NOMENCLATURE IS DESTINY: The recent dustup between the Santa Ynez Chumash and their Casino-hating neighbors begs the centuries-old question whether a rose by any other name would smell just as sweet. While that answer has eluded the best minds of many a generation, I am more than willing to bet the farm-preferably your farm-that the thorns would remain every bit as sharp.
At issue is last week’s announcement that the State Legislature passed what its members no doubt thought was a warm-and-fuzzy, feel-good resolution naming San Marcos Pass-32 scenic miles of death-defying thrills and chills-the Chumash Highway. The vote-which was unanimously affirmative at every turn and committee-does not mean that Caltrans workers will soon remove all Highway 154 signs. Nor does it mean that maps detailing the ups and downs of “San Marcos Pass” will soon be recalled. Instead, we can expect Caltrans to install a few new road signs bearing yet another name, thus further confounding motorists on a byway where confusion quickly translates to vehicular mayhem and mangling.
Don’t get me wrong; I have no beef with the new highway name. In fact, I think it’s overdue. I’ve long been struck by the inexcusable dearth of street names and place names that acknowledge the region’s original Chumash inhabitants. (Anacapa, Anapamu, and Yanonali streets being three exceptions that approximate the actual Chumash pronunciation; Valerio, Cacique, and Rancheria streets reflect Chumash realities as seen through a Hispanified lens.) Personally, I think the off-ramp signs directing motorists to downtown Santa Barbara should be replaced with the glow-in-the-dark inscription “Syuxtun,” the name of the Chumash village that once thrived here.
As for the new Chumash Highway, the historical record clearly indicates that for thousands of years it functioned as the main thoroughfare by which coastal Chumash visited their country cousins living inland, and vice versa. So the name makes plenty of sense. That being said, the timing of the announcement could not have been worse, and the way it went down could not be more vulnerable to scoffing and suspicion. Little wonder that casino critics in the valley now call it the “Chumash Buy-Way.” And as for Assemblymember Pedro Nava‘s role in all this, well, Our Main Man in Sacramento could not have been more coy if he tried.
The big problem was timing. No locals were notified that a possible name change was in the works until well after it was a done deal. Sheriff Bill Brown didn’t know about the new name until he read about it in the papers last week; neither did Santa Barbara County ber Executive Mike Brown. And neither did Brooks Firestone, the county supervisor through whose district the new Chumash Highway runs. As a matter of courtesy, it’s almost always a good idea to notify the local officials in advance.
Remember the rhetorical slaughter that befell the well-meaning white guys who wanted to change the name of Indio Muerto Street a few years back? They thought the name was demeaning to Native Americans, but when the matter went to the City Council, the only Native Americans who showed up spoke derisively of their politically correct plan. And so, overwhelmingly, did the residents of the street-mostly of Mexican descent-and the matter was dropped liked the proverbial hot potato.
Certainly the locals were given plenty of advance notice when the State Legislature passed a similar resolution to name a stretch of Highway 46 after then state senator Jack O’Connell. O’Connell had done much to make one of the deadliest stretches of road anywhere in California less lethal, and the county supervisors all but baked a cake in his honor. But where the Chumash Highway is concerned, area residents got clotheslined and back-doored at the same time. It’s hard to imagine this wasn’t intentional. Given the bad blood boiling between the Santa Ynez Chumash (who run the casino) and many Santa Ynez preservationists (who are perpetually freaked out by the aforementioned casino), any public discussion of the proposed name change would have gotten really ugly really fast.
Nava’s role in all of this remains conspicuously murky. Nava readily acknowledges that he voted for the measure-which sailed out of the Transportation Committee he chairs-but insists he played little role otherwise. Nava and his spokesperson point out that he did not even sponsor the resolution; that honor belongs to Joe Coto, a Democratic assemblymember out of San Jose. Coto’s office has yet to respond to numerous phone calls for comment, but Chumash representatives say he has a long history of supporting cultural and educational measures of importance to California’s native tribes. Some people find Coto’s involvement somewhat odd, but Nava’s spokesperson repeatedly explained how any legislator can introduce a name-change resolution for any road in any community on any day. That’s true, but the last legislator to try poaching in Nava’s district got nowhere.
Earlier this year, Lloyd Levine, one of Nava’s assembly buddies, introduced an anti-oil measure specific to the Santa Barbara Channel in a politically calculated effort to bolster his street cred with enviros. Levine withdrew the bill from consideration after it emerged that he’d never consulted with Nava beforehand. In this case, there’s more than circumstantial evidence to suggest that Nava’s Look-Ma-No-Hands posture is less than believable. On July 23, John Johnson, curator of the Museum of Natural History and one of the nation’s foremost scholars on all things Chumash, wrote a letter at the tribe’s request on behalf of the proposed name change. In that letter, Johnson provided a detailed historical justification for the new name. Johnson did not send the letter to Coto’s office, but to Nava’s. And he did so, he said, upon the instructions of the Chumash who asked him to write the letter.
In the meantime, I’ll stay off Highway 154, San Marcos Pass, or Chumash Highway. Whatever you call it, it’s a crazy, dangerous road populated by too many drunken drivers. Should you crash into a rose bush there, I doubt you’ll enjoy the fragrance. But you won’t escape the thorns.