Elevating Chumash Values and Traditional Ecological Knowledge at Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary

January 2021

Alicia Cordero

Alicia Cordero is Wishtoyo Chumash Foundation’s First Nations Program Officer and an enrolled member of the Coastal Band of the Chumash Nation. She is a passionate advocate of cognitive justice and traditional ways of knowing, bringing together her backgrounds as a biologist and cultural educator to facilitate community capacity building and incorporate and elevate traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) alongside conventional conservation biology. She is a member of the Syuxtun Plant Mentorship Collective, lead instructor for Wishtoyo’s UCANR California Naturalist certification course, serves as Chumash Community Coalition co-chair, and was a former Chumash Seat Alternate for the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council.

Please tell us about your upbringing and how you ended up doing Chumash cultural work professionally

I was lucky enough to grow up in a large and loving family that has always lived in the homelands of our Chumash ancestors. My dad actually lives in the exact same place as our ancestral village, Syuxtun (aka Burton Mound) along West Beach in downtown Santa Barbara. Our family has an ongoing and deep connection with the Santa Barbara Channel – swimming, surfing, paddling, fishing, living in the harbor, and sailing to the islands, often visiting another of our family’s ancestral villages, Swaxil on Limuw (Scorpion Anchorage on Santa Cruz Island).

aerial of Wishtoyo Chumash Village
Wishtoyo Chumash Village, located on an 8,000 year old village site along the Malibu coast, hosts thousands of K-12 students annually and is an active ceremonial gathering site for Chumash people today. Photo: Wishtoyo Chumash Foundation.

Our family has always had a strong sense of community and a philosophy of giving back. It was inspiring growing up around health care workers, highly skilled tradespeople, educators, community advocates, political activists, and civil rights lawyers. Social justice has always been focal in our family and I grew up listening to my adult relatives talking about all of the community projects they were involved in and all of the political and social challenges they were taking on. Basically, the question wasn’t “What are you going to do when you grow up?” but “What are you going to do to help people and address community needs when you grow up?” I have always been deeply inspired by my family and honored to carry on our family community ethic.

I ended up doing Chumash cultural work for the same reason most of us do. There is a strong need for it. I feel blessed to be working as the First Nations Program Officer for Wishtoyo Chumash Foundation where I can do cultural work from several perspectives – Chumash community cultural projects; conservation and restoration of our homelands and waters; and public education about Chumash culture for students and educators.

hands holding measurement device over sand
Indigenous community science plays an important role in protecting the health of the land, waters, and all beings in the Chumash territories. Here Chumash community members are gathering sandy beach monitoring data for the LiMPETS program. Photo: Wishtoyo Chumash Foundation

As a biologist, educator, parent, and graduate of local public schools, I am sadly disappointed and concerned about the quality of education the students and teachers in our communities are receiving regarding the indigenous people of California, and indigenous people in general. While we have been seeing some important improvements over the past decades from the collective efforts of Native folks across the state who do work like ours, even now, from mainstream educators, we still face misinformation, prejudice, and lack of critical thinking.

Quality education is critical because these children grow up to be adults in our community. Almost all of us went through this same school system and came out of it filled with misconceptions and illogical conclusions about indigenous people. As Chumash community advocates, we have to contend with the harm this continues to cause in our community to this day. Before we can really do any kind of advocacy, social or environmental justice work, or protection of our homelands with local partners, we essentially have to take steps back to address this miseducation before we can take any steps forward. We hope that the Chumash Ecosystem Services Assessment will serve as a report we can share with folks who are seeking better sources of information.

students on rocks by ocean
The Chumash community works to overcome systemic barriers which disrupt relationships to traditional homelands. Luhui Isha Waiya and students from Wishtoyo’s First Nations Youth Summer Field Studies program engage with the rocky intertidal on Limuw (Santa Cruz Island). Photo: Wishtoyo Chumash Foundation

How and when did you get involved with Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary?

My earliest awareness of what was happening in the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary came from browsing the issues of the CINMS publication, Alolkoy, that my Dad kept around the house when I was in college. When I finished graduate school and moved back to Santa Barbara, my Auntie Roberta Cordero was on the Sanctuary Advisory Council. She introduced me to the folks from CINMS and hoped that I would be interested in serving in the newly created Chumash Community Seat. As a young mom with a disability, my hands were already really full and I was still spending time reintegrating to our community and learning from our elders, so it didn’t seem like quite the right time. After being involved in many Chumash community channel crossings and beginning to do advocacy and education work with Wishtoyo, Luhui Isha (who had been serving for years as the Chumash Community Seat holder) encouraged me to apply as the Chumash Seat Alternate. It was an excellent experience that I hope to do again in the future, but right now I am very excited that we have two uniquely qualified young Chumash adults with contagious enthusiasm who have stepped up into those positions. We look forward to the new perspectives and voices they bring to the council.

What led you to take on such an ambitious writing project (the Chumash Ecosystem Services Assessment within the CINMS Condition Report), and how did you feel about it at first?

The Chumash community has many diverse perspectives and multiple tribal groups and organizations. In the same way that no single American citizen has the ability to represent the views of the entire United States, no single Chumash voice can speak on behalf of the entire community. When we were first asked to take on this project, I have to admit, I was a bit overwhelmed. We feel a strong sense of responsibility to accurately reflect the values of our Chumash community as a whole, and the only way to do that is to listen to the perspectives of many different Chumash people. After receiving guidance from Elders and other community members, it quickly became apparent that the Chumash Ecosystem Services Assessment would need to cover quite a lot of ground. Another thing that was particularly daunting, was realizing that we couldn’t simply convey our values without putting them in a historical and cultural context to help readers effectively “see through our eyes.”

paddlers in canoe holding paddles up
The Limuw community onshore prays and sings for the safety of the paddlers and the health of the ocean. For paddlers, every pull of the paddle through the waters is a prayer. Photo: Robert Schwemmer/NOAA

So, while it seemed at first to be a fairly straight-forward ask from the sanctuary, it quickly became clear that it would be a complex process of: respectfully representing the varied values and priorities of our community members in a culturally appropriate way, structuring these diverse topics into a cohesive report, and coming up with ways to effectively communicate ideas that may not necessarily be familiar to the reader.

For non-Chumash people, what are some of the most important learnings you hope can be shared through this work? What impact do you hope this project has? How has the work been received by those you have heard from?

We hope that non-Chumash people come away with an increased awareness of the continuing impacts of colonial structures on Chumash peoples; a sense of Chumash place-based values, ethics, and knowledge systems; and recognition of the self-determination and agency of Chumash peoples in our traditional, unceded territory and waters. We hope this project opens doors to increased opportunities for Chumash co-management and “seats at the table” in decision-making about our traditional homelands.

From the responses we have gotten thus far, it seems like we were (at least, in part) able to make effective progress toward these goals. We look forward to hearing from more folks about what their take-aways have been.

For you personally, what was the most meaningful aspect of taking on this project? The most challenging aspect?

I felt honored that so many Chumash people were willing to invest their time in this project and that they entrusted us to represent topics that are so valuable to our people. I will always remember my meeting with the Chumash Women’s Elders Council. These are women who have devoted their lives to the preservation of our culture and the wellbeing of our people. I felt so incredibly lucky to have been given the gift of their time and their thoughts. I never could have come up with a report like this on my own. And throughout the process of writing the report, I was both humbled and proud to be able to follow in the footsteps of these amazing Chumash Elders who have been doing this work since before I was even born.

The biggest challenge was definitely the weight of responsibility and accountability I felt to the Chumash community as a whole. Given our population size, it is inevitable that we weren’t able to represent everyone’s perspectives. It doesn’t matter how many people’s perspectives we were able to represent in a project like this, there will always be many more Chumash people that we weren’t able to hear from. Especially considering the erasure that our people still contend with, I never want to be responsible for eclipsing any Chumash voices or making anyone feel excluded or that their thoughts aren’t valued. As we never intended for this report to be the final word on any of these topics, it is our hope that this report opens the door for many more Chumash voices to have the opportunity to be heard.

two tomols on shore
Tomols hold a central role in Chumash maritime culture. These traditional redwood plank canoes are built and navigated by the modern Chumash community. Photo: Wishtoyo Chumash Foundation

The report documents significant pain and historical trauma, but also offers some hope. What gives you optimism and hope for the future of the Chumash people and the environment to which they are so closely connected?

The Chumash Community is filled with many bright minds and dedicated people doing incredible work. This seems to only keep gaining momentum as our younger generations, raised in their culture, continue the work that our Elders have started. We are excited to see this next generation of leaders emerging, bringing fresh perspectives and approaches that are still rooted in traditional Chumash cultural values. Specifically, in the context of the CINMS, we are especially proud that Eva Pagaling and Tano Cabugos have taken on these leadership positions, bringing their extensive experience and knowledge of Chumash maritime culture to the advisory council.

Rocky coastline from above
When sea level was much lower, the four Northern Channel Islands used to be a single large island that geologists now call "Santa Rosae." This is the origin place of the Chumash peoples and plays a central role in Chumash culture to this day. Photo: Robert Schwemmer/NOAA

Kendall Matsumoto, a student at Stanford University and a Virtual Student Federal Service intern for NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, played an integral role in coordinating this interview.