The legend of the Rainbow Bridge tells of an ancient people
crossing over from the islands to the mainland. As the story goes, the Creator built this bridge to guide the Chumash, but warned them not to look down into the sea during the crossing. Some could not resist. But instead of letting them die, the Creator turned them into dolphins. So, the relationship of the Chumash people to maritime environments around them was about more than sustenance; it was at the very core of their creation—and the home of their ancestors.
Mati Waiya, a lifelong resident of Ventura County and Chumash spiritual leader, spent years participating in maritime education programs, bringing the Chumash message of sustainability and stewardship to the community. Over time, Waiya developed a concern that many environmental groups focused too much on science and statistics. He believed that the Chumash way of honoring the natural world could help bring a new perspective to the environmental movement. In this spirit, he founded the Wishtoyo Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving the natural environment while maintaining a focus on the Chumash way of life.
“I felt we had a different message,” says Waiya. “The ancient people had a greater understanding of the environment, because we depended on it.”
The Chumash observed the changing seasons in order to navigate pathways to the islands; their ceremonies were structured around seasons, currents, migrations, and harvests. Since the natural environment played such a large role in their stories and legends, Waiya felt the Chumash voice needed to be heard.
After founding the Wishtoyo Foundation, which functioned for many years as a joint Chumash cultural education and environmental group, Waiya felt that a more active approach was needed. He joined the nationwide alliance of Waterkeepers and was named the “Ventura CoastKeeper.” The first Native American to be named a Waterkeeper, Waiya felt this new branch of the Wishtoyo Foundation would bridge the gap between his desire to bring people closer to their environment and the growing need for activist groups to watchdog the local watersheds.
“We had to create our own standing while realigning ourselves within modern society,” Waiya explains.
And Ventura CoastKeeper does just that, splitting its time between water-quality monitoring and litigation when the data suggests someone may be breaking the law. Since the goal of the national Waterkeeper Alliance is to fill the void between Clean Water Act laws and the government’s ability to enforce them, Ventura CoastKeeper takes its supervisory responsibilities seriously.
“These waters belong to the people,” Waiya says, “and no corporation has the right to impact that.”
A 2006 grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency helped establish the Calleguas Creek Stream Team, whose goal is to measure the effectiveness of management regulations designed to stem the tide of pesticides and sediment runoff through the creek.
Mugu Lagoon—an Area of Special Biological Significance and home to several endangered species—is just one example of a biologically important area watched over by the Ventura CoastKeeper. Since the Chumash relied on the waterways for their sustenance and livelihood, their villages were almost always located near estuaries, lagoons, or streams. Several Chumash Native archaeological sites exist here, making the Calleguas Creek watershed a perfect example of the tie between the modern environmental movement and an ancient culture.
By joining the Waterkeeper Alliance, Waiya was able to add a team of environmental attorneys to the Native lawyers with whom he already worked. “When our Stream Teams investigate polluters and we build a case, we usually win,” he says. “But we don’t just want to punish polluters; we want to work with them to reach an agreement that they will be better stewards of the land.”
While Waiya is the backbone of the organization, Ventura CoastKeeper depends on a team of dedicated volunteers. The Stream Teams are the field arm of the organization, responsible for the regular monitoring of the Ventura County waterways: collecting water samples, testing them, and compiling data to build cases against polluters.
Paul Westefer, Project Coordinator for the Calleguas Creek Volunteer Water-Quality Monitoring Program, is constantly reaching out to the community to ensure a future for the CoastKeeper. “We want to create an ongoing stake in water quality,” he says, explaining that through beach cleanup programs, Earth Day events, and various restoration projects, Ventura CoastKeeper works to involve everyone from preschoolers to local college students in their programs.
Waiya is also serious about educational programs, teaching Ventura County’s youth how to better appreciate the natural world, and how they can have a hand in saving it. He weaves Chumash values into discussions about the problems facing Ventura County’s coast. By teaching the children how ancient people coexisted with the world around them, Waiya instills in them a passion for protecting the land.
“We’re here to protect the land for the children who haven’t yet been born,” said Waiya, “and to ensure that all the species we know are here for them to see.”
Society has reached something of a turning point with respect to environmental degradation. But it will take the entire community—not only the Chumash, and not only the Ventura CoastKeeper—to truly make a difference.
“The Chumash have a responsibility to protect these habitats because they are a part of our understanding of our relationship to all life,” said Waiya. “But we’re not the only ones who have a relationship with this land. All the people need to find their own way to stand up for the land where they live and die.”