Coastal Chumash Culture, Rich and Varied 

The Residents of Mescalitán Island 

This is the first in a series on the earliest residents of Goleta.

By John Bury
Special to the Voice

Walking on Goleta Beach, below the bluffs on the east, it is easy to imagine Chumash fishermen bringing in their nets, and plank canoes riding the tide into the slough. It’s not so unrealistic. Goleta Beach and the land surrounding the Goleta Slough were, for thousands of years, occupied by one of the most dense and prosperous populations of Native Americans in California.
The wetlands that we now call the Goleta Slough were once much larger, extending to the present Hollister Avenue, and encompassing all of the land around the Santa Barbara airport. These wetlands were fed by seven Goleta area creeks, and were regularly washed with saltwater from the Pacific. There were fish and birds in abundance, and deer, coyotes, bears and small game were attracted to the area from the nearby hills.
Then, as now, the slough emptied into the ocean by way of just one or two flowing channels, leaving the inland waters protected by sand spits and bluffs. Near the mouth of this large lagoon was a pair of inhabited islands with at least 30 large permanent homes, many boats, and at least one playing field. 
The natives called this island town Helo’, and it was one of several villages on the slough. The island was separated from the sandspit of Goleta Beach by a span of water about 400 yards wide. At its highest point it was about 160 feet above sea level. The inhabitants used boats for transportation—the famous plank Tomols of the Chumash as well as sturdy, low boats made from reeds sealed with tar.
Juan Crespi, a Franciscan priest who visited the area in 1769, recorded his impressions of the area as follows (quoted in an article by John R. Johnson of the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History):
"We arrived ... [at] a place so fine and pleasant, it is the best of all that we have found... Here where the villages are, there is an extremely large estuary, or more like an arm of the sea, running far inland. A small island is formed in the midst of this great estuary and surrounded by it, and on the island is a village, so large it appears a large town, with a great many houses. They say they have fresh water there; and to go to and from the mainland, the heathens sail in their canoes."
The island was named Mescalitán by the Spaniards, because it resembled a similar island with that name in a lagoon in Mexico. Parts of the island still can be seen along Fairview Avenue, on the left just past the airport as you drive toward the beach. It is no longer an island however, and the bulk of its hills and soil have long ago been bulldozed away. Soil from Mescalitán Island was used to fill the wetlands for construction of the airport and Ward Memorial Boulevard.
The village of Helo’ was occupied for at least 1,000 years, and possibly for as long as 4,000 years. There were several other villages along the banks of the Goleta Slough. The largest of these was near what is now the intersection of Hollister and Fairview. This town, called S’axpilil by the natives, was possibly larger then Helo’. 
Another Chumash village, Heliyik, was near the arched rock on the UCSB end of Goleta Beach. There was also a village on the east edge of the slough, inland from the bluffs that now hold the large KTMS radio tower. This one was called ‘Alkash. A bike path skirts the area now. There were many other settlements in Santa Barbara, along the Gaviota coast, and in the hills.
The Chumash culture of the coastal villages was rich and varied. Obtaining food was a major occupation, but there was still plenty of time to spend on other things, so specialized occupations and trades were common. 
The ocean was a plentiful supplier of food. Fishermen used plank canoes, reed canoes and dugouts. They also fished directly from the beach. For fishhooks, they used specially cut seashells and cactus thorns. They made sturdy nets from local plant fibers and deployed them with canoes to bring in catches. Chumash lobster traps, made of wood, worked much the same way that modern metal ones do. Fish traps were also used in freshwater streams to catch trout.
When fish were scarce, hunting provided food. Hunters wore headdresses made of deer heads, and were able to approach prey close enough to kill it with bow and arrow or spear. 
Each autumn, large parties of coastal Chumash would leave their villages together to collect acorns from foothill oak trees. Large granaries were full of acorns or acorn meal kept on hand as a staple food and as a backup in case of lean hunting.
Other native plants provided additional food. Chia sage, which still grows wild in local valleys, was harvested for its seeds. Wild strawberries and blackberries were eaten, as well as native prickly pear cactus, local mushrooms, rose hips and pine nuts.
The coastal Chumash carried on a brisk trade with other villages, particularly those on the Channel Islands. They also apparently traded with tribes as far away as the Mojave Desert and northern California. 
The Chumash society was stable and mostly peaceful for millennia. There are few signs of war, though interior tribes would occasionally raid coastal villages, and neighboring villages would sometimes fight for territory. There is one reported instance of a skeleton found that had 17 arrowheads imbedded in the torso.
The houses in the village of Helo’ were made of willow branches and thatch, and each was large enough for an extended family of a dozen or more people. Room dividers were made of woven straw mats and beds were raised several feet off of the ground, with mattresses of reeds and thatch. Blankets were made by sewing animal skins together.
Each village had at least one playing field used for team sports or individual competitions. Games included one called "payas" in which rolling hoops were targets for spears. Another game, called "shinny" required a square field 300 yards on a side. Teams would attempt to hit a ball, using a stick, through the opposing team’s goalposts. At large regional gatherings there were sometimes hundreds of players on the field.
The Chumash built temescals, or sweathouses, in each village. They were dug into the ground with a wooden structure above. Men would heat themselves by the fire in the temescal until they dripped with sweat, and then run immediately to the ocean for a cold swim. The temescals were also used to prepare hunters for a trip to the field.
Next week we will look more closely at the social relationships of the native Goletans, and at the boats, baskets, trays, tools, and weapons that they made.

(c) Copyright Goleta Valley Voice, Goleta CA