Names of the Chumash

by Paul Willis

Just when you think the Indians
of the central coast of California
have disappeared out to sea,
their names keep washing up
on the beaches, dunes, and promontories:
Pismo, Nipomo, Jalama.
Hueneme, Mugu, Malibu.
The peaks stand up and word themselves:
Chismahoo, Cachuma, Topatopa.
And the creeks and rivers and waterfalls
keep flowing in their native tongue:
Cuyama, Sisquoc, Nojoqui.
Piru, Sespe, Matilija.
Even our towns speak ancestry:
Lompoc, Ojai, Saticoy.
And the avenues of our cities, they say:
Jonata, “tall oaks,”
Anapamu, “rising place,”
Anacapa, “island mirage.”
And don’t forget our toxic
landfill, sweet forlorn Casmalia.
Even when we try to bury the earth
with garbage, we cannot bury the names.
They haunt us still. They bless us.
They keep us. They keep us,
always, from forgetting,
even when we have forgotten.


Paul Willis is a professor of English at Westmont College and a former poet laureate of Santa Barbara, California.  His most recent collection of poetry is Getting to Gardisky Lake (Stephen F. Austin State University Press).  More at


Filed under Poetry

2 responses to “Names of the Chumash

  1. I am one of many who never knew my own ancestry, but ironically, modern genetic science revealed who I am made of.
    I am one Chumash, carried into the present, by the Spanish who came to California, married my ancestors, and the Irishman who married my grandmother. Like the coast of California my roots are still here and my Chumash heart weeps for the days we lived as part of Hutash’ universe, under the stars, the sun as brothers of all living things.

  2. Mike Elliott

    It is not easy to really gain deep knowledge about the Chumash People and it is probably nearly impossible to truly know them or who they were.

    Centuries of exploitation, theft, enslavement, starvation and outright murder have left little more than a handful of memories passed down… mixed in with a few interpretations and assumptions and legends.

    But still we must search.

    We do our best to preserve and prolong what remains of our traditions but the truth is that “pure Chumash” is mysterious and probably beyond our ability to perfectly define or preserve or pass down.

    I know little of my Chumash heritage — only that my great grandparents and grandparents and my father called themselves descendants of the Chumash People. They came from Lompoc. Their graves are there but in christian cemeteries since most Chumash who survived were eventually forced into Christianity by the Spaniards and later the Mexicans. Most of the names are Hispanic or Latinx.

    It is pretty clear that five hundred years ago the Chumash People were an important force for community, society, family, trade, engineering, transportation, general prosperity and overall good — but details are hard to come by and what remains seems mysterious and, actually, wonderful.

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