The Bishop Goes to Limuw
The high point of this annual reunion is the 21-mile voyage across the ocean channel from Ventura to Santa Cruz Island made by a small band of tribal members in two fragile canoes known as tomols.
This year was historic. To experience this annual gathering of the Chumash nation, participants must be tribal members or invited guests. Never before has a Catholic bishop been invited to Limuw and the annual gathering of the nation. Thus, it was a great honor for me to be invited by Deborah Sanchez, co-chair of the Barbareno Chumash Council who is also a California superior court judge.
Had this article been written by novelist Willa Cather, she might well have entitled it “The Bishop Comes to Limwu,” as though the arrival of a bishop was the inevitable fulfillment of a long-awaited expectation, the arrival of a notable personage. I have entitled this article “The Bishop Goes to Limwu,” because I journeyed there as a pilgrim, an invited guest honoring the tradition of the people of the land.
The annual gathering began on a Thursday as the first ones to arrive set up the encampment. Many more of the 200 or so members of the tribe arrived on Friday. Together with the remainder of the tribal members I traveled early on Saturday morning. The voyage across the channel on a touring boat was very rough, with swells of five and six feet jostling the boat from side to side. I could only imagine what it was like for the paddlers in the tomols to be fighting the treacherous waves in their fragile canoes.
We disembarked from our boat at Scorpion Anchorage on Santa Cruz Island and hiked the short distance inland to our encampment on the site of the ancient Chumash village of Swaxil. At that moment the atmosphere of the entire encampment was somber. The tribal members spoke in lowered voices and hushed tones as they welcomed us to Swaxil. Some sat in small groups, others alone, while still others quietly hiked the trails to the top of hills and cliffs where they could peer into the distance of the ocean waters.
Many engaged in prayer — Catholic members of the tribe, Christians of various denominations, and those who practice traditional rites and hold to traditional Native beliefs. All were praying for the voyagers in the tomols, who had departed at four in the morning and were now somewhere beyond sight on their ocean crossing.
The tomol, the native canoe, is a very fragile vessel. Of the two making the crossing that day, one was perhaps 14 feet long, the other nine or ten. They are made of planks of wood, lashed together with fiber cords and coated with tar. The sides are not more than four feet high, and the thickness of the wood only about an inch. There is only one seat across the middle of the hull. The five to eight paddlers in each tomol kneel inside the hull and use long poles with a paddle at each end. They synchronize their strokes while paddling their canoes through the ocean waters.
Often, as this year, the crossing is treacherous. There is a constant need to bail water from the canoes as swells of five and six feet threaten to swamp the small vessels. Last year one of the tomols broke apart and nearly sank midway in the channel crossing.
Ten hours after setting out from Ventura, the tomols were spotted in the distance approaching Scorpion Cove. Tribal members carrying rattles and other traditional musical instruments hurried to the landing spot to welcome the paddlers with songs, prayers and traditional words of welcome. When the fragile tomols at last touched shore and the paddlers disembarked, members of the tribe lifted the boats ashore, carrying them on their shoulders. Crew leaders spoke of the experience of this year’s crossing of the channel, the challenges and the dangers that they encountered.
Finally traditional prayers were offered in thanksgiving for the safe arrival of the paddlers who, against overwhelming odds, had persevered and conquered the force of the ocean. Prayers of gratitude were also offered for the Chumash people who have also persevered over the centuries and conquered the forces of history that could well have ended their existence.
From the moment that the tomols arrived, the entire atmosphere of the encampment changed from prayerful vigil to family reunion. The noise level of the village increased as villagers no longer felt compelled to speak in hushed tones. Games were played in the open field and at individual campsites — soccer, cards, dominoes, and traditional native table games. Meals were prepared, conversations engaged, and preparations made for the evening.
As darkness descended, the villagers gathered in one large circle, three or four persons deep, around the tribal leaders. Individuals were honored for their service to the tribe and to the people during the past year and for organizing this year’s gathering. A raffle was held for beautiful pieces of handmade native jewelry. Speeches were given, stories told, songs sung, and poetry recited late into the night.
After several hours I left the circle and went into my tent to sleep, feeling the hardness of the earth beneath my sleeping bag. From inside my tent I could still clearly hear the words of the stories and the poetry, and I fell asleep to the melodious sounds of native songs.
When I awoke in the middle of the night, in the stillness and predawn darkness of Sunday morning, all was quiet and peaceful. Everyone was now asleep. Accompanied by friends and surrounded by the primitive beauty of nature, there was a sense of the divine harmony in creation. For a moment the world had readjusted itself.
As dawn broke, just after 5:30 in the morning, people gathered in different locations to pray, to give thanks to the creator for blessings given, to remember tribal members who had crossed over to the world of the spirit during the past year, and to celebrate their identity as the first people of the land. God, grandfather and creator, was honored. The spirit breathed in a people reborn and reunited.
A new year began. And a bishop had gone to Limuw.
Auxiliary Bishop Edward Clark is regional bishop of the Our Lady of the Angels Region. Ordained from St. John’s Seminary in 1972, he served as president and rector of St. John’s Seminary College before being appointed an Auxiliary Bishop in 2001.