Paddling with purpose: The annual rebirth of a coastal community

Alan Salazar (far left) leads a crew on a tomol (canoe) in the Pacific Ocean. 

Scorpion Cove on Santa Cruz Island (known as Swaxil and Limuw to the Chumash) is the destination for the canoe - or tomol paddlers. They depart Channel Islands Harbor before dawn in Oxnard on an adventure across the Santa Barbara Channel for six to ten hours, depending on ocean conditions. The modern tomol builders use the same material – wood and oil, originally collected from natural seepage – for the rebirth vessel that historically fueled American expansion in California. While this tomol isn’t hundreds of years old, the construction technology and the craftsmanship is millennia in age.

Islands have always been destinations for people, and California’s Channel Islands were a neighborhood village before the lands received their English names. Long before internal combustion engines or even large sailing vessels, the crucible across the water was made possible by a simple double-bladed paddle, in the hands of a person, saltily and synchronously sweating towards the sand. As seat-one paddler (in the front), Alan Salazar, a local Tataviam educator, sets the cadence for the paddlers behind him. The paddles are so long, their oscillations overlap each other; each paddler must follow the cadence to keep the tomol moving safely in the open ocean.

Modern conveniences were made necessary by modern inconveniences: Goleta Airport’s construction destroyed the source of rope material, so the Chumash substituted nylon rope, said tomol captain Marcus V. Lopez, Jr. “We also used power drills to make the holes in the planks,” he said. 

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) required the installation of buoys and navigation beacons to deal with the modern channel shipping traffic. The canoe building was such a part of native culture that the town of Carpinteria, near Santa Barbara, was named by the Spanish for the native carpenters who built their tomols near the source of their petroleum sealant.

While the human-powered tomol must contend with the modern ships, they do so with more than just their arms and paddles. The captain sits at the rear of the tomol, working on the navigation along with paddling. “We have to overshoot by, say 15 degrees to compensate for the current, which is more than the current is moving us, so I’d have time to paddle,” Lopez said. He must contribute to the forward progress of the tomol while also using his paddle, and sighting through the navigation “ears” on the tomol.

The open ocean has no gentle treatment reserved, and so the captain must contend with the fall and rise of the waves, keeping his navigation aids trained on the island, and soon, the bay and the beach. The ears on the modern tomol are as decorative as they were previously, but historically had been more than just navigation tools. When fishing, Chumash paddlers would pull up and hang kelp over the ears, assembling a natural mobile anchorage.

To aid in night navigation, to cook, and for the events to come, the community on Limuw prepares for the paddlers’ arrival by lighting a fire, the only fire allowed on Santa Cruz by the National Park Service. When the Chumash “Brotherhood of the Tomol” revived the open water crossing tradition, they had to cultivate a relationship with the U.S. government to begin their crossing traditions once again. While this year will be the twentieth anniversary of the resumptions not the crossings – halted in the 1830’s when the Spanish interventions in the tribal lives disrupted the knowledge transfer and training, there are still tight controls over their community: the population on the island welcoming party is capped by the Park Service. It took Lopez, a 27-year participant in Chumash tomol paddling, a decade to get his mom (who is not Native Californian) to travel to Santa Cruz Island for the post-crossing event.

“Native stories need to be told by native peoples,” Lopez said. The stories are shared among the native youth – stories their parents and grandparents did not receive at the same age. The knowledge acquired completing almost 20 channel crossings is replicated on Limuw. The second half of the tomol crossing to Limuw is the village, a community now made whole by the crews’ arrival. This village celebrates and allows the kids to play in the woods while the others work on art together and share oral traditions. With only one night left before returning to the mainland, the young adults and kids learn together from the experienced to tell the stories that they will one day pass on to their children and grandchildren. These experienced story tellers have only recently begun their work with native children.

“I’ve worked with the at-risk youth probably the most. But I enjoyed the preschool probably more than anything that I’ve done, but it just doesn’t pay any money,” said Salazar. Salazar continually experiences the conflict of modern America in his retirement – a nation asking for its native citizens to take time out of their lives to represent their interests with little to no outside support. “I gotta pay bills. I don’t get to live in my condo for free,” he said, “I have to pay PennyMac every month. I have to pay my association dues every month. I have to pay my gas and my electric, my cable tv, my phone – you know, everything you do.”

In retirement, Salazar, also known as “Puchuk Ya’ia’c” (Fast Runner), returned to his favorite job five decades after he left the classroom to write the children’s book “TATA, the Tataviam Towhee.” The story is about the towhee bird, its connections to the modern world and Native Californians, as well as the passage of wisdom to the youth.

Salazar grew up in the San Joaquin Valley, two hours drive from where his father shined shoes in San Fernando. The city was named after the adjacent Spanish mission that forced the local Tataviam to work beyond the means expected of any Europeans. The Chumash and the Fernandeño Tataviam Band of Mission Indians (FTMBI) were among thousands who remained after surviving the initial encounter of disease and violence.

Calling himself a “stereotypical half-breed,” Salazar’s mother was half Portuguese and half English, and his father “whole Indian.” Salazar’s father intentionally branded his identity with his Indian heritage on his birth certificate, but also in his Telos, or life’s work: the ability, and calling to tell the stories of the native peoples.

Salazar's storytelling began with children in the 1970’s. They were not his own, but rather Kern County preschool kids. His first job was as one of the first male preschool teachers in Kern County. When most of the funding for early education dried up, Salazar moved to juvenile probation for 13 years. In 1993, he was one of the founding members of the Kern County Native American Heritage Preservation Council, a name that downplayed the counterculture origins. He moved over the mountains to Santa Barbara County Juvenile Hall and worked there for six years. Before he retired, Salazar completed his government service in Paso Robles at a continuation high school for a year and a half.

In 1951, 100 years before Salazar was born, the U.S. Census had 130 Indians living in the San Fernando area. Salazar has seen mission records stating that 800 Indians lived and worked on Mission San Fernando at the peak, staffing a hotel, a ranch and a farm for the priests. Despite their documented history of working the missions and the ranches of the Mexican Land Grants that followed, the FTMBI have no modern claim to any lands and their apparent lack of documentation to a community continues to be used against them to prevent their federal recognition.

The work to build back the culture for the Native Californians is merely beginning. The Santa Ynez Band of Chumash were the first to receive a reservation. They received it from the grace of the Bishop of Monterey, according to Tomol Senior Captain Steve Villa.. Connecting the culture with the youth is something that must happen outside a reservation for the Tataviam people. However, the funding for this education is nearly non-existent. “It’s not that I don’t care about going to the schools,” Salazar said. “‘Gee the schools,’ I say, ‘We would love to have a native person come. I do my hunting and gathering at Vons and Trader Joe’s. They get pretty pissed off if I come in there and try to spear a tri-tip.’ I have to pay for it like anyone else.”

Leaving behind the requests to volunteer his time to educate the children in brick-and-mortar schools during the weekdays, Salazar educates on the tomol. One of three crews, mirroring the three tomols that would always travel together, Salazar sets the pace for the paddlers behind him, their dark black hair contrasting with his silver. He and the paddlers sing together, setting the steady pace, each paddle stroke needing to be musically in-sync to maximize the collective effort.

“That’s why I do this, to get the young people involved,” Salazar said in a 2018 NOAA documentary. “I could walk away today and this could be my farewell. I’ll see you guys all later, and I won't lose a minute of sleep, have a single ounce of regret, because I know we have young people that are dedicated – that are going to carry it on.”

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