Vandenberg’s Relationship with the Chumash: Helping Preserve Tradition

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Joshua LeRoi
  • Space Launch Delta 30

For more than 50 years, Vandenberg Space Force Base has embraced the rich history of the local Native American Chumash people through base access, cultural learning opportunities and a cultural liaison.

The Space Launch Delta 30 tribal liaison officer, Josh Smallwood, stands as a bridge from Vandenberg to the local Chumash people. His role is more than a title; it is a commitment to partnership with the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians.

As Native American Heritage Month began, Vandenberg sought to honor the Chumash people and highlight the relationship that the base was growing with the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians based on the cultural practice of basket weaving.

The roots of Vandenberg's relationship with the Chumash stretch back to 1970 with a simple request to harvest juncus, a California native plant used for traditional basket weaving. Vandenberg, recognizing the cultural significance of such skills and ability, honored the request, marking the beginning of a partnership rooted in respect for traditions.

“The Chumash have gathered juncus from Lake Canyon for thousands of years, so of course, we honored that request,” said Smallwood. “Since 1970, the Department of the Air Force has worked to better facilitate this government-to-government relationship.”

Base access for hunting, fishing, harvesting, and religious freedoms were not just words on paper, but tangible expressions of commitment, like the presence of Native American monitors during earth-moving activities, such as constructing new roads or buildings, near cultural sites.

Every November is Native American Heritage Month, a celebration that honors Native Americans for their numerous, significant, and noteworthy contributions to the United States, as well as their reverence for the environment and natural resources.

As Native American Heritage Month reached its end, a culmination of collaboration was marked by Vandenberg unveiling a street sign, citing the phrase “ma kiyušpakmu’ a mexme’y”. The sign, translated to “our gathering place for juncus” in the Samala Chumash language, will stand as a proclamation of shared history, a testament to the resilience of the Chumash people, a commitment to partnership and aiding the preservation of the basket weavers’ heritage.

“Culturally, I think it’s very important that we have this relationship and maintain it, because not only is it ancestral land, but there’s so much ancestral resource that we have available that the base can offer us,” said Levi Zavalla, Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians Culture Department community language teacher. “We should continue our relationship with each other as long as possible. I only see positive things for the future.”