Art Cisneros is a Chumash elder and firekeeper. He is of Chumash descent on his mother’s side and Mexican descent on his father’s. Though his roots in Santa Barbara County go back tens of thousands of years, Cisneros isn’t focused on the past but rather on the present and the future. Technically retired, he works passionately to unite humanity in caring for “our Mom”: planet Earth. Striving to live up to his Chumash name, “Earth Man with a Good Heart,” he holds fire ceremonies and tells about our need to heal our relationships with ourselves, the Earth, and each other.
It is Cisneros who builds and tends the fire that burns on Santa Cruz Island (Limuw, as the Chumash call it) during the tribe’s annual tomol crossing of the Santa Barbara Channel. He also holds regular fire ceremonies at his home in Goleta and presides over other community fire ceremonies, such as the solstice celebrations at the Ojai Foundation. As firekeeper, his attention is not just on the physical fire crackling in the pit but also on “the spark in each person’s heart” around the fire.
“Ceremonies are for healing,” he said, “so I create a space in which people can offer their pain and problems to the fire to be transmuted into smoke, which rises to the Creator.” He makes this space by telling stories — his own and stories from the many teachers with whom he’s studied — so that people feel comfortable in sharing their own experiences. He gently reminds them that at least part of their pain is the result of having forgotten whom they are and who they belong to — our Mother, the Earth.
“Human beings are interdependent with all beings for our existence,” he explained. “Our world today is out of balance because we have forgotten our responsibility as caretakers. We have forgotten to love one another unconditionally as children of the same Mother. We have forgotten that everything was given to everyone to share and that the greatest of us is responsible for the least of us.
“All people were given instructions to keep peace and harmony: humbly ask permission; pray and offer tribute for everything that we need and use; and give back through our good thoughts, words, and actions [in] our love for our Mother Earth and one another. This keeps the balance of energy and promotes peace and harmony, health and happiness. When we take without permission, or hurt each other; we create disharmony and disease. We hurt our Mother.”
Cisneros believes that the time is now for all of us to begin the process of restoring the balance of energy. “We can heal each and the world through our willingness to share what we hold as material wealth and what we hold in our heart as love, kindness, compassion, and generosity,” he said.
“This is the hardest part of my work: getting people to realize that they have the power to reverse the chaos of our times simply by asking permission of the Earth; taking only what we need; giving thanks; and sharing what we have.”
It’s a message he speaks wherever he goes. He serves on the boards of the Sacred Earth Foundation and the Tribal Trust Foundation, where he opens each meeting with prayer, thanking the Creator for bringing the board together. He brings indigenous elders from other parts of the world to Santa Barbara, “because these people are the ones who are praying for the Earth and keeping the energies in balance. They need our support and acknowledgement.” He is also working with a group of nonprofits to protect a piece of the Gaviota Coast — the site of the original Dos Pueblos — to be used for learning, healing, and ceremony.
“We’re each an integral part of the whole,” he said. “If you’re not healthy, the world can’t be healthy. And if you are healthy — in body, mind, and spirit — you’re really helping to heal the whole world. This is what I try to share with people.”
What else could an Earth Man with a Good Heart do?