If all goes as planned, there could be more than 1,000 Native Americans from all over the West Coast and beyond coming to Santa Barbara for next year’s summer solstice weekend, bringing with them their peoples’ traditional boats in a collective effort to connect across tribal lines, educate the public, and inspire the next generation to respect living cultures and protect the health of the ocean.
That’s the intent of the Voices of the Ocean: An Indigenous Watercraft Festival, a free event being scheduled for June 20-21, 2014, on the sand at West Beach. Spearheaded by longtime ocean advocate Edward Cassano as well as Chumash elders Reggie Pagaling and Marcus Lopez — who are part of the team that has built and paddled traditional tomols across the Santa Barbara Channel — the festival would be the first attempt to gather such a wide cross-section of cultures and their canoes, and it was recently boosted closer to reality with a $20,000 matching grant from the Santa Ynez Band of Mission Indians.
Cassano, who worked on marine reserves for the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary and helped start the S.B. Maritime Museum, among other ocean-related career moves, became enchanted with the indigenous watercraft world in 2001, when he was on Santa Cruz Island to witness the first-ever crossing of a traditional Chumash tomol in 135 years. “The power of that experience changed my life,” recalled Cassano, whose daughter, then 7 years old, was profoundly moved by the event, and is now, at age 19, studying ancient cultures at St. Andrews in Scotland. “How do you bring that out for everybody?”
A much smaller, invite-only gathering was held this past summer solstice, when about 50 people gathered at West Beach to welcome the dawn with a Chumash ceremony. “The Chumash believe that their ancestors came to us from the ocean,” said Cassano of his motivations for starting the fest, explaining that he hopes to have a storytelling pavilion, discussions on various ocean issues, and chances for the public to try paddling themselves. “And we need to give the ocean a voice, too.”
To learn more and support the event, see inmer.org.