During this busy holiday season between Thanksgiving and Christmas, I’d like to take a bit of a break to share with you the importance of winter solstice in our Chumash history.

Winter solstice is the shortest day of the year, and also the longest night of the year. Our ancestors honored both the time leading up to this special day and the time after it with rituals that connected them to each other and the natural world around them.

Many of these customs reveal the deep roots that our tribe has in the Santa Ynez Valley and the surrounding areas. This time was filled with traditions that today help define our Chumash heritage.

Our ancestors put an emphasis on the fall harvest and storing food for winter during these last months of the year. The days around the winter solstice became a time of storytelling, dance, song and ceremony. On Dec. 24, for instance, dances took place all night until dawn. As offerings, our ancestors would toss berries and seeds into the fire.

As the cultural director for the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians, I love being able to discuss with the public some of our rituals and customs. As I noted here before, though, that is sometimes difficult when it comes to our winter celebration because there are so many traditions and customs involved.

I’d like to again discuss some aspects of the “kakunupmawa” ceremony, as it is known in our people’s native Samala language.

Dec. 20 was considered a day of good luck. It was on this day that the first event of the kakunupmawa ceremony usually would begin with a conference of chiefs.

A portion of this meeting would include discussion of whether any debt was owed to you or your family. These debts must be paid in full, whether owed to you or departed members of your family.

After the approved claims were satisfied, a crier would declare: “Rest! Let it be!”

Other cultural practices preceding winter solstice, in November and early December, often can be overlooked. Our ancestors made feathered poles and erected them at special shrines in the valleys and mountains for solstice. They could begin working on these feathered poles in November. A leader would select several men to work together to create the poles. They determined how many poles to make by visiting the places in the valley and hills where a pole previously was put up.

Today, we place “shrine community” and “grave shrine” poles on our sacred mountain known as “Owotoponu,” also called Grass Mountain. We also continue to incorporate our ancestors’ traditional ways into present day ceremonies. Tribal members make fire offerings of chia seeds, acorn flour and berries.

I wanted to share some of our Chumash customs and stories with you again, and perhaps as you rush around our valley this holiday season, you might take some time to remember our connections to this land.

Nakia Zavalla is cultural director of the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians


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