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Indigenous watercraft: Rekindling the original vision of native coastal culture in California and beyond
By Brayden Stephenson
On any given day in Southern California, you can arrive at the beach and see surfers and beachgoers claiming waves and spots in the sand, while weekend warriors try to find parking. This wasn’t always the case. What goes unseen is a culture that’s been dormant for centuries, pushed aside by Spanish missionaries in the 1700s and further buried by westward expansion in the 1800s and 1900s.
The original ocean people of California have been suppressed to the point of invisibility, and their influence largely forgotten, but efforts are underway to bring back indigenous watercraft through cultural revitalization along the Southern California coast and even in Lake Tahoe.
Chumash Elder Alan Salazar is among those leading the effort of traditional Indigenous canoe revitalization in the Santa Barbara area.
In 2001, Salazar and his community completed the first of 13 crossings to Santa Cruz Island from the mainland in traditional tomol canoes. These traditional canoes were made from redwood trees that drifted down the coast from Northern California. After four years of preparation, paddle training and construction of the tomol, Salazar and a group of paddlers set out to channel the spirit of their ancestors for the 20-mile journey. The paddle marked the first crossing via traditional canoes in more than 150 years.
“We left at 3:45 am and I was in the first crew. To be in that first crew, to paddle out of the Channel Islands Harbor in Oxnard, and get out into open water was something special,” Salazar says. “It was dark and overcast that day. There were no stars and no moon. We had two support boats to lead the way but they were far in the distance. We wanted to experience open-water paddling at night.”
“We called the first crew that leaves at 3:45 am, ‘Dark Water Paddlers,’ and that’s an honor because they’re our most experienced members. They paddle the longest, for at least three hours, so it’s hard physical paddling, but it’s kind of a spiritual rush.”
Since those first crossings, Salazar has been working to connect with tribes and canoe communities throughout the nation, revitalizing canoe culture in a way that transcends tribes. In a recent project with outdoor brand Patagonia, based in nearby Ventura, Salazar and other Ventura-based tomol builders have set out to build two more tomol canoes, slated for completion this summer.
While the original Chumash used shark fins to sand the tomol canoes, Salazar and his community implement a combination of modern and traditional techniques.
“I’m excited to build these tomols here in Ventura because the Indigenous community has pretty much been left behind in Ventura,” Salazar says. “So, to end my paddling career, I’m going to help build these two canoes here in Ventura. It will probably be the first time in 180 years since any traditional Chumash canoes have been built in the Ventura area.”
“My attitude, and that of the leaders that I’m working with, is that we want to bring in all people of the ocean. We don’t want just North American tribal people, we want canoe people from all over the world.”
Moving down the coastline into Kumeyaay territory in modern-day San Diego, calmer waters allowed people to travel the coast in tule reed canoes, as opposed to the longer, wooden tomols up north. Tule-style canoes have been used throughout the world by Indigenous cultures. While construction methods vary, all tule canoes were built of reeds and other plant materials.
The San Diego based non-profit Native Like Water works to bring back Native representation in surfing and ocean engagement through their youth programs that include, among other things, the building and paddling of traditional tule canoes.
Native Like Water founder, Marc Chavez, says building traditional watercraft is a way to plant a seed that connects the present to the past — a hands on, practical way to reintroduce Indigenous representation in San Diego’s ocean culture.
“A lot of things have squashed our cultural presences, especially real estate,” he says. “So the revitalization of traditional water craft, is kind of like weeds growing from concrete in the sense that our culture has been so squashed.”
Working with traditional canoes offers those involved an opportunity to engage with social and environmental issues with a new perspective, one that is rooted in a Native viewpoint that strives for harmony with people and the planet.
“So having Indigenous people be a part of the revitalization of nature is important. Leaving the original coastal people out of the story would be like leaving the whale out of the story of the ocean,” Chavez says.
The 20,000-year-old history of coastal land in California has been misrepresented, but the narrative is changing.
John Dayberry is a teacher, skier, surfer, craftsman, and former lift operations manager for several resorts in California. Hailing from South Lake Tahoe, Dayberry became fixated on the history and practice of traditional watercraft 15 years ago.
Dayberry sits in his office surrounded by a library of history books. During our interview, he pulls out Tom Blake’s, The Uncommon Journey of a Pioneer Waterman. He cites this text as a key source of inspiration, leading him to understand that contemporary modes of watercraft all stem from Indigenous creation.
His interest in Native watercraft was piqued by a conversation he had with a student in the high school shop class he was teaching. The kid was of the Pomo Tribe, out of Clearlake, CA.
“So, I asked the Pomo student what kind of watercraft his people used, and he said they used tule canoes and they had just built the first one in like a hundred years,” Dayberry says. “So, through that we became interested in the kind of watercraft his tribe was using.”
Then, he realized the Washoe Tribe of Lake Tahoe were most likely using tule reed canoes as well. Dayberry couldn’t find a lot of information about it in the history books, but that didn’t stop him.
His enthusiasm for paddling and Indigenous watercraft was the inspiration for the Lake Tahoe Paddle Festival, held in 2009. It consisted of a combination of traditional Indigenous watercraft as well as state-of-the-art canoes, kayaks, and stand-up paddle boards. The festival included the first SUP race from South Lake Tahoe around Fannet Island in Emerald Bay and back.
“’Ancient art to state of the art’ was the term I used, showcasing traditional watercraft and modern ones,” Dayberry says. “We built a tule reed canoe with some Washoe kids at the event, and that was the first time in maybe 100 or so years that the tribe had built tule canoes.”
Traditional Ecological Knowledge
Dayberry connects the cultural revitalization of indigenous canoes to environmental sustainability through what is known as Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK). Looking at environmental issues like climate change through a lens of TEK helps us combine western scientific perspectives with Indigenous perspectives.
“When you start to go deep into Traditional Ecological Knowledge, it transcends normal science and you start to see relationships that are interconnected, and it’s because you’re looking at it from this transdisciplinary angle,” Dayberry says.
All of this discussion about traditional watercraft begs an important question. What do canoes have to do with saving the planet? “When you bring people back to the consciousness of traditional Indigenous people and how they lived in harmony with their environment, you understand why things are so dysfunctional now. All these catastrophic fires and mega snowstorms are because we’ve shifted everything away from our history and our environment. TEK helps us understand this,” Dayberry says.
“Whether it’s for cultural revitalization or environmental stewardship, looking to the traditional understanding of people and their environment is the way forward,” he adds.
Patagonia has featured Alan Salazar in its new film, Chumash Powered, released April 12, 2023. The film highlights Salazar working alongside his Chumash and Ferdandeño Tataviam communities to pass their knowledge to the next generation of tomol builders and paddlers. It also features a call to action, asking volunteers to aid Salazar and the Tataviam Land Conservancy to help build two tomol canoes in Ventura.
Main image: Discussing making paddles with one of Salazar’s fellow paddlers (Tim Davis / Patagonia)