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Thieves of Time : The Looting of Cultural Artifacts Angers Chumash Descendants

January 20, 1994|JEFF MEYERS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Retracing the route of her Chumash ancestors, Ernestine DeSoto-McGovran hiked to an enchanted forest grotto in Ventura County's hostile wilderness. There, on the ceiling of a small sandstone cave, virtually hidden by alder and fir, she found an abstract image of a condor, the shamanistic symbol for magical vision and flight.

Painted deep red against a black background, the condor was probably drawn by a Chumash holy man before the time of Columbus. For DeSoto-McGovran, its presence was a stirring reminder of her long-gone religious past. Visiting the cave, she said, "was like being inside the Sistine Chapel."

DeSoto-McGovran's reverence was accompanied by a sense of relief. At other sites in the county, according to archeologists and government officials, similar Chumash rock art has been chiseled from the sandstone, smeared with graffiti or used as a target during paint-ball practice.

Desecration of their sacred objects understandably outrages the estimated 5,000 Chumash descendants living in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, but it hardly surprises them. They and many modern historians believe that Chumash culture has been ripped off and trashed since the Spanish began colonizing California more than 200 years ago.

A gentle stone-age civilization, the Chumash inhabited this area for at least 11,000 years before being devastated by a harsh mission system and European diseases, experts say. In 1782, when the San Buenaventura Mission opened its doors, the Chumash population was 20,000; in 1834, when the mission was secularized, only 3,000 were left. No full-blooded Chumash survive today.

Disregard for Chumash culture has continued well into this century: Looters have plundered Chumash artifacts, developers have paved over Chumash villages, and farmers have bulldozed burial grounds, unearthing bones and skulls that souvenir hunters reportedly have taken home.

"This is an insult to us," said DeSoto-McGovran, a 55-year-old Ventura resident whose grandmother was a full-blooded Chumash. "Maybe people would understand how I feel if I tore through a Civil War cemetery and removed their relatives' bones."

Mad as hell about their stolen past, Native Americans such as the Chumash are finally getting some of it back. After years of political prodding by activists, Congress in 1990 passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which requires that American museums return to 350 federally recognized tribes sacred objects and skeletal remains. They have until the end of 1995.

"It's about time the museums realized that what they have is sensitive to us and should be back in the ground," said Richard Angulo of the California Indian Council.

MANY ARTIFACTS IN EUROPE

The looting of Native American antiquities--here and in the rest of the country--began in earnest after the Civil War, when Europeans began collecting Americana. For the next few decades, museums and wealthy private collectors in Europe and the United States devoured Native American artifacts. Even today, experts say, the best collections are in European museums.

The best Chumash collections are in Paris and Moscow, said Charles Johnson, associate director of the Ventura County Museum of History and Art. There is little doubt that those museums were supplied by the Rev. Stephen Bowers, the most notorious looter in county annals who "sold artifacts by the pound" in the late 1800s, Johnson said.

In 1906, Congress made it illegal for anyone without legitimate academic credentials to remove artifacts from public land, but looters operating in the vast wilderness are hard to catch, especially since budget cuts have crippled policing staffs.

The 1979 federal Archeological Resources Protection Act was supposed to crack down on looters--threatening $250,000 fines and jail time for convicted offenders. But according to authorities, the law's complexity has often deterred federal officials from prosecuting. And juries have been reluctant to convict people accused of violating the act.

"Juries can't relate to artifacts as they do to gold and silver," said Jack Fitzgerald, National Park Service chief ranger at Channel Islands National Park. "Personal beliefs of a jury make it hard to prosecute an archeological case."

And unless the culprit is caught at the scene, making a case isn't always easy. "Once you disassociate an artifact from its location, it's very difficult to prove exactly where it came from," said National Park Service archeologist Don Morris.

Archeologists have been recording Ventura's Chumash sites since 1909. Besides rock paintings, they have found other evidence of an artistic legacy--sandstone milling bowls, woven storage baskets coated with asphaltum, digging sticks, whistles and hairpins fashioned from deer and fish bone, abalone beads, and projectile points chipped from fused shale and obsidian.

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