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TOMOL . The indigenous people of the central California coast now collectively known as the Chumash are known in ethnographic circles for their unique use of the plank canoe, or tomol, a vessel that was not only instrumental in the Chumash exploitation of their marine resources, but served to solidify the complex regional trade system whose influence was felt far beyond the Chumash interaction sphere. However, for some contemporary Chumash, this important item of material culture reaches beyond its practical value and into the realm of prime symbol, tapping into the essence of Chumash culture and religious orientation and encompassing a nexus of meaning surrounding issues of dependence upon nature, belief in the reciprocity of social life, and the world view of the people.

The Chumash

In classical times, the Chumash were never a discreet linguistic or cultural entity. They lived in a geographic area along the California coast from roughly Topanga Canyon in the south to Estero Bay in the north, extending east to the western edge of the San Joaquin Valley, and in the northern Channel Islands. The people who have come to be known as the Chumash inhabited numerous relatively autonomous villages, each with its own internal political structure, the largest of which acted as capital cities for smaller village collectives. These individual city-states supported several dialects of the Hokan linguistic family, first identified by anthropologist Alfred Kroeber in 1925 and named, for the most part, for the missions in the areas encompassed by the dialects, namely the Ventureño, Barbareño, Ineseño, Purisimeño, Obispeño, and the additional Emigdiano, Cuyama, and Island dialects. While these dialects have been identified as branches of the Hokan linguistic family tree, they in fact operated much like distinct languages. This, in turn, has given rise to the notion that the various regional entities actually operated as distinct tribes in their own right, but with the necessary economic and sociopolitical system that would unite a region into a relatively cohesive network.

The regional federations consisted of smaller villages, which varied in population from sixty to over a thousand people, each presided over by a chief, or wot. The smaller villages owed their allegiance to a major chief for the region who resided in a capital village, enabling him to control the production and redistribution of the goods within his villages, thereby strengthening the federation's position among the other regions. Perhaps the key feature of this complex of inter-regional trade is the presence of specialized craft guilds, or brotherhoods, both within the villages and extending into a regional alliance of like craft specialists. These guilds were fraternal in nature, with the knowledge needed to produce the various products of these guilds passed on to subsequent generations via familial ties.

These specializations standardized the production of a number of important elements of Chumash material life, including baskets, obsidian projectile points, plant fiber cordage, shell bead money, and especially the plank canoe known as the tomol. In fact, the most powerful of these guilds was the brotherhood of the tomol, with its members in possession of high social status, important links to the religious leadership ('antap ), and unprecedented access to the political leadership, as well. The tomol, with its powerful brotherhood, was the glue that held the entire system together. In order to fully understand the importance of the tomol and the brotherhood in classical times, it is necessary to analyze the region's economy prior to the Spanish arrival.

Trade and Travel

As the Chumash interaction sphere exists within a coastal zone and encompasses some eight to ten thousand years (since, roughly, the recession of the last coastal ice-age permafrost), it should not be construed as a stable environment. Changes in rainfall patterns and sea surface temperatures and their resulting impacts on terrestrial and ocean resources prompted the Chumash to rely upon a complex trade system in order to mitigate against shortfalls. As Daniel Larson and his colleagues state in "Missionization Among the Coastal Chumash of Central California":

As Chumash population levels increased there was a greater dependence on exchange of food from one settlement to the next. This reciprocity allowed groups to meet their provisioning needs when there were short-falls within a village's cachment. As populations continued to grow, subsistence strategies expanded and intensified, settlements became increasingly interdependent, and mutual trade became critical to subsistence success. Tied to the mutual trading relationship was a hierarchical political system involving chiefs who acted as brokers in the exchange relationships. They were also responsible for the scheduling of feasts, ceremonies, and celebrations, which were essential to intervillage social interaction and conflict resolution. (p. 264)

The tomol was the tool par excellence for the maintenance of this system of trade, enabling the reciprocal exchange of goods and ideas and galvanizing the network of interdependence that contemporary Chumash see as fundamental to their ethical system. Owing to its role as facilitator for the trade system, the tomol represents an investment of time, ingenuity, and resource management techniques. In addition to requiring an estimated 180 to 540 person-days of labor to complete, not to mention great amounts of skill in order to produce a sea-worthy vessel, the raw materials for the tomol represent sometimes years of careful management before they ever make it to the production level.

The key ingredients of the canoe are, of course, wood, with redwood driftwood (washed down from the northern California coast) being the most prized; natural fiber cordage for lashing the planks together as well as for tether and anchor lines; a mixture of asphaltum (naturally occurring petroleum deposits and pine pitch) for caulking and sealing; and the assorted tools (adzes, drills, etc.) for the manufacturing process. These raw materials are employed as a result of preproduction processes such as gathering (or purchasing via the aforementioned trade system), preparation (curing and planking the wood), knowledge of availability (in the case of asphaltum deposits); and ongoing resource management.

This last point is especially true with regard to stands of red milkweed (Asclepias fascicularis ) and/or dogbane (Apocynum canabis ) for the approximately one mile of cordage needed for the finished tomol. In this last case, contemporary Chumash assert that the availability of large amounts of this important resource depended upon management. Chumash ethnobotanist Julie Cordero states that the plant simply will not occur in useable stands if merely left to its own growth patterns. Clearly, the tomol required a vast amount of personnel and resource management before the manufacturing even began.

Paddling as Practice

This system does not stop at the production level. Crew responsibilities and the environmental knowledge required for safe travel are also important. It is this last point that provides the clearest metaphorical connection between the contemporary tomol crew and their classic predecessors. The rowing of a relatively small vessel in the hazardous Santa Barbara Channel requires great skill and teamwork for safety and efficiency. Individual paddlers must be physically capable, mentally adroit, and socially connected to the other paddlers for the safe and successful operation of the tomol.

The nature of the vessel is such that individual balance while compensating for the movement of the other paddlers and synchronous strokes of the paddles are key for the smooth movement of the canoe. For this to occur, it is optimal that the crew be experienced with the other members so they will be aware of their style and physical types and their various strengths and weaknesses, and for the formation of personal bonds of trust, as the process, even in the contemporary context, is not without some measure of risk. It is precisely this relationship-building, among both paddlers and non-paddling support and building crews, that gives the Chumash involved in paddling the tomol the tangible elements for understanding the underlying ethos viewed as uniquely Chumash.

In the process of learning the behaviors and skills required for the rowing of the tomol, the contemporary Chumash have also begun to fashion a rhetorical system within which the tomol protocol, as well as the actual requirements for paddling, are transmitted to others. This oratory ranges from practical concerns regarding canoe operation to ontological statements of emotive quality that are seen as pertinent to living a proper life. Maintenance of the tomol is liked to maintenance of interpersonal relationships. Paddling together is connected to bonds of trust, interdependence, and ancestral honor. Suffice it to say that, in the reprise of canoe culture for the Chumash, the tomol provides both an exemplar of the entire ethos seen as essentially Chumash, as well as an opportunity to express through practice what it is that comprises the particular Chumash ethic.

The tomol, for the Chumash who are involved in the revival of their maritime culture, provides a key symbol of an ancient ethos that navigated its way through some ten thousand years of history, through many transformations in climate, and continues to provide a vessel with which they can carry their children into a future that regards their past as continually present.

See Also

North American Indians, article on Indians of California and the Intermountain Region.


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Bourdieu, Pierre. The Logic of Practice. Stanford, Calif., 1980.

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Dennis F. Kelley (2005)