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WALKING WITH A CHUMASH ELDER: AN EDUCATION IN ETHNOBOTANY

On a recent retreat in Oak View California, I spent time among the knee-high grass and serene landscape of Ventura County, connecting deeply to lands surrounding the area that I call home.  Through this experience, I had the opportunity to meet Ojai Valley’s Chumash Elder, Julie Tumamait-Stenslie, who led us on a nature walk and graciously shared her ancestral knowledge about the native plants in our watershed.  In the video produced by Channel Islands National Park below, Elder Julie Tumamait-Stenslie tells the story of Chumash creation and describes Limuw (Santa Cruz Island) as the birthplace of the Chumash people.



Chumash History

Long before Spanish colonization and settlement, the Chumash called the area between Malibu and San Luis Obispo home. The span of Chumash Nation between Central and Southern California was separated into northern, southern, and central territories and inhabited by Chumash who traditionally resided along the coasts, in the mountains and valleys of present-day California, and on the Channel Islands.  Archaeological evidence indicates that the Chumash lived on the Channel Islands for thousands of years (some say close to 15,000 years) traveling between the islands and the coast using handmade tomols (canoes).  For millenia, the Chumash have found uses for almost every type of plant and animal available, making food, clothing, medicine, baskets, canoes, and tools with their natural resources.  Among the various Chumash communities, members understood their roles and worked as hunters, gatherers, medicine people, basket weavers, shell (money) makers, tomol builders, hide tanners, and astronomers. Like many indigenous peoples, reverence of nature is at the center of Chumash belief.  As Elder Julie Tumamait-Stenslie explained, the Chumash have always understood the relationship between humankind and the environment and live with great respect for nature.

By the time Spanish soldiers and missionaries settled the Santa Barbara Channel in 1769, there were around 21 Chumash villages existing on the three largest Channel Islands— San Miguel, Santa Rosa, and Santa Cruz.  Spaniards claimed the lands inhabited by the Chumash and as the construction of the mission system began, any Chumash who were not killed by disease or brutality were brought in the missions which they were forced to help build. By the 1820s, native food sources were depleted, economies were altered and the island populations that were already in rapid decline, moved to the mainland to work at the Missions at Santa Ynez, San Buenaventura, and Santa Barbara.

Today, it is estimated that somewhere around 5,000 people of Chumash heritage live in the world. A rich history of oral tradition and art have helped to preserve stories that have been passed down from generation to generation despite the attempted erasure of their culture. Among them is the knowledge that Elder Julie Tumamait-Stenslie shared on our walk through the Ventura River Watershed.

Walking With an Elder

Ethnobotany is the scientific study of the traditional knowledge and customs of people concerning plants and their medical, religious, and other uses. Elders who share their ancestral knowledge of the native ecosystem are a vital link between ancient medicinal wisdom and contemporary western medicine.

In just over an hour’s time, Elder Julie Tumamait-Stenslie covered topics ranging from medicinal use of plants in the Chumash culture to her extensive knowledge of Chumash tradition and spirituality. 30 people gathered to listen to her presentation about the ways of some of Southern California’s first peoples. As we walked through the Ojai Valley, Elder Julie pointed out native plants— like toyon, elderberry, white sage, purple sage, and oak— that have been part of Southern California’s ecosystem for millennia.


Basket of Acorns. The Chumash regularly ate food made from acorn mush which required an extensive amount of processing.

Acorns—the fruit of an oak tree— were once a staple of Chumash meals and required processing from raw nut to acorn meal before they were edible. During the fall, acorns were collected, dried in the sun, and stored in a large basket for future use. When the Chumash were ready to cook with the acorns, the dried nuts were placed inside a mortar made from carved out bedrock and smashed with another rock until pulverized. Smashed acorns were placed in woven baskets and flushed with running river water to remove the bitter tannins before cooking.


Basket of Acorns. The Chumash regularly ate food made from acorn mush which required an extensive amount of processing.

Elder Julie collected artifacts like feathers, wild cherries, acorns, black walnuts, rocks, dried leaves, and seeds and encouraged her guests to take some and return them to the wild during our walk. The woven basket above offers an example of the craftsmanship and skill of Native Americans. Elder Julie Explained that she collects baskets from many tribes across the Americas.

Fruits from native plants were eaten during winter time when the Chumash had a craving for something sweet. California native fruits include toyon berries, elderberry, wild cherry, and cactus flower.


Berries from this native Toyon plant were dried and eaten as a sweet during the long winter months.


Reeds from this Elderberry plant were used to make whistles and clapper sticks while the berries themselves could be boiled down to make powerful antioxidants.


A photo of wild cherry seeds—Islay or Holly Leaf Cherry that was given to me by Elder Julie. The seeds inside of the Islay were ground to produce a meal that was eaten by the Chumash. The inner pit of the dried wild cherries above makes a beautiful ratling sound when shaken together.


Once the spines of cactus are removed, the flesh can be charred by fire and eaten. Chumash ate both the cactus fruit and the flesh of the cactus itself.

Walking through the wilderness with someone whose lineage is firmly entwined with the Ventura Watershed exposed me to a special type of knowledge that can only come from one who intimately understands the land that their ancestors have inhabited for thousands of years. Despite the hardships that the Chumash people have endured, it is my hope that this invaluable knowledge will continue to be passed on to future generations of Chumash children and anyone with a desire to connect to the land.

The Havasi Wilderness Foundation aims to expand conservation efforts, educate the next generation of environmental stewards, and encourage compassion for animals and the natural world. Help us achieve these goals by making a tax-deductible donation today.  If you cannot afford a donation, that’s okay— take a walk outside, investigate the world around you, and share with others the importance of caring for our planet.

Special thanks to the BARTIMAEUS COOPERATIVE MINISTRIES for hosting their Kinsler Institute retreat this year and for many years passed. if you’d like to learn more about the wonderful work being done by BCM, Click the link above and explore their site.

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The Havasi Wilderness Foundation is a non-profit organization dedicated to heightening awareness and appreciation of the natural environment.

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