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Karen Telleen-Lawton: Ancient Tradition Plays Out on Santa Cruz Island

By | Published on 09/19/2011


Channel Islands Naturalist Corps volunteers help re-enact Chumash tomol crossing

Among the Channel Islands Naturalist Corps volunteers, some vie for and some shun serving on Santa Cruz Island during “Chumash Days.” The weekend after Labor Day is not the quietest of island duties, but offers in exchange a rousing blend of family campout, religious revival and alumni homecoming weekend.

It is the time when the Chumash Maritime Association, in partnership with Channel Islands National Park and Marine Sanctuary, re-enacts the tradition of the tomol by rowing across the Santa Barbara Channel, an arduous nine- to 10-hour journey. CINC volunteers help provide an additional interface between accidental cultural voyeur and the Chumash, who welcome the chance to teach them about their culture.

Because they originally were a marine culture, tomols were an essential part of the Chumash heritage, constructed and paddled by members of the Brotherhood of the Tomol. The historic brotherhood disbanded in 1834, a decade after the last natives were removed from the Channel Islands.

But in 1976, a contemporary group built a tomol they named Helek, which means Peregrine Falcon, based on ethnographic and historic accounts. It was the first tomol built in 142 years. It was paddled from San Miguel Island to Santa Rosa Island and finally to Santa Cruz Island. In 2001, a tomol was paddled to Santa Cruz Island from the mainland. It is this crossing that has become an annual tradition.

I spoke with an elder woman who had been a rower for the early years of the renewed tradition. We were awaiting the tomols’ at the Welcoming Fire, a tiny smolder of embers designed to be “small enough to get close to and talk” and to keep it safe from the dry grasses beyond.

The tomols had not yet arrived when the Island Packers boat discharged a fresh group of visitors to enjoy the island isolation. For those who chose an interpretive hike, we altered our normal course to witness the paddlers’ arrival. As usual, I spoke on the effect of isolation on geology, archeology, plant and animals, and cultural history of Santa Cruz and the other islands that make up the Channel Islands National Park.

From our vantage at the harbor, we watched as the paddlers glided triumphantly onto the beach just after noon, to the traditional welcoming song and clapping sticks of 200 or so friends and family. Thus ended their successful twin tomol crossing that began at 3:15 that morning from Ventura Harbor.

A second public boat arrived around 1:30 p.m., and another couple dozen visitors chose my hourlong hike. By now, the two tomols were on display just inside the fenced area of Scorpion Ranch. As I began describing the tomols and the special weekend events, a Chumash man with striking animal-tooth decorations adorning his thick black braid approached the group. He held an ornately carved oar.

“Could you possibly describe the tomols and your journey?” I invited him. He proudly described the boats’ construction: its redwood planks bound with fiber cordage, animal sinews, and yop, a glue of pine pitch and asphaltum. He told us each canoe was between 8 and 30 feet in length and held three to 10 paddlers. “It’s the first time in 138 years more than one tomol has been rowed across the channel at a time,” he finished.

There were a few questions among the group, when a woman asked him, “Why haven’t they been doing it in the last 138 years?” Let’s assume she was not a Californian — perhaps from another planet?

I held my breath through the pregnant pause. Then he gave her an ironic smile and answered, “History.”

— Karen Telleen-Lawton’s column is a mélange of observations supporting sustainability. Graze her writing and excerpts from Canyon Voices: The Nature of Rattlesnake Canyon at


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