The return of paintings and art to descendants of Jewish Holocaust victims has been in the news recently. The son of a German art collector who supervised the Nazi’s purchase or theft of these items from their Jewish owners died last year in the midst of a controversy over the rightful ownership of numerous works of art. Apparently many of the pieces were stolen from their owners as they were sent off to Dachau or other concentration camps. The return of those artworks to their rightful owners seems like a proper and just outcome and is fully supported in the court of public opinion.
The Chumash tribe has recently been successful in obtaining a basket woven by a member of the tribe approximately 150 years ago. It is a piece of tribal art most likely wrested from the Chumash of the late 1800s under less-than-perfect circumstances. Perhaps it was discovered by one of many artifact hunters of the late 19th century or sold by its owner to buy food or clothing. With the Chumash living on the bottom rung of society since the mid 1800s, anything is possible.
Like many of the older civilizations of the world, the Chumash tribe was dispossessed of their land and belongings as foreign explorers encroached into their world. They were incorporated into the Mission system and later relegated to a small reservation. It has been estimated that a population of 20,000 Chumash lived from Malibu to San Luis Obispo and into the Cuyama Valley. By 1840, only 250 Chumash remained; this was an extinction rate of 99 percent of the tribe.
My friends who have owned the Russell Ranch for many years have found grinding bowls and related items along the Cuyama River. A Chumash friend once told me that stone grinding bowls lined with tar are located in several feet of water just off the Gaviota coast. On a day with good visibility, you can see them from a small boat or kayak. It was alleged that several years ago a well-known movie personality who was interested in buying a coastal ranch formerly occupied by the Chumash had a field plowed up so he could look for artifacts.
The purchase of this tribal artifact was accomplished by the negotiation of a price between the tribe and the seller. It was not a small amount of money. I hope the Chumash have the financial resources to repatriate all their former property now owned in private collections and museums around the world. If someone went into your home and told you to get out and took all of your possessions, you would be quite angry. I don’t know if the tribe is upset about having to pay to get their property back, or if they are simply grateful to have been successful in this transaction, despite the price. I think the rest of us would be outraged if we had to pay to get Grandma’s quilt back.
I think even the opponents of the tribe’s efforts to bring more land into reservation status would agree that reacquiring items that represent their history is a good thing and should be encouraged and supported. This repatriation of a tribal artifact could not have happened without the success of their casino and related businesses. The exemplary graduation rate of tribal students from high school, the continuation of these students to college and advanced degree programs, and the operation of a health clinic for tribal members and the public at large are all a result of the success of Chumash businesses.
My father used to tell me to listen to what people told me they were going to do, but to also “see where their feet walked.” The tribe said it would build a museum on the 6.9 acres that took years to bring into trust. They are building the collection and designing the museum as we speak. Their feet are going where they said they would. Maybe it is time to stop all the accusations and innuendo relative to the Camp 4 land, and see where their feet go on that one also.
Eldon Shiffman is a lifelong resident of Santa Barbara County and is the treasurer and chief investment officer for the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians.