New Generation Keeps Chumash Tomol Tradition Alive

Friends, Family, an Elders Take Part in ‘Village Hop’

Krista Armenta-Belen, Tommy Gomez, Spenser Jaimes, Jack Castillo, and David Jaimes bring the tomol in for a celebration of songs and prayers with family and friends waiting along the shore. | Credit: Avery Barthel

It’s early Sunday morning in late November, and a close-knit group of Chumash friends, family, and elders have gathered together along the shores of West Beach — on land that was originally the village of Syuxtun — to prepare for a “village hop,” where the community paddles its traditional tomol, or canoe, between West Beach and Leadbetter.

Spenser Jaimes is a 20-year-old Šmuwič-Chumash documentarian and part of a new generation of Indigenous youth taking traditions and marrying them with the modern age. He made waves at the 2022 Santa Barbara International Film Festival with his first-ever short film, Connected by Water, which documented a traditional paddle-out into the Santa Barbara Channel by members of the Coastal Band of Chumash, Tongva, and Acjachemen tribal nations in their redwood-plank vessels.

Thousands of years ago, Jaimes says, the channel was packed with the tomols returning to shore packed with fish for the villages, back when golden poppies covered the island hillsides of Limuw (now known as Santa Cruz). On a clear day, you could see the flowers sparkling in the sun.

Now, Jaimes serves as the caretaker of the ‘Elye’wun, or “Swordfish,” and the Xax ‘Alolk’oy’, or “Great Dolphin,” the 25-foot-long tomols that he had spent the several past weeks sanding, repairing, and refinishing alongside fellow paddler Jack Castillo under the watchful eyes of his father, navigator David Jaimes, and Tomol Captain Ray Ward, who built both tomols and is now passing on his knowledge to the next generation. “It’s their turn,” Ward says, as he watches the crew ready the tomol for today’s trip.

The Xax’ ‘Alolk’oy (The Great Dolphin) is a Chumash tomol, or canoe, made of redwood planks and featuring the emblem of the dolphin on its “ears.” | Credit: Avery Barthel

It starts with filling sandbags. The paddlers for today’s journey — Matt Murillo, Jack Castillo, Tommy Gomez, Krista Armenta-Belen, and Spenser and David Jaimes — work with friends and family to pack 600 pounds of ballast. It’s a team effort, as is everything else that day. Each task is a community effort toward a community benefit, as it always has been in the Chumash culture. Now in the water, the Xax ‘Alolk’oy’ looks natural, and it sits in contrast to the sailboats, fishing boats, and catamarans in the harbor; its simple beauty stands out. 

David Jaimes has been navigating the vessels for years, and his eyes glow as he watches his son take charge. It’s been a tough few years for the Chumash, with many family members and elders lost during the pandemic and community events like the tomol crossing put on hold for nearly three years. Today is the first time some of the paddlers and family members have seen each other in months. They jump in one at a time and each carry a paddle more than 10 feet long, all rowing in harmony as the tomol launches and makes its way onto the open water.

Back on the shore of West Beach, elders, friends, and aunties gather, waiting in excitement as the tomol makes its way around the breakwater. As the watercraft approaches, they chant songs to welcome the paddlers in. “This paddle was a day for us as Chumash people to gather and pray,” Spenser Jaimes says. “For me, this was a space to tell my community my intentions as a newly appointed caretaker of two of our tomols.” Jaimes’s intentions are to continue learning the art of tomol navigation and to revive their traditional purpose ― fishing ― in a way that can benefit the local community today.

Chumash documentarian Spenser Jaimes has taken a new role as caretaker of the tomol; here he stands on the shores of Syuxtun, the Chumash village that stretches along the land now occupied by Stearns Wharf. | Credit: Avery Barthel

After a few small trips out into the channel, in which a few newcomers (including this reporter) were invited to paddle inside the tomol — an experience which is unlike any other, gliding smoothly along the water with nothing but the splashing of the paddles in sync and the islands on the horizon — the crew prepared for the mile-long journey from West Beach to Leadbetter, where even more friends and family were waiting for a potluck.

Cheers and yells echoed along the beach, and everybody lent a hand to lug the tomol up the sand and onto the grass. And although it was beautiful to see the tomol sitting there, the wood now dark and speckled with sand, there was an underlying feeling of sadness to the celebration as a group of people native to this land were now forced to reserve a spot along the beach that has been their home for centuries. As they circled for prayers and sang solemn songs, packs of beachside barbecuers partied loudly, gawked, and turned judgy eyes toward the group.

“I want to ask people of faith, how would your life be affected if you did not have the option to practice your culture and religion?” Jaimes said. “It takes meetings months in advance to get permits, and it’s regulated by the government just to sit and pray. But people are barbecuing and partying around you while you finally get to pray.”

“Everybody has a place to privately pray and practice their religion,” he continued. “Us native peoples are the only ones who do not have a place to practice, to continue our culture and religion privately. Our sacred sites and traditional villages are almost all on private property, where we are often forced to trespass to access places that we have been tending since time immemorial, or they are in public, where we are gawked at and questioned.”

Jaimes and the new generation of Chumash, including his cousins and family members who are part of bands not federally recognized or financially supported, are hoping to push for community spaces to gather and store materials. “Our people need a community center to gather; we need a tomol house to safely store our tomols, perform maintenance, and process our fish,” he said. 

In addition to pushing for space, the younger generation has also started a genuine effort to rename the Northern Channel Islands to their ancestral Chumash designations: Anyapax (Anacapa), Limuw (Santa Cruz), Wi’ma (Santa Rosa), and Tuquan (San Miguel). An online petition has garnered nearly 1,000 signatures so far.

From left to right: Matt Murillo, John Bear, Spenser Jaimes, David Jaimes, Jack Castillo, Ryan P. Cruz, Tommy Gomez, and Krista Armenta-Belen launch the Xax’ ‘Alolk’oy during the November Village Hop. | Credit: Avery Barthel

Jaimes recently started a website where locals can support the tomols of Syuxtun and help the group purchase everything from life vests to radios to navigational tools that would allow them to undertake the traditional 26-mile crossing to the islands.

“We have no casinos or enterprises to financially support our canoes,” Jaimes explained. “So donations are crucial to non-federally recognized nations. All of us are full-time working-class people living paycheck to paycheck. Having an ancestral vessel and being modern people means we need modern tools and equipment to legally operate.”

But there is hope for the future, and nearly every elder gushed with pride to see Jaimes and the youth take on this new role. The day reinvigorated the sense of community, and by the end of it, everybody couldn’t wait to see each other for the next village hop, which Jaimes is hoping will be held in July.

Support the tomols of Syuxtun by visiting thingstogetme.com/syuxtuntomols. Sign the petition to rename the Northern Channel islands at tinyurl.com/channelislandspetition.


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