Ceremony’s role in transmitting traditional knowledge: The Case of `Alchuklash

The Arborglyph is a tree carving in nitspu tiƗhin ktityu (in the world of the yak titʸu titʸu yak tiƗhini), representing a map of the movement of the stars throughout the year. It was left by an`Alchuklash or Chumash astronomer, reminding us of the ways that our traditional knowledge connects us with our place in the universe, making our traditional sciences inseparable from our knowledge of spirit.

`Alchuklash, Chumash astronomers, were not only keepers of cosmic knowledge, but scientists who understood the relationships between astronomical changes and those we see in our physical environment. They were also orators who interpreted the stories of the cosmos to remind Chumash people of their original instructions and artists who painted and carved their cosmovisions for future generations to access.

Thomas Hudson called`alchuklash “jack-of-all-intellectual-trades,” whose influence and power were both widespread and important for the wellbeing of all.” `Alchuklash were advisors to religious and political leaders, but their most important task of knowledge transmission took place through ceremony. Great orators and song writers, they spoke to the masses at sacred places like the high point of Painted Rock, a natural amphitheater in Carrizo Plain where people came from all over the region for ceremony. During winter solstice ceremonies, `alchuklash shared predictions that would help the community cope with environmental variability and provided advice for places and times that the people should cultivate foods, hold rituals, and conduct meetings. Ceremony facilitated the transmission of scientific and spiritual knowledge from `alchuklash to the wider community, and the persistence of ceremony ensured the transmission of these knowledges across generations.

Native ceremony is associated with maintaining and restoring balance, renewal, cultivating relationships, and creative participation with nature. Scientific observations inform the timing of ceremonies and the inclusion of community members in ceremony keep people connected to natural cycles. The act of sharing knowledge during ceremonies and rituals transmits scientific information from specialists to the community, and the persistence of ceremony ensures the transmission of this knowledge across generations. Connections between religious traditions and sciences are not limited to these dynamics, but this is a starting point in recognizing the wisdom that may be lost in the distillation of sciences from their spiritual counterparts.

Ceremonies that honor the cyclical events in the natural world often celebrate the return of an important plant or animal food and call for people to humble themselves to the powers that control the seasonal changes. The Arborglyph also marks the mid-point between autumn equinox and winter solstice, the time of Hutash ceremony, when Chumash people celebrate the bounty that of Mother Earth, Hutash. While a feast takes place to honor Hutash, this time is also focused on food preparation to get everyone through the more scarce season of winter. Natural cycles are different place to place, so the ceremonial traditions for desert, plains, and coastal people vary, but the importance of reverence for the gifts of non-human beings remain a constant for Indigenous people.

Ceremony reminds the community of their compacts “between sources of life, the land, their places, and with the natural entities there,” writes Greg Cajete, author of Native Science. These compacts that relate to the physical world and the spiritual world have been interrupted by colonization, but remain embedded in the pieces we still hold. Without our `alchuklash it is difficult to for Chumash people to fully embody our responsibilities to the land, air, and water in our ancestral places, but in learning as a community, people are called upon to take up these duties and lead ceremonies that transmit knowledges across generations again.

Some concepts are coded in our stories. Every night, Sky Coyote and the Old Man Sun play a game of peon (a Chumash gambling game), representing creative energy and entropy respectively. This game is the cosmic play of creation and destruction. On Winter Solstice, the stakes of the game are raised. If Old Man Sun wins, he will be able leave the heavens and cease warming the Earth. Chumash spiritual leaders must come together to pull back the Sun from destroying the Earth.

Winter solstice also marks the new year because it starts a new cycle of the counterclockwise movement of Ursa Major around the North Star, as coded in the Arborglyph. During this time, the chiefs from villages throughout Chumash lands would gather the food, goods, and shell money that they collected throughout the year as tax revenue. The wot (high chief) then oversaw the redistribution of the collected revenue to elders, people with disabilities, people who had been widowed or orphaned during the year, and throughout the villages that had poorer fishing seasons. In preparation for a time when food is scarce, community leaders come together to ensure social stability. As bearers of religious power, the same chiefs who are in charge of the social science of redistributing material goods for physical sustenance are also responsible for the spiritual task of “pulling back the sun.”

While reflecting on Winter solstice ceremony, María Solares, Samala Chumash ancestor said, “It was our religion; it was true. The ancient people believed it with all their hearts. The year has ended; we are already entering into a new year. Who knows if we will make it through the new year?”

The ceremonies that ‘alchuklash shared with community connected us with interlinking cosmic and earthly cycles, giving us a reason to be grateful for the persistence of Hutash despite the changes in cycles after the post-invasion degradation of lands, air, and waters. The regularity of ceremonies throughout every year gave Chumash astronomers the opportunity to transmit Indigenous sciences to the community intergenerationally, but the mission system and other assimilationist measures quieted and ceased many of our ceremonies. With the strands of intergenerationally transmitted knowledge and ethnographic records to reawaken, we keep in mind that we are re-learning holistic cosmovisions that reunite science and spirit. The arborglyph is a small piece of a puzzle that many minds are working on to awaken our knowledges of physical and spiritual responsibilities to our place in the universe.