Chumash Indians of California

Chumash Indians

Chumash Indians

The Chumash are a linguistic family who traditionally lived on the coast of southern California who were also known as Santa Barbara Indians. Chumash is believed to mean either “bead maker” or “seashell people.” There were seven dialects of the Chumashan family. All were fairly similar except the San Luis Obispo, which stood apart. Evidence was found showing that they had settlements on the Channel Islands and Santa Monica Mountains as far back as thousands of years ago. At their peak, over 20,000 Chumash were living along the California coastline. The historic Chumash were a maritime culture, using long wooden canoes called tomols to fish and travel between different villages along the Pacific coast. They also hunted and gathered to provide for themselves. Their grass houses were dome-shaped, often 50 feet or more in diameter, and several families inhabited each.

Mission Santa Inez, California by the Detroit Photographic Company, 1898

Mission Santa Inez, California, by the Detroit Photographic Company, 1898

Europeans first visited them as early as 1542, when Portuguese explorer Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo spent some time in their territory, meeting with an exceedingly friendly reception. More explorers followed, and the Franciscans established five missions among the Chumash: San Luis Obispo, San Buenaventura, Santa Barbara, La Purísima, and Santa Inez, from 1771 to 1804. The missionaries met with little opposition and no forcible resistance. However, some of the bands began to resist missionary rule. In 1824, the Indians at Santa Barbara, Santa Inez, and Purísima revolted against the mission authority, though few lives were lost.

Even during mission times, the Chumash decreased significantly in numbers and continued to decrease as more and more white settlers moved into their lands. By 1900, their numbers had declined to just 200. However, several bands still exist, though they have no reservation lands. Only the Samala, or Santa Ynez Chumash, have received federal recognition. However, there are an estimated 5,000 people who identify themselves as Chumash. Many California cities still bear Chumash Indian names, including Simi Valley, Point Mugu, and Malibu.

Compiled by Kathy \Alexander/Legends of America, updated March 2023.

Also See:

California Missions

Chumash Revolt of 1824

Native American Tribes List

Native Americans – First Owners of America