Column by Outdoor Editor John McKinney, aka The Trailmaster, follow on Facebook.
Satwiwa offers a chance to explore a place where Chumash walked for thousands of years before Europeans arrived on the scene. I hiked this little spread in the western Santa Monica Mountains recently just after reading “TIQSLO’W: The Making of a Modern Day Chief” (Amethyst Moon Publishing) by Mary Louise Contini Gordon.
It’s an “ethnographic biography” of a Native American Chief, better known as Charlie Cooke (1935-2013) and tells the story of an unassuming truck driver who devoted his life to preserving his Chumash heritage and sharing it with others. The author presents a lively and detailed account of Cooke’s activism and successful efforts to create a living museum, Satwiwa, to celebrate Native American Indian culture. Especially intriguing is the story of how Cooke, with limited schooling, acquired a deep knowledge of the history and ways of his people and shared it with others.
I remember taking Cooke’s guided walks at Satwiwa. Cooke showed how the Chumash ate the delectable purple pears from the prickly pear cactus without getting a mouth full of thorns. He explained how acorns were gathered, leached, ground into mush and prepared for cooking.
He pointed out the seeds, roots, bulbs, berries and black walnuts that made up the Chumash diet. Birds, deer and squirrels were caught year round. Fish and shellfish from Mugu Lagoon and from the Santa Barbara Channel also provided a major food source.
It was this abundant food supply that helped the Chumash become the largest Indian tribal group in California at the time of Cabrillo’s arrival in 1542. Chumash territory ranged from Topanga Canyon near the east end of the Santa Monica Mountains, all the way up the coast to San Luis Obispo, and out to the Channel Islands.
“A lot of visitors are really surprised to learn of the extent of Chumash settlement,” Cooke told me on a hike through Satwiwa. “And they’re even more surprised to meet a living Chumash.”
A visitor center and guest speakers help moderns learn the habits of birds and animals, the changes the seasons bring, and gain insight into the ceremonies that kept—and still keep—the Chumash bonded to the earth.
The name of this park site, Rancho Sierra Vista/Satwiwa reflects its history as both a longtime (1870s-1970s) horse and cattle ranch and ancestral land of the Chumash. Satwiwa means “The Bluffs” and was the name of a Chumash settlement located at this end of the Santa Monica Mountains.
The National Park Service prefers to call Satwiwa a culture center rather than a museum in order to keep the emphasis on living Native Americans. Satwiwa Native American Indian Culture Center is open Saturday and Sunday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and is staffed by a Native American guest host or ranger ready to answer questions about culture, history or the nearby trail system.
The park service decided not to interpret the loop trail through Satwiwa with plant ID plaques and brochures; instead of the usual natural history lessons, it’s hoped that hikers will come away with a more spiritual experience of the land.
From the parking lot, Satwiwa Loop Trail is about 2 miles round trip with 200-foot elevation gain. If you’d like to extend the hike, I recommend hitting the trail to Big Sycamore Waterfall, 5.6 miles round trip or continuing along the From parking area, add 0.5 mile round trip to all hikes.
Directions: From Highway 101 in Newbury Park, exit on Wendy Drive and head south a short mile to Borchard Road. Turn right and travel 0.5 mile to Reino Road. Turn left and proceed 1.2 miles to Lynn Road, turn right and continue another 1.2 miles to the park entrance road (Via Goleta) on the south side of the road opposite the Dos Vienta housing development. The paved park road passes an equestrian parking area on the right and a small day use parking lot on the left before dead-ending at a large parking lot 0.7 miles from Lynn Road.
Photo Captions: Hike in the footsteps of the Chumash at Rancho Sierra Vista / Satwiwa in the Santa Monica Mountains. Satwiwa, the ancestral land of the Chumash, in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. Learn about the Chumash and other tribes at the Satwiwa Native American Indian Culture Center.