Each year, the Chumash and Gabrielino had many important ceremonies
tied their societies together by providing commonly experienced observances.
These ceremonies took place at the village level, and were experienced
up and down the coast and on the islands by presumably all of the
native inhabitants of the Channel. At the regional level, head priests
oversaw the continuity of the ceremonies, making sure that individual villages
were linked together socially and spiritually by common educational experiences transmitted
through public ceremonies.
In an oral society, with no written history, these ceremonies were one
of the main elements of the individual’s education process, carrying traditions forwards over hundreds of generations.
Two of the most important ceremonies honored the cycles of the Earth
and the Sun. A Chumash harvest festival called *Hutash*, named after the Chumash Earth Goddess, was held in the Fall after the acorns had been gathered and put into granaries for winter storage. This was a time, much like the American Thanksgiving, to celebrate the harvest with feasting, dancing, singing and rejoicing.
Chumash Spiritual Leaders
The Chumash ceremonies related to the earth and the sun were supervised
by astronomer priests, a type of shaman, who interpreted the passage of time, the seasons, and the activities of the Holy People ( Sky Coyote, Eagle, etc. ) as revealed in the night sky for all the people in their village. These shaman, called *alchuklas*, were men and women who were the leaders of the *‘antap* societies that carried on the spiritual traditions of the overall culture on a village-by-village basis and led the rituals related to the seasons and to mythic figures that defined the Chumash spiritual and daily world.
They used different ritual tools to perform their ceremonies, and one
of the artifacts that we know of today was a special painted wooden staff
that was made of stone disk with a hole at the center. This staff was used
during the winter solstice ceremony, one of the most important observances in tribal cultures around the world, and the basis for the Christian Christmas Holiday and the Jewish Chaunauka. The Chumash festival honoring the sun was called *Kakunupmawa*. It marked the end of the year and the birth of the New Year as the Sun reached it lowest point on the horizon, and then began to return towards the north, promising a renewal of its warmth giving and food producing powers. This is a time of the year that certain cave paintings and stone solar markers were oriented to mark and record the New Year using beams of light intentionally directed to cross man-made painting or carvings in the rock faces of remote caves in the hills and mountains along the coast.
Another ceremony that involved entire villages of the Chumash and the
Gabrielino was a special event held to honor those who died. This
ceremony was called the Mourning Ceremony and was held
every two or three years on the islands and on the mainland. The
mourning ceremony usually lasted a week. Personal objects were often
"killed," or purposefully destroyed so the spirit of the object would stay
with the deceased.
A Mourning Ceremony site has been found and carefully examined by scientists on San Clemente Island, and it seems this ritual may have been employed for both human and animal burial ceremonies. Other ceremonies were also held for weddings, initiation of chiefs, and for the coming of ages of boys and girls. Minor ceremonies were held for gathering of acorns and deer hunting.
The Chumash, as with all tribal peoples, had special regalia to wear for ceremonial occasions. Headdresses, capes, and dance skirts are among the best known of all California dance regalia. Headdresses were made from feathers of the red-shafted flicker, the red-headed woodpecker, hawks, eagles, yellow hammer, and sometimes the magpie and other birds. Some headbands were decorated with shell beads as well. Woven capes and skirts were embellished with shimmering bird feathers as well, and here highly prized possessions cared for by the dance leaders of the village. The Swordfish Dance that was reenacted for anthropologists to demonstrate the long billed mask and ritual movements unique to that dance.
Initiation ceremonies that mark passage into new cycles of life are a central tribal education experience around the world, and were very important to the Chumash. The Initiation Ceremony was a rite of passage to initiate boys and girls at the age of twelve or thirteen years of age into adulthood. The young people were instructed on all the skills of their gender and taught the behaviors and attitudes that were appropriate. The vision quest was undertaken with the assistance of a shaman. The sacred datura (Jimson weed) assisted the youth as a dream helper in order to find an animal helper or personal object of power. This solemn ritual was handled with respect and never taken lightly. It is thought that some of the rock art we see today is the result of paintings created as part of the vision quest experience. This ritual instilled a deep personal experience that linked the young adult to powerful imagery from the natural and spiritual world - images, sounds, and memories that would accompany them the rest of their life. The vision quest experience provides the youth with a psychological vocabulary that they can then rely on to gain strength from as they face the rigors of adult hood.
The Spanish explorers who visited the Native Americans in the Channel
recorded Gabrielino ceremonial structures that they witnessed. One recording describes a ceremonial reed enclosure, called a *yovaar*, surrounded by feathered poles and sand paintings on Santa Catalina Island. Another describes a similar enclosure on the mainland that contained an effigy - a ritual sculpture of a Holy figure- mounted over an altar. The Spanish misinterpreted the figure to be a demon as they were biased against native religions. In actuality, the figure was probably the sacred *Chengiichngech* figure who was recognized by the Gabrielino as the personification of a supreme Creator God.
Given that native occupation of the Channel stretches back over 13,000
years, it is reasonable to understand that they would have developed a
complex social and spiritual matrix as the basis for their enduring society. It is a compliment to the Chumash and Gabrielino to recognize that their spiritual practices were evidently highly effective social guidelines as they were the foundation of a comparatively peaceful peoples who thrived successfully for thousands of years along the Channel.