Traditionally, the Chumash lived along the Pacific Coast from San Luis Obispo to Malibu Canyon and inland as far as the western edge of the San Joaquin Valley. There were also Chumash Indians on the Santa Barbara Channel islands of San Miguel, Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz, and Anacapa. Today, the Santa Ynez band lives at and near Santa Ynez, California. The Chumash population was between roughly 10,000 and 18,000 in the late eighteenth century. In 1990, 213 Indians lived on the Santa Ynez Reservation.
The Chumash were organized by village rather than by tribe. Villages were led by chiefs; their limited authority was based on heredity and wealth. Coast villages maintained patrilineal descent groups. Each contained three or four captains, one of whom was head chief. Women could inherit the position of head chief. A chief's formal power was limited to leading in war, presiding at ceremonies, and granting hunting permissions.
After a mourning ceremony, the dead were buried face down (face up on the islands), head to the west, and in a flexed position. Graves were marked with rows of wood or stone. Some babies may have been killed at birth. Also, babies' noses were flattened after birth. At the onset of puberty, girls were subject to dietary restrictions, and boys were given a strong liquor to induce visions. Brides were purchased with gifts. Adultery was taboo, and only a few highly placed men could have more than one wife.
Many people smoked tobacco. Coastal people were generally gentle and slow to anger. Punishment was rare. Transvestitism was common and even esteemed. On the coast, people had more time for games, singing, and dancing.
The Chumash lived in rancheria-style villages. Their houses, some of which were as large as fifty feet in diameter, were domed. They were built on poles bent inward and covered with grass. A hole in the roof let light in and smoke out. Houses in the interior were generally smaller. Reed mats covered frame beds. Reeds were also used for floor coverings, partitions, and mattresses. Other structures included storehouses, sweat houses, and ceremonial ramadas.
Live oak acorns were a staple, although fish, shellfish, and marine mammals were more important for coastal and island Chumash. The people also hunted game such as mule deer, coyote, and fox and gathered pine nuts, cherries, and a variety of roots, bulbs, seeds, and berries.
The Chumash hunted with bow (sinew-backed) and arrow, snares, and deadfalls. They fished with seines, dip nets, and hook and line, killing larger fish and sea mammals with harpoons. They carved wood plates, bowls, and boxes; they wove water baskets and sealed them from the inside with asphaltum. Coastal residents fashioned stools of whale vertebrae.
Other cooking items and tools were made of stone, especially steatite. Musical instruments included elder wood or bone flutes, whistles, and rattles. The Chumash had no drums. For water transportation they used a tomol, or planked canoe. Abalone shell was used for inlay work. In general, material culture was less developed away from the coast.
Trade was active with nearby tribes. The mainland Chumash provided steatite, asphaltum, fish, wooden vessels, beads, and shells, in exchange for black pigment, antelope and elk skins, piñon nuts, obsidian, salt, beads, seeds, and herbs.
Chumash fine arts included baskets, sea animals carved in wood and soapstone, and, from roughly 1000 to 1800, ceremonial rock paintings. The latter were generally abstract but also contained highly stylized life forms. The circle was a basic theme. Rock paintings were especially well developed in mountainous regions, although the arts were generally less so away from the coast.
The Chumash are the only Native North Americans who built boats out of planks. They split cedar logs with antler or whalebone wedges and smoothed the lumber with shell and stone tools. Planks were lashed together with sinew or plant fibers and then caulked with asphaltum. The resulting boats had twelve- to thirty-foot double-bowed hulls and were moved with double-bladed paddles. They carried a crew of four and were quite oceanworthy; they traveled at least as far as San Nicholas Island, sixty-five miles offshore.
Most Chumash men wore few or no clothes. Women wore knee-length buckskin skirts ornamented with snail and abalone shell. All wore additional buckskin clothing, blankets, or robes against the cold weather. Men and women tied their long hair with strings interwoven with the hair. They pierced their noses and ears, painted their bodies, and wore shell, bone, and stone necklaces.
Reasons for war included trespass, breach of etiquette, avenging witchcraft, or defense (interior Indian peoples occasionally attacked the coastal Chumash). Rules of engagement were highly formalized. In general, however, the Chumash seldom engaged in actual warfare. The 1824 revolt against the Mexicans stands out as the major historical conflict.
The coastal Chumash were living in their traditional territory by roughly 1000. In 1542, contact was established between the Chumash and the Spanish explorers Juan Cabrillo and Bartolome Ferello. Relations were amiable, and, although the Spanish soon began using the Santa Barbara Channel as a stopover for their trans-Pacific voyages, early impact on the Chumash was minimal.
In 1772 the Franciscans built the San Luis Obispo mission. Other missions followed soon thereafter. The Chumash entered the mission period willingly, and many became completely missionized (turned into farmers, artisans, and Christians). However, for most Indians, missions were places of slave labor. Smallpox and syphilis were major killers, but even the common cold often turned into a deadly disease. Refusing either to give up their traditional ways or to be mistreated by the Spanish missionaries, some Chumash escaped into the hills either before or during the mission period. In 1824, Indians staged a major rebellion at several missions. Many sought sanctuary with the Yokut Indians or at other interior communities. Although many ultimately returned to the missions, many others did not.
Mexico seized control of the missions in 1834. Indians either fled into the interior, attempted farming for themselves and were driven off the land, or were enslaved by the new administrators. Alcoholism soon became a large problem among the Chumash. Many found highly exploitative work on large Mexican ranches. After 1849 most Chumash land was lost due to theft by Americans and a declining population, mainly as a result of the effects of violence and disease. The remaining Chumash began to lose their cohesive identity. In 1855, a small piece of land (120 acres) was set aside for just over 100 remaining Chumash Indians near Santa Ynez mission. This land ultimately became the only Chu-mash reservation, although Chumash individuals and families also continued to live throughout their former territory in southern California.
Chumash cemeteries along Santa Barbara Channel were looted extensively in the 1870s and 1880s. By 1900, disease combined with intermarriage had rendered the Chumash culture virtually extinct.