2016 can just kiss my grits.
So far this year I’ve suffered 7 devastating losses that have left me in a heap on the floor listening to sad music. I won’t chronical them here, its too boring for anyone besides me. Its even getting boring to me. To tell you sad stories would just make you quote a villain from Captain Underpants, “Sounds like a U.P. not an M.P.” (Translation: “Sounds like a You Problem, not a Me Problem.) This fall I got dangerously sad and decided to enlist the help of anti-depressants. Thank goodness I did and I don’t know why I waited so long because it seems that I have an endless stack of rugs beneath me that 2016 is determined to pull.
What seems to be the best medicine for me is obsessing about something that I can control. What I’ve been doing is diving head first into learning about the lives of prehistoric people in the Southwest. I’m of Mexican descent and most of the tribes of the North American southwest are Uto-Aztecan, which means their language and cultural influences are essentially Aztec/Mexican. United States and Mexican borders didn’t mean anything in prehistoric times. It was just all one general region of earth, the region of earth that my Mexican ancestors came from.
I’ve always enjoyed learning about prehistoric cultures. For a while I was deeply entrenched in learning about Anglo-Saxons (I’m also half one of those). I visited reproductions of ancient village sites and learned some Olde English. The appeal of prehistoric cultures, for me, is learning how to strip away modern conditioning and remember what it is to be essentially human. This is also why I like wilderness backpacking. All you have and need is what you can carry on your back. It is simple and during that time of mini-survival, everything is real and matters.
Night before last, as Señor Trump was in the middle of getting elected United States President, I recieved a phone call delivering devastating-loss-bad-news-number-7 of this year’s big losses. The next morning I was barely able to put one foot in front of the other. Of course I could have opted to stay in bed, but instead I decided to put one foot in front of the other nevertheless and dive into the obsession that makes me most happy, native american artifact hunting.
Fortunately I live in Los Angeles where fine people have had the forethought to preserve an extraordinary amount of wilderness. It is still possible to walk out your door in the second largest city in America and wander into a landscape where you can’t see any houses or cars. And even better, you can visit any number of archaeological treasures hidden in the wilderness if you are willing to do a little bushwhacking and sometimes brave getting poison oak.
This day I went up to Nicholas Flat above Malibu. It is a high plateau overlooking the sea with an historic abundance of water. Streams used to flow into the flat and there is now a deep dry lake bed. When I went there for the first time last Spring I took one look at the landscape and got that “feeling”, that tingling behind my eyeballs that says, this is a village. I immediately started scanning the landscape for prominent rock outcrops and abandoning my hiking group to bushwhack around looking for marks left by previous inhabitants. That day I couldn’t find any, but I made a mental note to return and look around more.
Yesterday I drove up there wearing long pants and sleeves for bushwhacking, put the audiobook Ishi In Two Worlds into my ears, and started looking around.
The first thing I noted was a huge forest of oak trees. Oak trees mean acorns. The second thing was a beautiful rolling meadow next to a stream. Large meadows next to water can mean villages.
The third thing I found was a bunch of grinding rocks tucked into a grove of oak trees. The main mortar holes were big and old and deep. It is not unthinkable that these holes could be more than 5,000 years old.
To be honest, in my listless mood, I was elated to just have found the mortar holes, but I made a half hearted attempt to do a little bit of light bushwhacking to find other stuff. I climbed around on a few rock outcrops looking for pictographs. I didn’t try very hard. I found one group of boulders that actually looked quite promising to have hosted a pictograph panel, but I could see that it had been ruined by graffiti and restored with rock-colored paint by the park service so if there was ever anything good there it is long gone.
I did enjoy the dry waterfall that plunges into Nicholas Canyon.
For what its worth, here’s my theory, and if someone has better information I would love to be corrected. At the base of Nicholas Canyon there was Chumash village called Lisiqsihi that was home to a tribe of about 70 people. It is the currently the home of Wishtoyo’s Chumash Village, a recreation of a working native american village and cultural preservation center. It is my idea that Nicholas Flat, which is straight up Nicholas Canyon was an extension of Lisiqsihi’s hunting and gathering territory. Perhaps some lived on the ridge year-round or perhaps it was a temporary hunting camp and fall camp for gathering and processing acorns. If acorns weren’t so abundant throughout the region I would say that perhaps several tribes met here for fall harvest and festivities and maybe they did. Major coastal villages such as Muwu (Point Mugu) and Humaliu (Malibu Bluffs) were near neighbors and home to as many as 400 people each. Perhaps they gathered at Nicholas Flat for harvest as well. I truly don’t know, but it is fun to wonder.
Its worth noting that nobody would have to wonder about the village sites and patterns of Chumash life if the culture had not been subject to racism and genocide. This week it became clear that more than half of United States voters are racist (and for that matter misogynistic and zenophobic). And, yes, tacitly tolerating racism in leaders is the same as actively practicing racist acts upon others because that is the end result. As a member of a race of people who have been the victims of imperialism, attempted extermination, and enslavement by Anglo conquistadors and religious zealots, and as a student of those victims in United States, I don’t appreciate language that vilifies the “other”.
Native american archaeological sites are not romantic curiosities of a people who quietly evolved out of history. They should be viewed as poignant reminders that our country was built on the carcasses of people who populated this continent from coast to coast in tremendous numbers for thousands of years. Their cultures were robust, civilized, organized and peaceful. Violence and submission was visited upon them by foreigners who today claim to be the chosen people of this land as if it had never belonged to another. Let’s remember history the way it really was and try to do better.
As for Nicholas Flat, I’ll be spending a little more time up there looking around and see what more I can see and also branching out to other village sites. I’m sure there is more ancient archaeology to see, just in the Santa Monica mountains, than I could find in a lifetime. Adventuring for archaeology is a distracting obsession that I can dip into anytime I need it and it always makes me feel alive and hopeful. With a hobby that involves discovery, there’s always the hope that something wonderful is waiting just around the corner. It would be better to see the ancient villages teeming with natives, but all I can do now is remember them well and dignify the old ways by helping others see and understand them too.