A Detailed Guide to Understanding the Syuxtun Story Circle
Growing up, I was taught that storytelling is transferred by direct experience and oral teachings from one person to another, that the oral history of our Chumash culture is sacred, and that it should be deeply respected, appreciated, and shared. These stories, passed down through generations, reflected the Chumash people’s supreme understanding of cosmology, their firm grasp of the natural world, and the importance of family unity to society. But I also was told that, because our oral traditions weren’t valued and were even feared by those who came from distant lands, many of the stories were put to sleep. After generations, these stories finally are starting to wake up and be told again, and some have found a home within the Syuxtun Story Circle.
In the very center of the circle, we see a green-blue sand dollar, which is said to be the resting place for the Sun as he journeys from East to West during the Winter Solstice. Surrounding the sand dollar is a basket design, as the Chumash were regarded as some of the finest basket makers in the world, their woven fibers a centerpiece of daily life. The yellow pattern is based on a 200-year-old basket that was found in the hills above Santa Barbara. Within the design are representations of tomols, which commemorate the many channel crossings to Santa Cruz Island we have completed in modern times.
Toward the outer rim of the Syuxtun Story Circle are the three worlds that comprise the Chumash universe: the World Above, the Middle World, and the World Below. The World Above is home to the sky people. The Sun, Kaqunupmawa, takes his torch around the world and warms us. Slo’w, the great eagle, sustains the upper world with his wings. Below the beak of Slo’w is the Moon, Alahtin, who shines her purifying light on the Earth and the woodpecker, Maqutikok, who was the sole survivor of the Great Flood and holds an acorn while being warmed and fed by his uncle, the Sun. There is also a coyote paw floating above a white table with a red hand impressed upon it that is part of the sacred creation story. The paw represents Å nilemun, the benevolent Sky Coyote, who announced after the Great Flood that there would now be people and that they would have his hands, for his hands were the finest of all. After much debate, the sky people agreed-all except for Onokok, the lizard, who did not voice his opposition. Rather, just before Å nilemun could press his paw into the stone table, Onokok pressed his hand down, giving people hands much more like the lizard’s. The two ravens posed above the poppies are the upper-world beings we encounter when we die as our soul journeys to the West.
The Middle World is home to the Chumash. The two giant serpents who make their way up on either side of the mosaic are Ma’aqsiq’ita’Å¡up, those who hold up the Middle World from below. When they are tired, they move, and cause earthquakes. As we travel counterclockwise around the circle, we encounter the four Channel Islands off our coast: a closed poppy depicts ‘Anyapax (Anacapa), the poppy in bloom is Limuw (Santa Cruz), the red driftwood next to it is Wima (Santa Rosa), and the abalone shell is Tuqan (San Miguel). On the shores of Syuxtun, there stands a woman whose abalone necklace sparkles in the sun, and she represents the powerful female chief who is said to have ruled in 1542. Along the same shore, we see the flourishing village life reported from 1769, where men carry a tomol out of the ocean.
The adjacent image shows the rose window from the Santa Barbara Mission, which reflects the scattering of the Chumash people, since the mission system forever altered the indigenous lifestyle. Next to the rose window is a vibrant comet, and, below that, a woman who’s raising her arms to receive a vision that warned of the impending destruction of her culture, two events that led to the Chumash revolt of 1824. The next image is Palatino’s tomol traveling across turbulent water, symbolizing the time when the tomol teachings were put to sleep. The solar eclipse that follows reveals the arrival of the Americans and their influence on the Chumash.
Directly below the eclipse is a replication of Swordfish Cave and next to that, a representation of the Earth Coyote. Together, these images recall the oral history of Earth Coyote rescuing Xelex, the falcon, from the bottom of the ocean where the swordfish people reside. We liken this tale to Fernando Librado, the Chumash man who brought the tomol out of slumber when, from 1913-1915, he built the first one since Palatino’s. That tradition carries on in the next image of Tomol Xelex and her crew from the Quabajai Brotherhood of the Tomol, which undertook an 11-day circumnavigation of the Channel Islands in 1976, the first time a tomol was back in the channel since the 1800s. Next to the tomol are animal tracks, indicating the importance of relationships between humans and beasts.
In 2001, the launch of the Tomol ‘Elye’wun (Chumash for “swordfish”) and her crew marked the first time Chumash families returned to Santa Cruz Island as a community, now an annual tradition every autumn. The peregrine image between Xelex and ‘Elye’wun is in honor of the falcon that is the spiritual captain of all tomols.
As we journey back down the circle we find the World Below. This underworld is home to the nunaÅ¡iÂiÅ¡, beings that come out after dark to travel mysteriously into the Middle World. These malevolent creatures are dangerous and often a nuisance to the Chumash people.
We believe that the Syuxtun Story Circle truly is a gift to the entire community. Speaking on behalf of the seven artists who allowed this design to manifest through us, we feel that our participation in its creation is our way of continuing the work of our elders and preserving these stories so they can be shared with the community and the world. - Stephen Franco Jr.