The Journal of San Diego History
Winter 1979, Volume 25, Number 1
Thomas L. Scharf, Managing Editor

Book Review

Richard H. Peterson, Book Review Editor

Tomol: Chumash Watercrafts as Described in the Ethnographic Notes of John P. Harrington. Edited and annotated by Travid Hudson, Janice Timbrook and Melissa Rampe. Art work by Jane Jolley Howorth. Santa Barbara: Ballena Press, 1978. Bibliography. Appendix. Illustrations. Photographs. 207 pages. $8.95.

Reviewed by Catherine A. Callaghan, Associate Professor of Linguistics at The Ohio State University, author of Lake Miwok Dictionary (1965) and Bodega Miwok Dictionary (1970).

For the Iroquois, the world was a longhouse. For the Chumash Indians it was a canoe. The plank canoe (Tomol) was the “house of the sea,” far more valuable than the land house. Only the rich could afford such a treasure and the craftsmen who fashioned it formed a select guild and would let no one watch its manufacture except the apprentices. Since the Santa Barbara Channel, where many of the Chumash lived, was outside the redwood belt, they depended upon pieces of driftwood. They split these into boards which they carefully trimmed, smoothed, notched, tied together and caulked with a variety of special tools. The dimensions of the canoe aimed at depth and speed with a minimum of materials. The resulting vessel was fully sea-worthy and it impressed even the early Spanish explorers. It could be used for fishing, transportation, and commerce with the islands. It was so efficient that some of the mission padres ordered construction to continue.

But cultural devastation was so rapid that canoe building was a dying art by the mid-nineteenth century. Fortunately, Fernando Librado, a Ventureno Chumash and one of the last members of the Brotherhood-of-the-Canoe, lived to the age of 111, and even more fortunately, he was discovered by that ubiquitous ethnographer, J.P. Harrington. The two collaborated in constructing a replica of the plank canoe which was exhibited for the first time during the Panama-California Exposition in San Diego on January 1, 1915.

If Harrington had not taken detailed notes at the time, the elaborate art of canoe building would have been lost forever. As it was, it was moribund for fifty years until the vast collection of Harrington material became available.

The editors sifted through boxloads of Harrington’s data in compiling the present volume. Only those who have worked with these multilingual, cryptic and digressive notes can fully appreciate such a task.

The book begins with a synoptic introduction. Precise instructions on plank canoe building follow, augmented by chapters on the tule balsa and the dugout canoe. There is an additional section on the uses of the canoe, one on myths and stories concerning the canoe, and another on the abovementioned Brotherhood-of-the-Canoe. The editors modestly attribute authorship of these chapters to Fernando or Harrington and Fernando. They conclude with an extensive bibliography and a set of photographs.

The editors tested the data by supervising construction of an actual canoe from driftwood under the sponsorship of the American Revolution Bicentennial Committee of Santa Barbara. The canoe builders were Chumash descendants, and the resulting craft, named the Helek, has been to sea many times.

The volume represents another milestone in early California history.