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Crafting the Past

JAUNTS: Ventura County

Retiree has found his calling re-creating Chumash artifacts for museum displays.

October 22, 1998|JANE HULSE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Kent Christenson was up against a deadline as he helped put the final touches on a new Chumash exhibit at the Stagecoach Inn Museum.

It wasn't the exhibit's opening last Sunday that he was sweating.

"I've got 40 deer and elk legs I have to boil today," he said.

Christenson painstakingly crafts replicas of Chumash tools, clothing, ceremonial implements, even games--adhering strictly to the way the Chumash would have created these things.

If that means boiling and drying bones to make hairpins or awls for basket weaving, then that's what he does. Sometimes it takes him to Wyoming during hunting season or to meat-processing plants. "They're used to me coming around," said the 60-year-old retired Thousand Oaks dentist.

Christenson's Chumash replicas make up a good part of the museum's new permanent exhibit, along with authentic Chumash artifacts such as the centuries-old mortar and pestle that Native Americans used to grind acorns, a staple of their diet.

The most spectacular example of Christenson's dexterity and patience is a ceremonial top-knot headdress that took him 100 hours to make. Dark, shimmering magpie tail feathers and crow feathers sit atop a layer of white, fluffy, turkey down.

He scrounged the turkey feathers from a turkey-processing plant, then stripped the down from the quill himself. The Chumash would have used eagle down, but that's impossible now, he said, so turkey down is the next best thing.

The headdress is held together with cord, and even that is faithfully reproduced. He scours vacant lots for milkweed plants, and after stripping the bark, he weaves it into very thin strands. He also uses the strands to string dried berries for necklaces.

As for painting colorful touches on his creations, he follows the Chumash way. Black shades come from soot mixed with bear fat, the whites from burned sea shells. And for the reds, oranges and yellow, he treks to Grimes Canyon and looks for ochre that can be ground to a fine powder.

"They loved red," Christenson said. "And other than the woodpecker, there's not a lot of red in nature."

Christenson is not about to trap a woodpecker--he's quick to make it clear that he doesn't hunt. He has special permits to use plants and dead animals--including road kill--for educational purposes.

To reproduce clothing and other items, he studies the real thing at museums, figuring out how to make cord from deer hide, an apron from hemp, a ceremonial skirt from dried stinging nettle.

"Nobody else will do any of this stuff," he joked. But with authentic Chumash artifacts in short supply, his replicas are in demand. Museums use them, and he even sells to Native Americans. Preserving their way of life is important to him and often he gives demonstrations at schools and museums. "How else will people see how things were done?" he asks.

One of the most interesting areas of the exhibit is the section devoted to the Chumash games that Christenson has re-created. One called "shinny" resembles hockey. The sticks were fashioned from wood and the puck from wood or stone. "They were doing this way before we thought of hockey," he said.

For marble games, they used wild cucumber seeds. They also were big fans of gambling, using what they could from nature.

Collecting and making Indian artifacts isn't a hobby Christenson picked up when he retired five years ago. He's been hooked since he was 12 when he traveled from his Sherman Oaks home to his grandfather's general store in Utah near a reservation.

"I saw Native Americans camped nearby," he said. He was intrigued with beads and baskets and bought what he could.

His collection swelled to 2,000 items, which he displayed in his home. Unable to find a permanent location for the artifacts when he sold his house, he has since loaned or sold much of it to local museums.

But he is busy as ever making replicas, sometimes at the Chumash Interpretive Center in Thousand Oaks.

"I sit under the tree in the back," he said. "Sometimes I'm there for hours and hours."

BE THERE

Chumash exhibit at Stagecoach Inn Museum, 51 S. Ventu Park Road, Newbury Park. Hours: Wednesday through Sunday, 1-4 p.m. Admission is $3 for adults, $2 for seniors, $1 for children 5 and older. Call (805) 498-9441.

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