Audiences at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival applauded “6 Generations,” a movie that brings Chumash history to life.
The film, available on DVD at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, features performances by Ernestine Ygnacio De Soto, a living Barbareno Chumash descendant.
Her mother was the last Chumash native speaker, and her grandmother and great-grandmother helped anthropologists Alfred Kroeber and John P. Harrington understand the Chumash language in the early part of the 20th century. These early recordings can also be heard at the museum.
The film’s producer, museum anthropologist John Johnson, shares screenwriting credits with De Soto.
“History is often told using information from the dominant culture,” Johnson says, but De Soto’s story is told through the voices of generations of Chumash women.
With “6 Generations,” De Soto says she is “honoring her children, her ancestors, and herself,” by keeping the flame of Chumash history alive. She and her family are not members of the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians.
This film enhances her one-woman performance with rare, historic photographs and recordings of the Chumash language and songs, as De Soto becomes each of six women in her family covering 200 years of Chumash life in Santa Barbara.
Her first-person portrayal allows a viewer to step back in time to hear personal stories of her great-great-great grandmother, who speaks of meeting the Spanish explorers “in innocence” when they arrived at the Chumash village called Syuxtun near today’s Stearns Wharf. From that point on, new diseases such as measles and the assimilation of Chumash people into mission society put them and their indigenous culture at risk of extinction.
Johnson and Kristina Foss, archivist at Mission Santa Barbara, supplement De Soto’s oral history with data from baptismal records and historical information such as how Hispanic law treated Indians as “wards of the state” with lesser legal rights.
Because California was Spain’s last colonial outpost, historians believe that Spain’s mission system would have resulted in a transition to land ownership for the Chumash. However, with the disbanding and secularization of the missions by the Mexican government, the Chumash were given their freedom but no land to farm.
In a span of six generations, the Chumash people went from calling the land where Santa Barbara is built “their estate” to struggling with diseases, poverty, and second-class citizenship.