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Heritage of Indians Questioned : Genealogists Cast Doubt on Background of Chumash Group

May 26, 1987|MILES CORWIN | Times Staff Writer

SANTA BARBARA — They are the most traditional-looking Indians in Santa Barbara County. Many wear their hair in braids and dress in full Indian regalia at public hearings. Some have assumed names such as White Bear and Mushu.

They have more political power, county officials say, and have made more money monitoring construction sites for Chumash artifacts than any other Indian group in the area.

But now there is some question whether the founders of their organization--the United Chumash Council--really are American Indians. Two genealogists and some prominent local Chumash Indians say that many are not. And, they say, even John Sespe, a United Chumash Council co-founder who has been appointed by Gov. George Deukmejian to the state Native American Heritage Commission, is not an American Indian.

Instead, genealogists say, the founders and many of the leaders are descendants of the Mexican soldiers who accompanied the Spanish missionaries and military troops who colonized Santa Barbara.

Sespe, who was appointed three years ago to the nine-member state commission, disagrees with the genealogists' conclusions and said his grandparents told him he is part Chumash and "that's good enough for me." And Sespe said he knows of no family links to the soldiers who colonized Santa Barbara.

Other United Chumash Council founders have similar explanations and dismiss the genealogical research as white men meddling in Indian affairs. And, they say, the mission records that the genealogists have studied are inadequate.

But Ernestine McGovran, descendant of a Chumash chief, said she and many other local Indians have had no difficulty tracing their genealogy and proving their heritage. And, McGovran said, she "finds it particularly galling" that what she called the descendants of the "soldiers who ripped us off 200 years ago are still ripping us off."

"They helped steal our land and now they're going around in their headbands and beads, pretending to be Indians, and collecting all this money that should be ours," said McGovran, whose mother was the last Indian who could speak the Chumash language. "The real Indians are confronted with a lot of problems, and this money could be used to solve some of them."

The controversy has precipitated an acrimonious dispute in Santa Barbara County among rival Chumash Indian groups--the dominant tribe in the area. Millions of dollars of archeological site-monitoring fees--and how the money is dispersed--are at stake.

County regulations require that Indian monitors be present on all construction sites where artifacts are likely to be found. The monitors--who earn up to $25 an hour--ensure that sensitive burial sites are not disturbed and Indian relics are preserved.

Indian remains are still scattered throughout the area where an estimated 15,000 Chumash once lived--from the northern edge of San Luis Obispo County to Malibu, and from the Channel Islands inland to near Bakersfield. But after the Spanish missionaries arrived in the 18th Century--along with the soldiers--many Chumash died from diseases such as smallpox, tuberculosis, measles and even the common cold, against which they had no natural immunity. Others were taken into the missions, forced to tend row crops and construct buildings, and not permitted to leave. Their native heritage eventually was destroyed.

Now the Chumash have only 127 acres left, a small reservation of about 200 Indians in Santa Ynez, about 20 miles north of Santa Barbara. And anthropologists estimate that only about 3,000 people of Chumash descent remain.

The United Chumash Council founders say that during the last 200 years their Chumash ancestors were assimilated into the Anglo and Mexican cultures. During a time of heightened cultural awareness in the 1960s, those who now are the leaders of the United Chumash Council--most of whom are members of one extended family--became active in local Indian issues. Because the United Chumash Council was well organized and had more experience in activist issues than Indians on the reservation, they soon obtained the majority of monitoring contracts.

That caused conflict between the urban Indians and those on the Santa Ynez reservation, said Elaine Schneider, tribal resource coordinator for the reservation. So the Elders Council, which represents the reservation on monitoring issues, formed an "understanding" with the United Chumash Council and began dividing the work, Schneider said. Now members of the two groups share most of the monitoring in the county.

When asked if she believes the United Chumash Council members are of Chumash descent, Schneider said: "I don't know. They feel they're Chumash. . . . I don't know how to explain it."

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