The Santa Barbara City Council voted unanimously Tuesday, September 30, to change the name of Indio Muerto Street — which means “Dead Indian” in Spanish. “It’s just a bad name for a street, no matter how you cut it,” declared councilmember Oscar Gutierrez. “The name flat-out, bottom line is offensive.” Councilmember Kristen Sneddon wondered how people would react to streets named “Dead Woman or Dead Child,” adding, “It’s unbelievable it took this long.” Councilmember Michael Jordan joined in, agreeing,” When it comes to the smell test, the name is offensive.”
The new name adopted for the narrow Eastside street running from Salinas to Milpas, is Hutash, a Chumash word. How that translates, however, did run into some controversy at the council meeting.
Via Zoom, Marcus Lopez of the Barbareño Chumash Council explained Hutash meant “Mother Earth.” Others, members of a rival band of Chumash, contend it means “God,” and questioned if it was appropriate to name any street after God. (It’s also the name of the Chumash Harvest festival as well as a shiny black seed grain once used by Chumash to make nutritious, oily dough balls.) They questioned whether Lopez and his group were authentic Chumash. Lopez in turn dismissed his critics as a band of “naysayers” who believed they were the only real Chumash.
The council also got a virtual earful from name-change supporters and only a few detractors. A spokesperson for the Santa Ynez Band of the Chumash Indians called the name “a stain on the beauty of Santa Barbara,” and a spokesperson for Assemblymember Monique Limón said the name change was “past due.”
Many affiliated with Healing Justice, Santa Barbara’s version of Black Lives Matter, said the name Indio Muerto expressed decades’ of “white supremacy and cultural genocide.” Simone Ruskamp, a leader in Healing Justice, said that there would be no gratitude for Tuesday’s vote; the council could and should do better. “Martin Luther King warned about moderate white folks.”
Local historian Neal Graffy gave a mini tutorial of his own, pointing out the street — one of 10 original street names that harked back to Chumash culture — was named Indio Muerto in 1851 when city street surveyors then laying out Santa Barbara’s first urban grid stumbled onto the body of a dead Chumash man. “Indio Muerto street is the only monument to the burial place of an unknown Chumash man who died alone in the empty fields of Santa Barbara,” Graffy said. “This street is like the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier,” he went on. “There are thousands of others who died alone, scared, beaten, sick and forgotten. Indio Muerto should be seen as a memorial to them all.” Some councilmembers gave Graffy props for his efforts, but none bought his argument.
There are only 40 homes and five businesses that will be affected by the name change. The Post Office will deliver mail to both addresses for one year, but then only to the Hutash address. Sam Clifford, owner of Santa Barbara Chemical Corporation, said no one from City Hall had ever notified him of the proposed name change, which he estimated would cost him “tens of thousands of dollars.” City administrators acknowledged that was true. Councilmember Jordan expressed vexation that City Hall hadn’t mailed out notices to 45 affected residents and had done nothing to verify the meaning of Hutash.
Lopez said he made efforts to reach out to Clifford and his business, but never heard back. Clifford insisted he’d reached out to Lopez multiple times without getting any response.
The new Hutash street signs will be installed sometime in December at a cost of about $1,500. After all was said and done, the council made clear, that whatever Hutash means — and however it should be spelled — it’s not offensive.
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