The Chumash are a rather unique people who occupied the central coast of California. They thrived at a very early period in California prehistory, with some settlements (such as the Nocto Village site now on Vandenberg AFB) dating to at least 12,000 years before present. Over that time they created many works of rock art and practiced techniques of astronomy and traditional medicine which remain in a preserved record there still.
Also known as the Basket Weavers or the First People, there were at least eight different related language groups, or dialects, spoken by the Chumash. The differences between the dialects spoken at the northern and the southern ends of the Chumash region were as great as the differences between Spanish and the English languages. A Chumash person could always tell where another Chumash person came from by how he or she spoke. (Williams, Jack S. The Chumash of California 2002. The Rosen Publishing Group, Inc. p. 25)
Chumash people first encountered Europeans in the autumn of 1542, when two sailing vessels under Juan Cabrillo arrived on the coast from Mexico. As with most Native American tribes, the Chumash history was passed down from generation to generation through stories and legends. Many of these stories were lost when the Chumash Indian population was nearly decimated in the 1700s and 1800s by the Spanish mission system.
The Chumash population dropped precipitously, due largely to the introduction of European diseases. By 1831, the number of mission-registered Chumash numbered only 2,788, down from pre-Spanish population estimates of 22,000. The lot of the Chumash continued to deteriorate with the arrival of the Anglo-Americans in 1847. In 1855 a small piece of land near the Santa Ines mission was set aside for 109 Chumash, now known as the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians.
Chumash families banded into larger groups called clans. Clan members believed that their founder was an animal, such as a dolphin, bear, an eagle, or a coyote. (Williams, Jack S. The Chumash of California 2002. The Rosen Publishing Group, Inc. p. 26) Village chiefs were chosen from important and esteemed Chumash families by village elders, and could be either men or women. Chumash culture followed traditional sex roles: men were fishermen and hunters, and sometimes they went to war to protect their families. Chumash women ground acorn meal, gathered nuts, fruits and herbs, wove baskets and did most of the cooking and child care. Both genders took part in storytelling, music and artwork, and traditional medicine.
The Chumash villages were endowed with a shaman/astrologer. These gifted astronomers charted the heavens and then allowed the astrologers to interpret and help guide the people. The Chumash believed the world was in a constant flux, so people practiced rituals and rites to help with adaptation and decisions in the villages were made only after consulting the charts. One of the truly unique aspects of the Chumash culture was the customary rejection of
footwear; moccasins were unknown to them. Indeed, it is a challenge to find a historical record of traditional Chumash people wearing foot covering of any sort.