Unbeknownst to many of the Pepperdine students who live in the Drescher Graduate Apartments on Chumash Ridge Lane, the street name has historical meaning: It refers to the Native Americans who used to reside in Malibu.
Originally named Humaliwu, meaning “where the surf sounds loudly,” the native land of the Chumash Indians extended north along the coast from Santa Monica to Moore Bay, near Ontario, Canada. Many lived along the fresh springs of Malibu Creek, mixing the water into a concoction they created that eventually came to be known as asphalt. The Chumash were a family-oriented tribe, and there were seven dialects that were spoken among the people. As far as Native American societies go, the Chumash were ahead of their time.
Because the Chumash Indians are a core component to Southern California’s history, the Chumash Indian Interpretive Center in Thousand Oaks serves to preserve the land that was once so precious to them.
In 1993, the Lang Ranch Corp., whose purpose was to oversee the undeveloped land in Thousand Oaks, decided to sell 6,000 acres to local developers. The plan was to convert the open fields into homes and shopping centers. It was Dr. Robert Nighthawk Vann who recalled valuable cultural information that ignited a desire within him to preserve the property.
A descendant of the Chumash tribe, Vann had previously worked on the land as a rancher. During his work, he had ventured into hidden caves and discovered pictorial images that covered the walls. In the early 1980s, local archaeologist Chester King conducted a study with several Moorepark College students, discovering the same images. Vann remembered that King had learned that these pictures were created by the Chumash.
Determined to preserve the artifacts, Vann took action. With the help of many local citizens, including individuals from Chumash, Cherokee and Apache tribes, Vann was able to salvage 427 acres. The area was promptly converted into a historical and archaeological site dedicated to the Chumash society.
The Chumash center is similar to other museums in its display of historically significant objects, including eating utensils, hunting tools and jewelry created by the natives. Tribal paintings and animal skins decorate the walls, while written documents are preserved under glass cases.
What distinguishes it from typical preservation centers are the grounds that surround the building. Numerous hiking trails lead to various sites that were once used by the Chumash as areas of harvest, prayer and meditation. Original rock monuments line the paths and sightseers can view original Chumash cave paintings.
An area of particular interest for visitors is the Conejo Open Space. Located on the grounds across from the Conejo Creek, the designated spiritual area is a draw for many to spend quiet time in meditation or prayer as the Chumash did years ago.
The center exists not only to preserve the Chumash culture but to educate the public as well. Vann and other staff members share a passion for teaching California history with the inclusion of the heritage of Native American tribes.
“The center is targeted to the public for historical studies of the Chumash culture as it existed 400 years ago,” said Kirby Truhawk Trew, secretary of the Chumash Indian Corp. By servicing Los Angeles and Ventura counties, the staff hopes to reach a diverse community in order to increase knowledge of Native American history, including the heritage of the Chumash.
Vann, now the chairman of the board of the Chumash Indian Corp., takes the mission of the center a step further in his belief that people, in particular the Chumash, must move back to their roots and away from modernization. “The current school system does not teach anything about our real culture,” he said. “Our people learned greed from school systems.”
Vann believes this greed is an issue that is causing Native American tribes to drift apart. He fears that this separation will allow individuals to forget their past as well as their culture. Vann firmly believes that institutions like the Chumash Center are instrumental in preserving Native American culture.
One of the goals of the center is to teach individuals about Native American history by starting when they are young. California history, including the heritage of Native American tribes, is highly focused upon in elementary school. As a result, the majority of visitors are third- and fourth- graders who learn about tribal societies in their classes.
The center aims to target all ages, however. The Ethnic Experience is a program where teachers can learn about the Chumash culture. The program has been tailored to cater to college, high-school, and middle-school students as well.
Jeremiah Degennario, a senior at California State University-Channel Islands, is evidence of the organization’s impact on the surrounding community. His interest in becoming a museum curator, coupled with his desire to learn more about the Chumash culture, has caused him to apply to volunteer at the center.
“I have lived in Thousand Oaks all my life and I have never learned about the Native American tribes that were here for centuries,” Degennario said. “It’s time to do something about that.”
Most recently, local Chumash leaders and supporters built a demonstration village on a 3,000-year-old Chumash site along Pacific Coast Highway near Nicholas Canyon County Beach. A sunrise ceremony and blessing took place Nov. 16 to sanctify the creation of the “living” demonstration. As an extension of their mission, the interpretive center hopes this site will attract people to learn about Chumash culture and the people’s relationship with the environment.
The Chumash Indians are a part of America’s history, and their history and culture are especially relevant to Pepperdine students whose campus overlooks the area in which the people used to reside. The Chumash Indian Interpretive Center is dedicated to raising awareness of all Native American cultures while specifically focusing on educating citizens about the historical impact the Chumash had on the area, inevitably paving the way for future advancements.