Ancestral Dreaming

Putting coastal recreation and stewardship into context with California’s original locals.

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It’s a July morning on the south side of Scripps Pier in La Jolla. Both the air and water temperatures are hovering in the low 70s. The ocean has that rare bright-blue clarity that accompanies only gentle summer surf. If you squint hard enough, you can make out an osprey hauling its morning catch to a pier-side nest.

I’m standing in the sand next to Marc Chavez, who firmly believes that surf has always had a gravitational pull on people—that anytime you place humans in proximity to breaking waves, those humans are going to find a way to ride them.

“We obviously have the historical evidence that shows how the Polynesians surfed,” he says. “But any human who shows up to the beach is going to be fascinated. They’re going to approach the tide line and run in and out with the water. They’ll dive in and swim. They’ll immerse themselves in it—and that’s just the newcomers. If you live on the coast, and you’re fishing every day and paddling in after fishing, you’re going to be riding waves as you come in. It’s so intuitive. Even little children naturally understand the mechanics of a wave pushing them, and they move with that sensation.”

Chavez, a descendant of the Nahua people of present-day Mexico, grew up in LA before moving to San Diego to attend UCSD. He’s the founder of Native Like Water, a nonprofit fellowship program that uses surfing as a means to reconnect Indigenous youth to their coastal roots. “Reintroducing the native species,” as he likes to say. For more than 20 years, he’s brought young Native people, many having grown up on California’s inland reservations, to the areas that were central to the lives of their ancestors—the littoral zones that have always been known as places of abundance, where resources like fish, clams, mussels, and abalone were plentiful, and so were the pleasures of waves.

Far from simply being a surf club for Indigenous people, Native Like Water offers a wide-ranging educational curriculum. In a typical year, the program brings together 50 or so young people across multiple weeks to visit significant coastal sites from Kumeyaay land in northern Baja to Chumash territory in Santa Barbara, introduces participants to environmental scientists like those studying marine ecosystems and climate change at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, and connects them with elders from local tribes who offer their perspectives on land stewardship, host workshops on cultural practices, and perform ceremonies.

On the beach at Scripps, one such ceremony is just getting started. Thirty or so people have gathered, and Chavez asks us all to form a circle. He acknowledges that La Jolla is Kumeyaay ancestral land and invites a member of the group to lead a prayer in the Kumeyaay language. Hinting at the larger sentiment of this particular part of the activities, Chavez closes by explaining that when you break down the word “recreation” you get “re-creation.” By recreating in the same place as their ancestors, these people are re-creating their culture and breathing life into their history.

Chavez looks around at the group. It consists of Kumeyaay, but also members of other Native nations, non-Native friends, and volunteers—enjoying a coastline, together, that has brought joy and sustenance to Native people for millennia. “We are our ancestors’ wildest dreams,” he says. He leads the group in another prayer, to the Creator. At its conclusion, everyone grabs a soft top from the seawall and paddles out.

Out in the lineup, I think about Chavez’s words and their historical context. I think about the 10,000-year-old Kumeyaay village sites that exist somewhere just beyond the waves, swallowed up by sea-level rise after the thawing of the last ice age. I think about the hundreds of times I’ve run down the trail to Black’s without any idea that countless Native people are buried on the cliffs above. And I think about how even as a San Diego surfer and former surf-magazine editor—someone whose personal and professional lives have been so profoundly influenced by California’s coast—I’ve barely scratched the surface in understanding its past and the people who shaped it.

There’s Indigenous history everywhere in coastal California. It’s often found just a stone’s throw from the places we surf, sometimes directly beneath where we sit in the water. While this history goes back several thousand years, it isn’t done being written. It continues to shape the present and future of the state’s land and water.

It’s a muggy summer morning with cloudy skies and the kind of thick, sticky air that you’d expect in a place like Hawaii, but not so much here in San Juan Capistrano. Andy Nieblas and I are walking through the entrance of the town’s historic mission. Nieblas is one of the most compelling longboarders on the planet. If you’ve had the pleasure of seeing him surf—taking off backward, hanging heels, making it look like he’s having more fun than anyone alive—then you have a good idea of how he operates on land. 

While I stop to buy a ticket, he never breaks stride. He flashes his mustache-and-sideburns-framed smile at the attendants and says, “I’m Acjachemen.” They smile back and wave him through.

“Pretty cool, huh?” he says with a chuckle, like he’s just shown me a party trick.

We enter the sprawling courtyard of the mission, founded in 1776, and make our way through the various chambers—former living quarters long since turned into exhibits painting an overly rosy picture of mission life and the relationship between the Spanish priests and the Acjachemen people.

Nieblas’ Acjachemen ancestry has always been a part of his identity, even before surfing. When he was a kid, his father and relatives taught him about their culture and history, and his aunt, Jackie, a tribal leader, taught him Acjachemen songs and their creation story, which involved Father Sky and Mother Earth forming the land on the back of a sea turtle. Each year, Nieblas and his family walk with other members of the Acjachemen Nation as part of San Juan Capistrano’s annual Swallows Day Parade. 

As surfers, it’s easy for us to understand feeling pride about where we come from. So much of our identity, and our perceived place in the social hierarchy of any lineup, is tied to the idea of how close we live to said lineup and how long we’ve lived there. When you think about the length of time Nieblas’ family has lived along the beaches of present-day Orange County, however, the term “local” starts to lose all its modern meaning.

Andy Nieblas. Photo by Thomas Lodin.

Archeological evidence suggests the Acjachemen people have continuously inhabited the area for more than 10,000 years. Long before the first stone block in the Egyptian pyramids was placed, Nieblas’ many-times-over great-grandfather was probably hanging out at Capo Beach near the mouth of San Juan Creek, taking a dip in the tepid ocean on a hot summer day, feeling the innate human joy of being pushed by a wave.

In coastal terms, traditional Acjachemen territory roughly spans from Seal Beach to Oceanside, and the Acjachemen people developed a system of fishing with abalone hooks and hand spears that they’d take hunting in the kelp forests. If you thought shaping a surfboard was hard, try crafting a pine canoe by hand and then paddling it 30 miles to Catalina—which the Acjachemen regularly did to trade soapstone and otter skins with the Tongva people, native to present-day Los Angeles, and other Southern California tribes.

Like many of those groups, the Acjachemen have a deep connection to the land and water, which was reflected in every aspect of their lives: creation stories, hunting and fishing practices, and religious ceremonies, among others. Through thousands of years of observing and interacting with their ecosystem, they also mastered something that Western culture is only just beginning to grapple with: the idea of living sustainably.

In more modern times, the Acjachemen have also gone by a different name: Juaneño. Like every California tribe caught in the great net of the mission system, they were given a new moniker by the Spanish priests who arrived on their land in the 1700s. Of course, that’s not all that the priests gave to the Native people.

“Priests concentrated Indigenous People into tight quarters and enabled crowd diseases to do lethal work,” writes Damon B. Akins and William J. Bauer Jr. in We Are the Land: A History of Native California. “Smallpox, measles, and dysentery regularly struck Indigenous People living at the Missions.”

These new diseases didn’t stay confined within the mission walls, either. The authors describe the devastation up and down the coast as being so severe that it left many communities unrecognizable. In the Santa Barbara area, for instance, the Chumash people abandoned entire villages due to population loss. And at the missions themselves, more than 37,000 Native people died between 1769 and 1834.

The mission period, however, was just the beginning of a vicious cycle of settler colonialism in which Native people were systematically cut off from their land, enslaved, and killed. California’s Indigenous population went from more than 300,000 before contact with

Europeans to roughly 150,000 just before the region became the 31st state in the Union in 1850. By the end of the California Gold Rush just five years later—a period that saw a “war of extermination,” in the words of California’s first governor, Peter Burnett, during which the US government armed California militias and paid bounties for the killing of Native people—that number had dropped to just 30,000.

Too often, the stories told about Indigenous Californians end somewhere right around there, with many today believing they simply disappeared. But people like Nieblas are proof that those who have always been on this land are on it still.

“In school, we’d be reading textbooks and I’d say, ‘I don’t really think it went that way,’” Nieblas says of the Indigenous erasure he saw growing up. “In those books, we’d get a half page or a paragraph, while the Europeans and everyone else get multiple chapters. You realize that people want to simplify that story, shove it into a little box, and seal it up so that they don’t have to deal with it. What happened back then was wrong, and it needs to be shared.”

To this day, the Acjachemen Nation is not a federally recognized tribe. But that hasn’t stopped them from maintaining their traditions, including their stewardship of the land.

In 2008, for example, Acjachemen activists were instrumental in blocking the construction of a proposed six-lane toll road adjacent to Trestles. Most surfers remember this as the “Save Trestles” movement, but for the Acjachemen, what they were saving was Panhe, or the “place at the water”—a sacred site on the banks of San Mateo Creek, which meets the Pacific near the peeling rights at Uppers. (The entire San Mateo Canyon, in fact, was once the site of one of the largest Acjachemen villages. Today, most of the land is occupied by the Camp Pendleton Marine base.) Acjachemen activists successfully argued that allowing the toll road to be built would be an assault on their heritage, and the California Coastal Commission denied the permit to build due in large part to their voices.

Acjachemen tribal member Andy Nieblas has a familial connection to coastal Orange County dating back over 10,000 years. Nieblas believes that whether he’s surfing where ancestors fished (above) or walking through what they built (right), he’s following in their paths. Photos by JJ Wessels.

At the mission, Nieblas and I sit on a bench facing the towering ruins of the Great Stone Church, a Greco-Roman-style structure that the Spanish priests forced baptized Acjachemen to build over the course of a nine-year period, from 1797 to 1806. Much of the church was destroyed in an earthquake just six years later, but the walls of the transept and sanctuary survived and have since been preserved.

I ask Nieblas how he feels being in this place. His answer is complicated. While the mission was the site of so much suffering for his ancestors, it has had an impact on his culture in ways that he and his community still carry today. He explains that when a member of the tribe dies, they hold a Catholic service at the mission in the ornate Serra Chapel before bringing the deceased to the nearby ancestral burial ground, where they burn sage and sing traditional Acjachemen songs. Over the course of many generations, these two seemingly conflicting belief systems have come to coexist within many Acjachemen people. Of course, there’s also the mission’s structures, which offer Nieblas a kind of physical connection to his ancestors.

“In a way, it’s very eerie,” he says. “A lot of bad things happened here, but my people built this hundreds of years ago—and it’s still here. People from all over the world come and see it, and I think there’s pride in that.”

Nieblas’ very existence is a testament to the resilience of those ancestors. And his connection to them is put on display during a south swell, stylishly sliding the breaks just downstream from Panhe.

I’m sitting across from Dina Gilio-Whitaker at a restaurant on the San Clemente Pier. Despite it being one o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon, the place is bustling—presumably with tourists looking to eat an oyster while looking out at where it hypothetically came from. A gentle breeze lightly churns the water as surfers dance around the pilings below.

Gilio-Whitaker is a scholar, educator, and writer whose work exists at the intersection of Indigenous cultures, environmental justice, and surfing. She’s a descendent of the Colville Confederated Tribes of the upper Columbia River plateau, but grew up in Los Angeles, bodysurfing the beaches of Santa Monica. In 1980, she moved with her then-boyfriend to the North Shore, where she found surfing. At some point, she lived in what would later become the Volcom house, facing straight into the maw of Pipeline, and became one of the few women to surf it at the time. Nearly 30 years later, after leaving Hawaii and studying environmental justice through an Indigenous lens at the University of New Mexico, she penned her master’s thesis on the fight to protect Panhe. That thesis became a springboard for her 2019 book, As Long as Grass Grows: The Indigenous Fight for Environmental Justice, from Colonization to Standing Rock.

Gilio-Whitaker also had a hand in two unique moments of surf culture’s institutional acknowledgement of Indigenous people—the first being a written recognition of Indigenous tribes in the California Assembly bill declaring surfing the state sport, and the second being the WSL’s invitation to Acjachemen elders to conduct ceremonies at the 2021 finals at Trestles.

“We’re three generations separated from the coast, but it’s not that far. There’s some deep part of us that remembers.”

Out on the pier today, however, it’s her perspective on Indigenous people and environmental justice that feels most pertinent. While we look over our laminated menus, what will become the largest single wildfire in California history is raging in the northern part of the state. Just a month earlier, the Pacific Northwest had experienced something called a heat dome, with temperatures reaching as high as 117 degrees Fahrenheit and reports of sea creatures being cooked alive on the coast. A few weeks later, in August, NOAA will announce that July 2021 was the hottest month ever recorded on Earth, and the United Nations will release a climate report confirming in the starkest terms the link between extreme weather events and humanity’s burning of fossil fuels. 

“When Native people say that everything is connected, or that we’re all related, it’s not a metaphor,” Gilio-Whitaker says. “Is it any wonder that now we have climate change and so much environmental degradation? The world that’s been created here is based on the idea that everything exists in service to humans. There’s no long-term vision. Native people always applied the principle of the seventh generation, [meaning] whatever Native people did to the land—and they did alter the land with very intricate land-management techniques—it was always with the view of ‘How is this going to impact seven generations in the future?’”

As the climate crisis has escalated in recent years, there’s been growing interest in Indigenous land-management techniques, which supported thriving ecosystems across the continent for thousands of years before Europeans made contact. One of the most visible examples is the unlikely partnership between the US Forest Service and the Karuk and Yurok tribes of Northern California. The tribes long ago mastered the art of prescribed burns at certain times of the year—what they call “cultural burning”—to prevent fuel from building up and causing larger, uncontrollable fires to break out in peak fire season. But cultural burning also has other benefits, like creating grazing areas for deer and elk and encouraging new growth of plants like three-leaf sumac, which is ideal for use in basket weaving. Its smoke can even lower the temperature of the Klamath River, in which salmon can thrive. For generations, various government entities suppressed the practice of cultural burning, but as wildfires have become more and more devastating across the state, the Forest Service has turned to the tribes for their knowledge.

In another example, the Tolowa

Millennia before the area was called Black’s Beach, it was home to the Kumeyaay. Today, Native Like Water participants surf in the shadows of their ancestors—literally—as the bluffs behind them are Kumeyaay burial grounds. Bottom photo by Jimmy Wilson.

Dee-ni’ people of Northern California, whose traditional territory borders the Yurok at the mouth of the Klamath River and extends well into Oregon, have in recent years collaborated with the California Department of Public Health, taking samples of keystone species like mussels, smelt, and seaweed for lab analysis. The levels of biotoxins revealed in the samples inform community members of what can be safely harvested and consumed, as well as how warming oceans are affecting coastal ecosystems.

To Gilio-Whitaker, stories like these show how the deep ecological knowledge of Indigenous communities and Western science can work together to solve increasingly difficult environmental problems.

“This is a really big conversation in the world of science and environmentalism,” Gilio-Whitaker explains. “Because Western science always positions itself as superior. That’s the history of colonialism: Scientists think that they’ve cornered the market of knowledge, but Indigenous peoples—who have been here tending the land for tens of thousands of years—have their own kinds of knowledge that made their societies sustainable. Those two perspectives may seem diametrically opposed, but a lot of the work scholars like myself are trying to do is to bring these two systems of knowledge together in ways that convince scientists that they don’t have a corner on the market—that there are things to learn.”

Gilio-Whitaker, who frequently speaks at universities and environmental conferences, says that people seem to be more receptive to Indigenous perspectives on conservation than ever before—even people from Western science backgrounds.

There are plenty of reasons for surfers to seek out Indigenous perspectives. Besides the fact that surfing as we know it stems from an Indigenous Polynesian cultural expression, Indigenous cultures offer an alternative framework for looking at natural places and our relationship to them. It’s becoming increasingly clear that when we look at a resource—whether it’s lithium, lumber, or waves—as merely something to exploit for our own gain rather than examining its relationship to the natural world, things tend to end poorly for the greater ecosystem. That inevitably means they’ll end poorly for us, too.

Back in La Jolla, the sun is nearing the horizon and Chavez is stacking logs in an oceanfront fire pit as a handful of Native Like Water participants make their way in from their second session of the day. The group has moved a half-mile down the beach from Scripps to La Jolla Shores so that fellows, friends, and family can gather around a bonfire and a big pot of pozole.

After their morning surf session, a member of WILDCOAST, a local environmental nonprofit, and a Scripps graduate student led them on a tour of the pier, where they learned about things like toxic algae blooms and how seaweed both cleans ocean water and sequesters carbon.

For Chavez, the goal of Native Like Water has always been to empower young Indigenous folks by exposing them to a wide spectrum of scientific and cultural knowledge. But as intuitively exciting as that sounds to him, he knows the challenge is getting Native people outside their comfort zone.

“People don’t leave the rez, for the most part,” Chavez says. “Historically, they don’t trust institutions or feel comfortable going outside of their community—which is sad, because this is their natural habitat. But once they come back here and start to feel what that feels like again—setting off whatever memory is in their DNA—that’s a powerful thing. We’re three generations separated from the coast, but it’s not that far. There’s some deep part of us that remembers.”

As far as what initially draws kids to

Native Like Water, in session. Photo by Mayu Pazos.

Native Like Water, Chavez gives credit to surfing. “That’s the thing the kids remember the most,” he says. “And that’s what pulls them back, more than anything else.”

Shuuluk Leo-Retz is a surfer and member of the Kumeyaay tribe who has been involved in the Native Like Water program for years, both as a participant and as a mentor. “Seeing what that exposure to the coast and to surfing has done for kids in Native Like Water speaks volumes,” he says. “It gives you perspective about where we are, how we’re treating ourselves, and what our relationship is to our environment.”

Leo-Retz says it’s rare, though, for a tribal member to be able to work surfing into their daily life beyond the program. While Native Like Water offers a powerful experience for Indigenous youth, many live on reservations far from the coast. But as the bonfire grows along with the number of attendees—from smiling grandparents to sandy toddlers, some 50 people total—it’s clear the program has managed to make this place feel like a home.

A group of Kumeyaay men, each holding a halmaa (a maraca-like instrument made from a gourd, palm seeds, and a wooden handle), form a line just beyond the glow of the fire and begin bird singing. It’s a tradition that goes back countless generations to the time before European contact, with each song telling a unique story about the history of the Kumeyaay people and their connection to the land, and song cycles going on for multiple days and nights. It’s a practice that has survived against all odds, as those caught bird singing even two generations ago would have been harshly punished by priests and boarding school teachers.

While the trauma of the past can never be forgotten, it certainly isn’t at the forefront of anyone’s mind when the bird singers begin their performance and others from the group line up and initiate a traditional dance that accompanies the songs. The rhythmic sounds of their voices, the halmaa, and waves lapping on the sand do have a hypnotic quality that makes time melt away—almost as if we’ve all slipped into a collective dream.

I think back to Chavez’s words about what it means to bring this community back to this place, learning and recreating in ways both old and new, their “ancestors’ wildest dreams.” I wonder what dreams these young Native people will leave for future generations to fulfill.

[Feature image by Seth de Roulet]