Beneath a 99-year-old building at Mission Basilica San Buenaventura lies an abandoned cemetery with the remains of about 3,000 Chumash Catholics who died between the mission’s founding by St. Junípero Serra in 1782 and the mid-19th century.
Now, the pastor of the mission is working with Chumash leaders and an archeologist to identify and commemorate the dead.
It is “time to formally address this as a point of reconciliation and healing with the Chumash people,” said the pastor, Father Tom Elewaut.
In 1862, with the cemetery at capacity, all headstones and the remains of perhaps 1,000 people were transferred to a new cemetery. But most of the Chumash had been buried without coffins, wrapped in cloth, which was their tradition. After decades, their remains were impossible to detect and were not recovered, he said. In 1922, the mission built Holy Cross School over the cemetery, a building that now serves as parish offices.
For the Chumash, those graves represent many losses inflicted on their people as a consequence of Spanish colonization — loss of homes, loss of lives and loved ones, loss of culture, loss of respect.
“I will be 65 this year. The people coming up behind me in their 30s and 40s are very vocal about the intergenerational trauma and why they don’t know about, why they didn’t grow up in, this place of pride in their heritage,” said Julie Tumamait-Stenslie, chairperson of the Barbareño-Ventureño Band of Mission Indians.
In addition to being a Chumash traditional singer and artist, she is certified to monitor construction sites for indigenous archaeological finds. She also advises universities and other institutions on the repatriation of such artifacts. For her, the buried cemetery is like an open wound….
Tumamait-Stenslie … had first met Father Elewaut in the mission garden as she burned white sage in an abalone shell for descendants of Spanish soldiers on pilgrimage to repent for the sins of their ancestors.
The priest had asked who she was. When she told him, she said, he let her proceed, explaining that he only allowed such ceremonies if the celebrants had permission from the Chumash. His intent was to respect the integrity of Chumash tradition and their relationship with the mission.
“I appreciate Father Tom. He recognizes that our families built that mission. Not by choice, but it is ours,” said Tumamait-Stenslie, who is not a practicing Catholic.
After his pledge, she connected him with Robert Lopez, professor emeritus of anthropology and archaeology at Moorpark College and archivist of the Ventura County Archaeological Society. He had spent decades studying the sacramental records of Mission San Buenaventura, and was digitizing them for genealogical use.
His work is invaluable because the Chumash had no written language, Tumamait-Stenslie said: “We have no written documentation other than the baptismal records.”
The sacramental books — penned in elaborate 18th century Spanish script — include baptisms, weddings, and burials. Early entries often had Chumash birth names, and sometimes a village of origin. Lopez has entered 4,330 individuals up to 1844, with an estimated 3,000 remaining. About half died and were buried at Mission San Buenaventura.
The records are enlightening because “they are connected to a mission and that mission absorbed predominantly one tribe,” Lopez said….
“The Franciscans did not consider the Chumash savages,” he said. “They understood that they were dealing with a culture that was very advanced….”
They envision a digitized list of the dead and their family relationships, as well as a monument. Tumamait-Stenslie intends to consult widely about the memorial design, not only with her own band but other Chumash groups and individuals who have left the region….
The above comes from a Nov. 2 story in Angelus News.