The Chumash and the Swordfish

By Davenport, Demorest; Johnson, John R. et al. | Antiquity, June 1993 | Go to article overview

The Chumash and the Swordfish

Davenport, Demorest, Johnson, John R., Timbrook, Jan, Antiquity


Evidence of a special relationship of the swordfish, Xiphias gladius, to the Chumash, a coastal and island people of Southern California, is available to us from a number of different sources: linguistic; ethnographic (recorded myths, ceremonial dances); archaeological (finds of swordfish parts, harpoon pieces, portrayals in Chumash art); and technical (fishing techniques and some facets of swordfish behaviour). Of extraordinary interest in the archaeological evidence are the so-far unpublished notes (with sketch) of David Banks Rogers, an early curator at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, describing his find in 1926 of a burial containing a masked 'Swordfish Dancer'. Taken together, the evidence indicates that the Chumash must have engaged in an open-ocean harpoon fishery for Xiphias and other large fishes and, as has been the practice of aboriginal folk the world over, called upon their shaman to identify with this 'master of animals' (in this case, of fishes) and thus persuade it to provide the community with food, either in the form of its own body or that of other large species, or of an occasional whale driven ashore.

Linguistic evidence

The swordfish was called 'elyewu'n (or a variant thereof) in the Central and Northern Chumash languages (Barbareno, Ventureno, Ineseno and Obispeno) and smaaw in the Cruzeno Chumash language spoken on the Northern Channel Islands. The word 'elyewu'n appears to belong to a class of Chumash names for animates created by nominalizing verbs. The verb stem on which the word for swordfish is based has not been analysed by linguists, but 'elyewu'n appears to be parallel in construction to names descriptive of animal behaviour like 'almatina'n 'one that slinks' used for coyote and 'ololk'oy 'one that goes around' for porpoise (Applegate 1972: 211). It has been suggested that the development of descriptive nomenclature for certain animal species may relate to their sacred role as spirit helpers (Kathryn Klar pers. comm.). Like many California Indian societies, the Chumash possessed taboos against casual usage of one's personal name, because of a belief that the name, as an expression of one's identity, might be used in sorcery to cause personal harm (Applegate 1975a: 195). The prohibition against common use of personal names may have extended to certain sacred animals who served as spirit guardians, resulting in the substitution of descriptive names for these species.

The earliest recorded evidence for the significance of the swordfish to Chumash culture is contained in a vocabulary collected at Mission San Buenaventura by Alphonse Pinart in 1878 from two elderly Indians, Martina and Baltazar, who had been born on Santa Cruz Island. Pinart reported that iskue was the Cruzeno Chumash name for a 'chief's head ornament made from the bones of the swordfish' (Heizer 1952: 46-7). This same word, rendered as icqwe', was recorded by the linguist-ethnographer John P. Harrington about 1913 from his consultant, Fernando Librado, in discussing the head-dress worn by a swordfish dancer at Chumash gatherings. Librado, whose parents came from Santa Cruz Island (Johnson 1982c), told Harrington that icqwe' meant 'base of the sword of the swordfish' in the Cruzeno Chumash language (Hudson & Blackburn 1985: 199). As we shall see, this word icqwe', then, indicates exactly what the swordfish skull, split for headwear for the dancer, is, i.e. the base of the sword. A different word, kaluia, recorded by Pinart from his Cruzeno consultants, apparently referred to the bill itself (Heizer 1952: 60-61). The existence of a distinctive term for the swordfish head-dress in the Chumash languages and its association with ceremonial dancers indicate a special role for Xiphias in Chumash culture.

Ethnographic evidence

A Chumash narrative recorded by the last Barbareno Chumash speaker, Mary J. Yee (1897-1965), during her linguistic work with J.P. Harrington (1986) provides an insight into the importance of the swordfish in Chumash cosmology (slightly revised from translation by Beeler (MS: v. …

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