Space and Practice

Early last week as dusk fell, the new moon was revealed dipping low over the western horizon. As the week progressed the moon grew fatter and, rising later, was still high in the sky by dark; I imagined it, by about midnight, sliding behind the San Rafael coastal range and entering the sea somewhere around Point Conception.

The Southern California Bight (SCB) describes the inshore turn taken by the coastline from Point Conception to just south of San Diego and east of the Santa Rosa-Cortez Ridge, an 1800 m high, 180 km long underwater range that lies 90 km off the coast directly south of the northern Channel Islands.

Point Conception is the westernmost headland of the SCB. It is the point at which south trending storms peter out in the ocean - which accounts, in part, for the wetter, colder land north of the point and the drier south. It is also, according to Chumash legend, the site of The Western Gate, proclaimed as a point of embarkation into the Milky Way for the spirits of the dead.

I touched on this briefly in Death Comes to Koenigstein mentioning only that the Chumash dead experienced soul-wanderings over the earth and ocean in preparation for their heavenly journey to paradise. I was unaware, at the time of writing, of the controversy swirling around the Point Conception terminal for 'soul wandering' that has developed, over the years, into a debate on the existential status of the Chumash - both in the present and in the historical record.

Before blundering into this controversy, I had indicated in past posts such as Saxon Hall, Hoop Dreams and Bobcat Magic et al, that the Chumash were not a people, but an agglomeration of individual Native American bands created for the taxonomic convenience of nineteenth and twentieth century anthropologists. Influenced by E.J. Hobsbawm's critique of nationalist mythology and his notion of invented ethnic 'traditions'; my work with the UCLA's Cotsen Center for Archaeology Rock Art Archive under the direction of Dr. Jo-Anne Van Tilberg, and a long-standing interest in historiography, it was perhaps inevitable that I would take this position: I am profoundly sceptical of histories that serve contemporary interests at the expense of detailing the messy realities of the past.

Thus I was a willing convert to the position of Haley and Wilcoxon who argue, in their paper, Anthropology and the Making of Chumash Tradition, Current Anthropology, Vol. 38, #5, December, 1997, that Chumash practice, as delineated by self-styled Tradionalists, is an amalgam of New-Age ideology, the Hopi Traditionalist movement, popular primitivist imagery and the ethos of non-Indian counterculturists. I noted in Peace Walk, that such faux pan-Indian syncretism does little to uphold the enormous variety of Native American culture and much to demean the profundity of local tradition. Similarly, Jo-Anne van Tilberg has deplored the travesty of Southern Californians of Native American descent dressing up in the buckskins and bonnets of the Plains Indians to celebrate Chumash Days in Malibu.

Haley and Wilcoxon suggest that "ultimately, the entire category of Chumash is modern and neither its members nor its cultural content is unambiguously indigenous". Having established the cultural discontinuity of the Chumash Traditionalists with their possible Native American forbears (and much doubt is cast on this relationship) they go on to suggest that The Western Gate may have had only limited significance to the local Purisimeno Indians as suggested by J. P. Harrington in the early twentieth century.

The proposed development of a Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) terminal at Point Conception in the late seventies initially galvanized the local community of ranchers, surfers, environmentalists, archaeologists and the Sierra Club; they banded together with Chumash Traditionalists in establishing the sacred nature of the place. From Haley and Wilcoxon's perspective this consortium ultimately oversold the significance of the site by suggesting it to be the only place at which the souls of the Chumash could depart for the land of the dead. In the spirit of the times, and following the example of similar occupations at Alcatraz and at Wounded Knee, Chumash Traditionalists occupied the site and proclaimed themselves to be 'Keepers of the Western Gate'. While there was clear evidence of a Chumash village at the Point (Humqaq), 'The Western Gate' appears to have been an entirely new-age act of naming.

Harrington's Chumash sources indicate that the souls of the dead do indeed ascend to Shimilaqsha, the western land of the dead; but this seems to have occurred at a great many hilltops where feathered and painted pole shrines were placed to guide the souls of the departed. It is probable that such shrines were erected at Point Conception, but highly unlikely that they were any more significant than others of their kind.

Haley and Wilcoxon evaluated the site in the early nineties to gauge the impact of a proposed development at the Vandenbergh Air Force base, twelve miles away from the Point. They concluded that while Point Conception was a traditional cultural property according to the Department of the Interior's guidelines, the same could not be claimed for the coast line as it extended north towards the base - despite the claims of some who saw the need for preserving the shore as an archaeological park.

Vandenberg Air Force Base is one of two primary rocket-launch sites in the United States. Satellites are launched into a north-south orbit over the poles so it is advantageous to launch to the south over water so that if the rocket blows up, the pieces will fall relatively harmlessly.

By the mid 1960's the Air Force had already constructed six launch sites at the base; in the 1970's they decided to use NASA’s Space Shuttle to launch its satellites into polar orbit. After over a decade of work and several billion dollars the Air Force halted the use of the shuttle for launching satellites because of the Challenger accident in early 1986 and their 'Spaceport' was mothballed. In 1995, Lockheed chose the location to launch its Athena rockets but after three expensive failures discontinued the program.

Some have suggested that this miserable record suggests that there is a curse on the facility connected with the disturbance of The Western Gate's psychic air-space. Likelier, is the more prosaic explanation that most close reviews of military expenditures would reveal similar tales of waste and failure.

This January, a Delta IV Heavy, Boeing's most powerful rocket, was launched from Vandenberg, carrying a spy satellite. Preparing for the launch had taken three years and $100 million in infrastructure upgrades at the launch site. The rumble of the liftoff was heard across a fifty mile radius of Chumash territory.

Haley and Wilcoxon's decision to use their deconstruction of The Western Gate mythology to question the broader authenticity of the Chumash community has not gone unchallenged. Jon Erlandson (An Island on the Land), for one, suggests that their thesis denying the validity of the Chumash grouping ignores the pragmatic reality of a contiguous geographical cluster of bands who spoke related dialects of a common language group and shared a suite of cultural traits and traditions.

For what its worth, as a blogger and independent scholar, while I have argued that the Chumash are, regrettably, an extinct culture (Bingo) I see no reason to abandon this historical, taxonomic conflation of space and practice. As for The Western Gate, I believe it may have functioned for the souls of departed Chumash as a non-exclusive portal into the heavens. Remarkably, a few miles to the north, in a radically different culture, the Air Force and its sub-contactors continue to have similar aspirations for this lonely headland.