Travelers flock to California’s Central Coast to kayak, camp, surf, fish, walk on the beach and otherwise take advantage of the area’s rugged natural beauty. But, since time immemorial, the Chumash people have called this region home. The Central Coast encompasses numerous sacred sites, where the Chumash still go to hold ceremonies and pray.
Now, the Chumash are advocating for their ancestral lands and waters to be protected from development. They’re asking the federal government to designate a 7,000-square-mile swath of the Pacific Ocean as a national marine sanctuary.
They also want to work hand-in-hand with the government to manage the site. If they achieve those goals and the proposed Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary comes to fruition, it would be the first nominated and co-managed by an Indigenous group on the U.S. mainland. It would also be the largest national marine sanctuary in the continental U.S., reports NPR’s Lauren Sommers.
“The sanctuary is a reflection of who we are, our people and this land,” says Violet Sage Walker, chairwoman of the Northern Chumash Tribal Council, to the Guardian’s Lucy Sherriff.
The Northern Chumash Tribal Council nominated the region for the marine sanctuary designation in July 2015. Since then, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has been considering the site, which spans 156 miles of coastline in San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties.
In addition to recognizing Chumash heritage and history, the sanctuary would also protect an “internationally-significant ecological transition zone” that’s home to a wide variety of wildlife, including many at-risk species, such as snowy plovers, southern sea otters, leatherback sea turtles, black abalone and blue whales, per NOAA.
The federal agency could release its final proposal for the sanctuary later this month. From there, NOAA would solicit feedback from members of the public, as well as industry that could be affected by the designation.
If all goes as planned, the sanctuary could be officially designated as early as next year. That would likely mean that oil and wind power companies could not initiate new projects within the site, but that commercial fisheries would be able to continue their work, though the exact rules and regulations are still up in the air.
If approved, the sanctuary would be massive—about six times the size of Yosemite National Park. That will make managing the site very challenging, as Stephen Palumbi, a marine scientist at Stanford University, tells the Guardian. But the Chumash are up for the challenge. Already, they’re working with researchers to establish a baseline for the ecosystem’s health, which they plan to monitor regularly moving forward, per NPR.
NOAA, for its part, seems eager to collaborate with the Chumash on the site. More broadly, the Biden administration has also tried to incorporate more Native American involvement into public land management, such as at Bears Ears National Monument, which is co-managed by five tribes. President Joe Biden also appointed the nation’s first Native American cabinet secretary when he named Deb Haaland, a member of the Pueblo of Laguna, Secretary of the Interior. And the administration has also supported the return of ancestral homelands to tribes, including the 465 acres in eastern Virginia that were returned to the Rappahannock people in the spring of 2022.
Still, the 14 existing national marine sanctuaries, plus the Papahānaumokuākea and Rose Atoll marine national monuments, had “very little, if any, tribal management at the time of designation,” says William Douros, West Coast director of NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, to NPR.
"We're kind of excited about what [tribal co-management] could offer in terms of a real diverse array of tribal involvement, reflecting the diversity of tribes that we have here along the Central Coast," he adds.
Before European settlers began arriving in the 18th century, an estimated 20,000 Chumash lived throughout Central California. But, like many other Indigenous groups, they suffered greatly because of colonization. Because of disease, forced labor, broken promises by the Mexican government and, later, California state-sponsored genocide and persecution, their numbers dwindled. Today, some 10,200 people claim some amount of Chumash ancestry, per the U.S. Census Bureau.
The Chumash are making strides to restore their heritage and reconnect with the coast. They hold ceremonies involving traditional plank canoes called tomol, and they have pushed back against proposed developments that would encroach on their sacred sites. This week, they also unveiled a large and colorful new mural that shows Chumash tribal history, as well as the proposed marine sanctuary, on the side of a U.S. Postal Service building in downtown Cambria, a small seaside village along the Central Coast.
The proposed national marine sanctuary designation and co-management plan are extensions of those efforts. If approved, the destination would give the Chumash people “access to the whole picture of what we’re about,” as Reggie Pagaling, a tribal elder with the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash, tells the Washington Post’s Silvia Foster-Frau.
“Not just the land but the water itself, the ocean itself, the creatures above and below the water,” he adds. “Having that opportunity to regain that and to take steps to revitalize that whole maritime caretaking and participation is invaluable.”