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Paddlers Cross Channel in Their Ancestors' Wake

September 12, 2004|Steve Chawkins | Times Staff Writer

SANTA CRUZ ISLAND — On a rocky beach at the foot of rugged cliffs, some 200 people erupted in cheers Saturday. Someone blew a conch shell. The pungent smell of burning sage wafted from ceremonial abalone shells. Women in long, colorful skirts adorned with shells burst into song.

For only the second time in at least 150 years, a Chumash plank canoe was cutting through the waters of Santa Barbara Channel. After saluting the crowd with raised paddles, the exhausted young men inside headed for shore and their ecstatic families.

"Oh, the young ones!" said Georgiana Sanchez, a teacher of Native American studies and an active member of the Chumash community. "Oh my goodness -- this is awesome!"

The 21-mile journey of the seagoing canoe, known as a tomol, was an exuberant rite of passage both for the paddlers and for their community. It started at 4 a.m. from Channel Islands Harbor in Oxnard and took a little less than 10 hours.

But, on a deeper level, it started perhaps 2,000 years ago, when the sleek Chumash craft first plied the waters between the Channel Islands and the mainland. Chumash villages thrived on the islands and ranged for several hundred miles along the coast north of Malibu. With the tomol, far-flung Chumash groups held themselves together both commercially and culturally.

But by the mid-1800s, the Chumash trade network had collapsed. Under the Spanish missionaries, Chumash villages dwindled and their customs disintegrated. Crafts like tomol-making would have died had not anthropologist John P. Harrington taken meticulous notes about the reminiscences of an old man who, as a child, had witnessed their creation.

Harrington's notes provided the blueprint for the tomol that crossed the Santa Barbara Channel on Saturday. They also preserved what some historians see as an engineering triumph.

Made from tools of bone and stone, tomol planks were cut from redwood logs that drifted down the coast after storms. Without benefit of a screw, a nail or an interior frame, they fit together precisely, held only by tar and pine pitch. The crafts glided across the water fast enough to allow the Chumash to troll for tuna and barracuda.

"The tomol is generally regarded as the greatest technological achievement of the North American Indians," said Jan Timbrook, a curator at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History who has written a book on the subject.

Such comparisons weren't on the minds of Saturday's paddlers, who, following custom, sat on their knees as they stroked.

The Chumash Maritime Assn. had recruited three shifts, with the last consisting of teenagers and young men who were ceremonially handed the tomol tradition. For months, they trained with ocean outings and short hops from Santa Barbara, where the tomol is stored, to Carpinteria, 15 miles down the coast.

Some brought aboard hopes of healing. One man carried a patch from his son's unit in Iraq, and urged his fellow paddlers to think of them. A teenager carried sad memories of his grandfather, who died just days ago.

Reggie Pagaling of Santa Ynez prayed for fog, the sign of calm waters ahead. He got it -- but the skies soon cleared and the wind was up. Dwarfed by huge freighters that passed every 15 minutes or so, the paddlers also faced mountainous swells.

"There was such trust between us," he said. "Nobody panicked; we all knew what we had to do. And the tomol: She flexed with every wave. She might look like wood, but she's alive. You can hear her breathe!"

On the beach, Robert Cordero, a teacher at an Oxnard elementary school, hugged his 15-year-old son, Diego, a rail-thin paddler who was massaging his knees after sitting on them for a couple of hours.

"I'm not just a junior paddler anymore," said Diego, a student at Carpinteria High School. "I'm an actual paddler. I'm doing what my ancestors were doing thousands of years ago."

His father choked back tears.

"We're passing this down," he said. "We don't have many rites of passage, but now this is one."

Most of the celebrants had pitched tents at a campground on the island near Scorpion Cove. At night, they sang, told stories, joked about the beans and tried to peer 1,000 years into the future to see a thousand tomols. It was a family reunion, but one at a place honored by Chumash legend as the source of human life.

With a gourd rattle in one hand and a digital camera in the other, Mena Moreno, a child-development teacher from San Pedro, summed it up.

"This is where our people came from," she said. "It only took me 150 years to get here."

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