea, where the captain and crew of a canoe in danger of sinking in a storm were saved through the intervention of the captain’s dream helper, Peregrine Falcon.

Socio-political aspects of Chumash culture are also illuminated in these myths. Falcon was the chief’s nephew -- Eagle’s sister’s son, and their close relationship is featured in several myths. Many California Indian communities were organized into clans. It is not clear whether the Chumash were among them, although one consultant spoke of clans named for Eagle, Snow Goose, and Raven, all highly respected birds.

Birds were conceptualized in Chumash astronomy and cosmology. The star grouping we call the Pleiades was seen as seven boys who turned into geese. The cosmos is made up of three superimposed worlds, with the Chumash at the center. The Upper World is supported on the wings of the giant Eagle of the Sky. The movements of his wings cause the phases of the moon and eclipses of both sun and moon. Thus, birds were deeply involved in the very structure of the Chumash universe.

Conclusion: Rock Art
The truly pervasive importance of birds in Chumash life may provide clues to interpreting one of the most fascinating legacies of the Chumash -- their mysterious rock paintings. Thought to have been created by shamans for religious purposes, the paintings were held to be spiritually dangerous to the uninitiated, so knowledge of their meaning was not passed on to the individuals interviewed by early anthropologists.

The complex designs include zoomorphic figures, but very few are identifiable biological species. Some do appear bird-like, with clearly depicted wings and feathers; possibly the shaman’s dream helper? Some are strikingly similar to dancers wearing fringed down cordage skirts and feather topknot headdresses. And some combine human and avian features, perhaps representing the spiritual transformation of the dancer or shaman into a bird -- literally becoming one of the People of the Sky.

Selected Chumash Bird Names

Bird Species Barbareño Ineseño
DUCK (small species) qwa’ ’anuchwa’
GOOSE wa’waw wawa’w
BARN OWL she’w she’w
SCREECH OWL? pewyoko’ po’yoko’
PYGMY OWL wonono wonono
PIGEON wele’wel welewe’l

“they cry their name - ’anúwe’ hu hu hu hu”

tukutuk ’anuwe’
SHARP-SHINNED HAWK matiwaya’way ’anich’apapa
“canta woy woy woy (repeated a few times), canta muy triste”
------- woy
FALCON kwich
KESTREL kilik kilik
ACORN WOODPECKER pulak’ak pulak’a’k
WOODPECKER large, spotted ------- maquti-ko’k
SCRUB JAY ch’a’y ch’a’y
MAGPIE ’ach’ach’ ch’qeq’
RAVEN qaq’ qa’q
CROW ’a’ ’a’
BLACKBIRD ch’oq ch’oq’

Birds in Chumash Myth

Bird Species Name  Role
GOLDEN EAGLE slo’w Chief of First People
MUDHEN (Coot) kse’n Ceremonial Messenger
PELICAN xe’w Fisherman, Canoe Owner
CORMORANT mut Fisherman, Canoe Owner
FALCON kwich Chief’s nephew
CONDOR wit Finder of lost objects or missing persons



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