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Whales and the Natives

i Oct 31st No Comments by

Written by lineal descendant of Ojai’s Native Chief, the Honorable Vincent Tumamait.

Here are just a few important things that Chumash people did with whales. First of all, Whale, in the Barbareno dialect of the Chumash language is “Pahat”. Whales were not fished for, they would be found onshore.

It was said that long ago, when animals were people, there were three worlds, the upper, middle and lower, each one on top of the other. The three worlds existed simultaneously and parallel to each other. The upper world was held up by an eagle, and the middle world was held up from the lower world by two giant snakes. In the upper world, the sky people would play a gambling game called “peon”. Sun and sky coyote would wager all kinds of things. One would wager human lives and droughts while the other would wager lots of rain and abundance for us. This game was played nightly, and at the end of the year the score was tallied up. When Sun won the game, we suffered no rain, the plants stopped growing and the animals moved to higher ground. The people along the coast ran out of food during these times so they would pray and ask for mercy.

Down below in the bottom of the ocean, the swordfish people, “`elyewun”, lived in a crystal house and would come out of their house to play a game. They would toss a whale back and forth off the end of their very long, harpoon-like bills. From time to time one of the swordfish would miss and the whale would be tossed onshore to the coastland in the middle world. This provided for the people and made them very, very happy so they sang and gave thanks for this wonderful gift.

Besides the meat that the whale provided for the people, they also used the fat to make oil and the skeleton to make structures. The rib bones were used for the beams in the making of the “Ap”, a semi-circular house. When long, straight poles were hard to find, ribs from a whale made sturdy braces and the jawbones of the very large whales were used for doorways.

The backbones made fine stools. During celebrations these stools were painted up and reserved for the most important guest. In the “tomal”, our planked canoe, the princess had her special whalebone stool. It was inlaid with one piece of abalone in the center and additional pieces circling around it. Then on the very edge of the whalebone, moon-shaped pieces of abalone were placed side by side all the way around the rim.

Whalebones were also used in burial ceremonies. The Chumash had a caste system and the very elite were buried in special ways. One particular burial was that of a woman who had the hip bone of a whale laid over her body. The grave was shallow, only a few feet deep, and when she was exhumed and the whale bone removed, underneath lie a layer of shell bead money covering her body.

It was important for Chumash people to have their “`atishwin”, spirit helper or dream helper. Soapstone was used to carve these helpers. Whale effigies have been found as well as soapstone carved ceremonial smoking pipes in the shapes of whales. During the “Hutash” ceremony in September, a whale vertebra is painted (Hutash means Mother Earth). In the middle of the whale vertebra is a purple sun disc made from prickly pear cactus juice mixed with pine pitch. Twelve rose-colored rays extend out from the purple sun, each ray representing the months of the year. The rays were split at the end and this was called, “tspy’ey kakunupmawa”, which means, “Flower of the Sun”. The whalebone was then placed in the middle of a room along with other offerings. People would gather around it singing songs and place more offerings in a basket. A boy would then place the whalebone on a stick, raise it high, and process around so that all the people could see it.


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