Reclaiming the California Coastline

Lora Shinn

A Northern Chumash descendant of Avila Beach and San Luis Obispo County, California, Violet Sage Walker is campaigning tirelessly for the proposed 140-mile Chumash National Marine Sanctuary in order to regain her community’s fundamental rights.

Image © Jeremy Bishop

Lora Shinn

Image © Jeremy Bishop

While Violet Sage Walker has a degree in political science, equally important is her traditional education—an oral history passed down by her elders.

Violet is a Northern Chumash descendant of Avila Beach and San Luis Obispo County, California, and currently lives along the state’s rugged central coast. Bernie Sanders’s campaign inspired her to get involved in politics in 2016, joining a wave of progressive women who won seats across Northern California. Today, Violet is Northern Chumash Tribal Council vice chairwoman and a delegate for California’s Assembly District 35.  

“My number one political issue is environmental justice and climate change,” she says. “The urgency made me drop everything else. I say, ‘I used to go to the beach, now I go to politics.’”
A Northern Chumash descendant of Avila Beach and San Luis Obispo County, California, Violet currently lives along the state’s rugged central coast. · Chris Burkard

Against the current

Violet grew up in San Luis Obispo, where the nearby Santa Barbara oil spill in 1969 awakened many to the extreme threats the local ocean faced, she says.

“I grew up at the beach, and my compass is set by where the ocean is. My people are ocean-going people.”
Violet grew up at the beach, and now ventures into politics to seek justice for her people · Jeremy Bishop

Having been diving since the age of 12, Violet became a divemaster at age 18. One of her favorite places to dive is in the Channel Islands, where the Chumash traditionally lived. The islands are central to their origin stories and responsibility as caretakers.

“Everything you see at any national park, you see here underneath the water in technicolor, with the fish just as amazing as everything above,” Violet says.

Migrating animals, including humpback whales, come for warm water currents bringing fish and nutrients up from the deep.

Violet loves to dive in the Channel Islands, where humpback whales come for warm water currents bringing fish and nutrients up from the deep · Robert Schwemmer / NOAA
One third of southern California’s kelp forests are found within the Channel Islands · Claire Fackler / NOAA
California sea lions play on the surface of the water off San Miguel Island · Claire Fackler / NOAA

Her family, in particular her father, was the applicant for the proposed 140-mile Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary, which lies just north of the Channel Islands. Submerged Chumash villages and cultural heritage sites lie under the waters and along the shoreline. Currently, 14 national sanctuaries encompass more than 600,000 square miles of coastal and Great Lakes waters. And while that might sound like a lot, it’s only 18 percent protected, far short of the nation’s 30×30 goals. While the proposed Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary has been on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) nomination list since 2013, Violet is optimistic it will soon be granted—thanks to supporters like Vice President Kamala Harris, and Deb Haaland as a potential ally inside the Interior Department.

Violet’s family, in particular her father, was the applicant for the proposed 140-mile Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary · Jeremy Bishop

Fighting for a future

The Chumash people lived in central California for thousands of years. The population was afflicted by genocidal labor practices and disease introduced by the Spanish mission system, and U.S. government colonization and massacres. In 1850, the California government allowed the enslavement of Native children, and in 1856, issued a bounty on the scalp of any Indigenous person. The Chumash went into hiding, attempting to blend in.

At last, those tides are shifting. In 1976, the Chumash community built their first tomol, or Chumash plank canoe, in more than 100 years. It was called the Helek, or “peregrine falcon.” In 2001, ‘Elye’wun, (“swordfish”) was built, and the Northern Chumash came together to sing songs and paddled to the Channel Islands.

“The ocean brought our people back together,” Violet says.
In 1976, the Chumash community built their first “tomol,” or Chumash plank canoe, in more than 100 years. This moment arrived after decades of persecution by the Spanish mission system and U.S. government · Robert Schwemmer / NOAA

Today, Violet must negotiate institutionalized racism, willful denial of history, and anger from those who do not like the stands she and her family are taking to reclaim land. Some, such as real estate developers, contest her people’s fundamental rights, like practicing religion at sacred sites. Powerful oil and gas interests oppose the sanctuary designation.

It is tiring to constantly defend against an interrogation of oppressed people’s history and struggles.

“When some people say they’re Native American, the first thing people do is question you,” Walker says. “It’s not my job to change and educate people. It’s a huge burden on those who do social justice and environmental work—asking the victims to justify their feelings.” 
Current marine protection of coastal and Great Lakes waters is only 18 percent, far short of the United States’ 30×30 goals · Chris Burkard
Violet is optimistic the proposed Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary will soon be granted—thanks to supporters like Vice President Kamala Harris, and Deb Haaland as a potential ally inside the Interior Department · Chris Burkard
Violet and her family face opposition from real estate developers, who contest the Chumash people’s fundamental rights, like practicing religion at sacred sites · Chris Burkard
Coming out as a Native person was hard for so many members of the Chumash community. Violet remembers taunts and being asked how could she be Native if she owned a cell phone and lived in a house, not a tipi · Jeremy Bishop
For Violet, her ecological justice work to protect the ocean is interwoven with the cultural resurgence of the Chumash identity · Jeremy Bishop

Ecological justice must be interwoven with social justice, Violet notes. As an example, Violet points to the human trafficking and forced labor associated with large-scale international shipping and fishing industries.

But she sees hope in the future, including a shift in priorities on green and renewable energy. And she has faith in the younger generation, some of whom are learning to speak the Chumash language, tʔɨnɨsmuʔ tiłhinkʔtitʸu, which had disappeared for 100 years. In a way, she envies their freedom. “It was so much harder for us to come out as a Native person,” she says, remembering taunts and being asked how could she be Native if she owned a cell phone and lived in a house, not a tipi.

“The younger generation is more comfortable being who they are,” she says. “To fix problems with the ocean, we have to be comfortable in our culture and heritage and own our own identity, and say, ‘Look, this is what’s right and wrong with the land. We have to hear people’s stories, let them speak their truth and be heard.’”
Violet has faith that the younger Chumash generation will be able to fix problems with the ocean while being comfortable in their culture and heritage · Jeremy Bishop
Learn more about Violet

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Contributors

Lora Shinn

Journalist

Lora Shinn has written about sustainable living and pioneering environmental leaders for the Natural Resources Defense Council and numerous magazines and websites including Rodale’s Organic Life, Urban Farm, E-The Environmental Magazine, KIWI, Earth911.com, and more.

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