Vol 57 No. 5 | Mar. 2005
Vol 57 No. 5 | Mar. 2005
A Storyteller With a Story to Tell
When Chumash oars stirred the Santa Barbara Channel in 2004 for only the second time in at least 150 years, Georgiana Sanchez was there.
The American Indian Studies lecturer since 1986, who received her bachelor's (1985) and master's (1992) degrees from CSULB, participated in September in a re-creation of the tribe's maritime history when a Chumash plank canoe cut through the waters of Santa Barbara Channel and offered a salute with raised paddles to a crowd of several hundred cheering onlookers.
“That first crossing was very profound,” said the Long Beach resident, who first enrolled at CSULB in 1978. She recalled the legend of Cabrillo sailing through the Santa Barbara channel and seeing hundreds of the plank canoes called "tomols," adding, “It symbolized a continuum of Chumash culture and an understanding of themselves culturally and historically. It wasn't so much a re-enactment as a re-awakening.”Chumash maritime legends fit snugly into Sanchez's expertise in Chumash storytelling. “As important as the stories are to explaining the Chumash to the outside world, they are even more important in explaining the Chumash to the Chumash,” she said. “There is a lot of healing that goes on in the process of storytelling, which is one reason why the California Indian Storytellers Association is trying to advance these stories as a cultural asset.”
Her father was born in 1898 (he married late) and passed on to her the same stories she passes on to her students. “Our homeland is now some of the most expensive residential land in California,” she said. “It was as if my father walked in the old world while in the context of the new. His reality was not the buildings but the land. For instance, there is a cave in the Santa Monica Mountains where his grandfather spent a summer. Now it is part of our family tradition. I've hosted story-telling sessions in the same park.”
Several of her poems have appeared in the anthology, The Sound of Rattles and Clappers and her latest creative essay, “Breathing the Ancestors,” appeared in Face to Face: Women Writers on Faith, Mysticism and Awakening from North Point Press in 2005.
Studying the stories has made Sanchez an optimistic person who believes in the goodness of people.
“There is an incredible respect and appreciation of the human spirit in these stories,” she said. “The power of the spoken word is the power to reawaken the best in us. I believe we are storytelling creatures.”
Stories answer humanity's basic questions, Sanchez believes, including who we are and where we came from.
“What makes the Chumash stories so distinctive is that they take place in Southern California,” she said. “They are not about some faraway land. They are about Santa Barbara and Mount Pinos and Santa Cruz Island. They are very site specific, down to particular boulders on the beach. That grounds you in who you are.”
The California State Library plans to use a Chumash story on its Web site. “Each branch of the tribe has site-specific stories,” she said. “The Salmon People talk about salmon, naturally. But all our stories are distinctive because they reflect a relationship with the land. The islands and their animals figure strongly. The stories are about kinship so they differ in style more than content. Different stories have different purposes.”Chumash stories are especially appealing when heard in their native language. “The sense of the Chumash language is immediacy,” she said. “When the story is told, it is happening right then. There are intrinsic qualities to the language that affect the story. It is not enough to say the ocean is beautiful. The language does not use adjectives the way that English does; it is a very verb-centered language so the ocean `is being beautiful.' The sense of the language gives it an immediacy that conjures up the sparkle of the sun on the water.”
In a world at war, the power of Chumash stories is more important than ever. They describe an interdependence that goes beyond nationality.
“If we view one another as relatives, we have a better chance for peace. If we see each other as strangers, it objectifies us,” she explained. “Chumash stories stress our relation to everything on Earth. We are made of the stuff of stars. As we see the world, so should we act. We live in a toxic world that would pit us against each other. The power of stories counteracts that.”
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