WORDS BY Julie Tumamait-Stenslie (AS TOLD TO YESSENIA FUNES)
PHOTOGRAPHS BY ALEX KROWIAK
Off the coast of California, the Channel Islands carry a rich history. Julie Tumamait-Stenslie, a Chumash elder, shares the stories of her people and the importance of reconnecting with the land on The Frontline.
The first time I set foot on the Channel Islands was to Santa Cruz, Limuw, back in the 1980s. I went with a group of Chumash families. My father, brother, and I were invited to celebrate an elder’s birthday on the land where our ancestors once lived. There, 11 historic Chumash villages once stood—a fraction of the 148 villages that used to dot all the Channel Islands. My people were the first to inhabit these glorious islands more than 13,000 years ago. On our visit, we stopped along the coast at a village site. We walked a short distance and stopped in amazement. Before us was a cave covered in red hand-painted symbols. We don’t know who painted them or why—what unknown requests or prayers they held—but we, modern-day Indigenous people, do understand their sacredness and rarity.
It was at that time that someone said it had been at least 150 years since that many Chumash had returned to Limuw. Spanish colonizers arrived centuries ago in search of resources and a new conquest. They were not only mesmerized by the land’s bounty; they treated the people as a commodity, too. We were enslaved to the Christian church. The last Chumash left the islands in the 1820s. Today, my people still struggle to visit our ancestral lands. Thousands of our ancestors’ remains lie in museums and universities. These are our families, our lands. All of humanity must return to the sacred teachings to care about the Earth and one another—the way our ancestors did.
I didn’t grow up understanding my Indigenous culture. My Chumash ancestry comes from my father’s side. My six siblings and I grew up with Native traditions—eating quail, rainbow trout, and nopales—but no one really explained any of that to us. We were just living. Still, we always knew we were Native because of our surname: Tumamait. Having a Native surname is rare, but our great grandfather preserved it, refusing to take a Spanish name instead. I’m proud of that. I’m also proud to have grown up in our homelands, where I can sense the vibration of our ancestors.
In the 1980s, my father and I started researching our culture through archaeology, music, and storytelling. It didn’t take long for my father to realize how deep our family ancestry ran through the land—7,000 square miles of memories. Now, I’m committed to formalizing the tribal affiliation of the islands’ descendants through the Barbareño/Ventureño Band of Mission Indians, which I founded in 2002. As the tribal chairperson, I’m working to secure federal recognition. This would open up funds to access our ancestral remains and artifacts and return them to their appropriate descendants. We don’t care about blood quantum. We are dedicated to protecting our land as Native peoples.
And we’re seeing the growing recognition of this. Just last week, the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration announced the designation of the Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary. This would protect 7,000 square miles of water off the California coast, including the waters where our relatives swim. It’s a wonderful development that we need everywhere else. The ocean is in danger—despite being one of the few things all people have in common. If we don’t step back, we’ll deplete the ocean’s resources—which include our dolphin relatives.
Our creation story is directly tied to the ocean. Hutash (Mother Earth) helped us reach the mainland in ancient times when the islands grew crowded by creating a bridge made out of a waštiťoỷ (rainbow). My people crossed from the highest mountain on Limuw all the way to a high mountain on what is known today as California. While most of our ancestors crossed the bridge without issue, some looked down at the ocean and clouds below. Hutash saved them from drowning by turning them into dolphins.
On my journeys to the islands today, I sometimes see our relatives. Dolphins and humpback whales swim the waters. I don’t go often—some years only a couple times. This year, I’ve already visited five times. On the islands, you might be visited by the raven or the little island fox that is just adorable and precious. I always feel a homecoming when I return to the land. I go now on boats with motors, but my ancestors traveled between the island and mainland on wooden boats called tomols.
I can’t imagine the hardships they faced when the water grew fierce or when the fog would drop. I sometimes feel frightened by the strength of the land and water. When it’s calm, I’m amazed by the beauty—especially the stars we can no longer see on the mainland. We’ve destroyed the other part of our world: the night sky.
To this day, I feel the ancientness of our people when I’m out on the islands. It’s slowly becoming more of what I imagine our traditional landscapes once were as the National Park Service works to eradicate invasive plants and animals. We must return to the old ways. Science can’t save us—it’s helped create this mess through the microplastics that now pollute the air and water. Slowly, we’re restoring the land back to its Indigenous being. We’re restoring the connection and the spirit of the trees—like the great oaks that will suck out the carbon suffocating the planet.
Decolonization may be a myth many of my people chase. We may never get our lands back, but we can help restore even a corner of it. I don’t want a casino. I want a land conservancy—land we can just let be. We’re not the only ones in need. There’s a whole other set of beings that need space and room to live. This is true on the Channel Islands and beyond.
I don’t know what this world will look like when my time is up, but I’m dedicated to spending the rest of the time I have connecting to the land, understanding my Chumash culture, and bridging the divide for others. The islands and ocean deserve celebration and ceremony for all they give. And, we, the Chumash, deserve a sense of place in our homelands.