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Saturday's Chumash tomol crossing (from Channel Islands Harbor in Oxnard to Santa Cruz Island)

Robby Barthelmess

Saturday's Chumash tomol crossing (from Channel Islands Harbor in Oxnard to Santa Cruz Island)


A Journey of 21 Miles and Thousands of Years

Chumash Descendants Cross Santa Barbara Channel in Traditional Tomol


For the seventh time in more than 150 years, descendants from various Chumash nations came together this past weekend for a journey to the Channel Islands in a handmade tomol, covering 21 miles while connecting with a past that goes back for thousands of years.

Legend says that the first Chumash people were created by Hutash, the Earth Mother, on Santa Cruz Island. Since then, these adept fishermen have been using tomols, traditionally built canoes, to navigate the Santa Barbara Channel. The tomol is central to the Chumash heritage. Its routes wove Chumash communities together in a complex system of trade and kinship. The length of the canoes range from eight to 30 feet, and they were made mainly from redwood trees that floated down the coast. The last Chumash tomols used for fishing were built around 1850.

Saturday's Chumash tomol crossing (from Channel Islands Harbor in Oxnard to Santa Cruz Island)
Click to enlarge photo

Robby Barthelmess

Saturday’s Chumash tomol crossing (from Channel Islands Harbor in Oxnard to Santa Cruz Island)

Almost a 150 years later, a modern tomol named ‘Elye’wun (Chumash for swordfish) was constructed. This beautiful plank canoe stretches 26 feet long and took the Chumash villagers more than a year to finish. “Building the tomol is an event that brings us together,” said Reggie Pagaling, a member of the Santa Ynez Chumash tribe. “Many hands participated in building ‘Elye’wun, from those of seven-year-olds to those of 70-year-olds.”

Around 2 a.m. on Saturday, ‘Elye’wun set out on her spiritual yet strenuous journey from the Channel Islands Harbor in Oxnard, carrying four people and followed by a group of 20 or so paddlers to take turns along the way. A series of early morning songs arose from the beach bonfire to mark the beginning of the adventure. These ancient Chumash tunes, such as The Song of the Seaweed and The Song of the Dolphins, were heard by the very same ocean ages ago, long before “history” touched Santa Barbara. It is partly through singing that the Chumash people passed down their language generation after generation.

Saturday's Chumash tomol crossing (from Channel Islands Harbor in Oxnard to Santa Cruz Island)
Click to enlarge photo

Robby Barthelmess

Saturday’s Chumash tomol crossing (from Channel Islands Harbor in Oxnard to Santa Cruz Island)

As the singing brought forth sunrise, it also awakened the deep blue sea. Rows of pelicans and seagulls hovered around the tomol, their white wings fluttering amidst the morning mist; and a group of dolphins joined in the journey. According to the Chumash legend, the Earth Mother changed her people who fell in the ocean into dolphins to prevent them from drowning. Thus, dolphins are always viewed as brothers and sisters in Chumash culture.

Meanwhile, on the pebbled beach of Scorpion Bay on Santa Cruz Island, more than a hundred supporters waited in excitement for the arrival of the crew. The crowd cheered in joy as ‘Elye’wun’ successfully landed and the tomol was lifted up and carried around for celebration. The landing site, now part of the Channel Island National Park, was once the largest Chumash village on the island.

Saturday's Chumash tomol crossing (from Channel Islands Harbor in Oxnard to Santa Cruz Island)
Click to enlarge photo

Robby Barthelmess

Saturday’s Chumash tomol crossing (from Channel Islands Harbor in Oxnard to Santa Cruz Island)

Tomol paddling across the Channel is a physically demanding journey. The paddlers, most of whom are in their mid forties, train for months to get physically prepared on the ocean. It was altogether a 10-hour trip before ‘Elye’wun finally reached the island. But as Pagaling put it: “I always tell the paddlers that the journey is not about your muscle. It is about tradition, about healing and sharing. The strength of the journey comes from your heart.”

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