June 4, 2020

Honor the Ocean: Loving the L.A. Marine Protected Area



Honor the Ocean: Loving the L.A. Marine Protected Area

Mati Waiya, Founder and Executive Director of Wishtoyo Foundation and Ventura Coastkeeper, conducted a blessing ceremony with a conch shell and sage to welcome the tomol boat and the people to the sea.

The concept of an underwater park is instantly engaging: we all know what happens to wild animals in national parks when they are protected from hunting and habitat encroachment, they thrive and multiply. The concept applies to creatures that live underwater as well.

While enforcement from California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and other agencies is critical, long-term success in creating and maintaining a marine protected area is mainly driven by public good will: tourists and locals, lifeguards, sailors, surfers, recreational and commercial fishermen must understand the value in preserving the resource and know where the MPAs are located.

In 2008, the California's Marine Protected Areas Education and Outreach Initiative began to find ways to share the story. Locally, Co-Chairs Phyllis Grifman, USC Sea Grant, and Dana Murray, Heal the Bay, and members of the L.A. MPA Collaborative decided to create an on-site celebration of the MPA in Malibu on Saturday, September 24, focusing on Los Angeles’ Indigenous Maritime Peoples.

The first idea was to share one of the Chumash tomol, planked and sewn canoes, with the public. For millennia, in Topanga, Malibu, Ventura and Santa Barbara, the Chumash people built tomol to fish and conduct trade. This stopped during the mission era and for more than a century, there were no new tomol.

In the 1970s, the Chumash Maritime Foundation was formed to renew their boat-building culture and began to construct new tomol. The process was made possible by forging close ties to First Nations in Hawaii and the Northwest and by reviewing Chumash historical records. There are now six tomol, but rarely seen by the public. Luhui Isha Waiya, Cultural Resources and Education Director at Wishtoyo Foundation, said the Chumash would like to bring the Xax A’lul-koy (Great Dolphin) to Trancas Beach at the north-west tip of Zuma Beach in Malibu.

At the celebration, Mati Waiya, Founder and Executive Director, Wishtoyo Foundation and Ventura Coastkeeper, conducted a blessing ceremony with a conch shell and sage to welcome the tomol and the people to the sea. He connected everyone present to “one water,” in which he included the sea, water in the sky, in rivers and lakes and water within our own bodies.

Connecting people to the MPA by getting them into the ocean, Malibu Makos, a company committed to teaching surfing and ocean safety skills, provided free surf lessons from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Malibu Makos staff’s knowledge and care for each student helped people new to the ocean— including some high school students from the Sherman Indian High School, who had never seen the sea before—embrace this new experience. (Kudos to Michael Quill at L.A. Waterkeeper for helping to facilitate this experience for these students.) Local Sadie Regan, 5, stood up three times, and rode one long wave, looking completely calm and confident, to the delight of her mother on shore.

The City of Malibu taught watershed health concepts to children and adults while L.A. County lifeguards provided ocean safety information. Department of Fish and Wildlife shared fishing regulations and Los Angeles Waterkeeper and Heal the Bay taught about water quality and habitat preservation, including efforts to study and restore marine life.

The focus of the day, however, remained upon the Chumash maritime and cultural traditions, including the Chumash language itself. Anyone who grew up in Southern California or has children going to school here, has seen some Chumash words on the page, but have likely never heard even one syllable before; the last person raised as a native speaker of Chumash died in the sixties.

Fortunately, brilliant (and difficult) scholar John Peabody Harrington, who worked in the early 20th century, accumulated boxes and boxes of notes on the Chumash language but the history sat dormant in the Smithsonian for decades until more modern scholars began to disentangle Harrington’s papers and to create a dictionary. The Chumash people decided to forge ahead and resurrect the language of their culture for modern use in everyday life and ceremony: to hear your first spoken Chumash word is electrifying, like time travel.

To hear Luhui speak the names of the Tomol boats in Chumash is beautiful; the words sound like water. Luhui said,“The Chumash believe that if we revive cultures that have been destroyed, we revive the environment.” To interweave a commitment to linguistic and cultural diversity with biodiversity is a powerful way to broaden our conception of what marine protection entails.

To share cultural values, Chumash storytellers, Uncle John and Aunt Mena Moreno, told “The Rainbow Bridge” and “The Coyote and the Shooting Star.” As Uncle Johnny told the audience, while the stories are very old, each new teller turns it into his or her own story. He provided rattles and musical interjections that added depth to Aunt Mena’s words.

Aunt Mena began by telling everyone to slap their legs and pretend they were walking back in time, 14,000 years ago in time, taking the standing-room-only audience back to when the ancestors of Native Americans really did immigrate to the Americas. From there, she wound everyone into her modern perspective on Chumash culture.

Describing the island upon which the original Chumash lived, she said the food was wonderful, the place was beautiful and everyone was happy. To the crowd she asked, “And what happens when everyone is happy?” After a pause, she answered her own question: “Babies!”

Thus happiness (and babies) is what drove the people to decide to leave the island and to cross the Rainbow Bridge. Her compassionate take on immigration caught up the children in a pure what-happens-next way, but for the adults, it was impossible not to hear the present echo of Syria and North Africa, of Mexico and the Yucatan, in her narrative.

The dramatic part of the story, of course, is when Hutash, the mother-earth goddess, warns the people not to look down from the Rainbow Bridge, but some do, falling to certain death in the deep dark depths of the ocean. Little children (and some grown-ups) looked absolutely horrified. But she explained that Hutash had compassion and turned the fallen Chumash into dolphins and they swam up towards the surface, leaping in arches towards the sky, swimming in joy.

You can be certain there are children who walked away from the beach that day 100 percent positive that dolphins are actually people. That is why Aunt Mena’s story made the Marine Protected Area event: here are new protectors of our coastal lands and seas.

So use the word "kaqinas" to say thank you to Aunt Mena, Uncle Johnny and any ocean protectors in your life, including the very small ones, because the Chumash have faith that using the old words, hearing them and saying them, will make the spirit of their culture come back to life.

To learn more about the Chumash, connect with the Wishtoyo Chumash Foundation.

To learn more about Marine Protected Areas (frequently areas that function as nurseries for the young of many species), see: https://www.wildlife.ca.gov/Conservation/Marine/MPAs.

To learn more about our marine protected areas, drive up the coast to Zuma – and get your feet wet.

The Los Angeles MPA Collaborative channels broad and diverse perspectives to build ocean resilience and promote the cultural, recreational and ecological value of Los Angeles County's marine protected areas.