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California's commercial spaceport rises native land.

The State of California and the aerospace industry have joined forces to create the California Commercial Spaceport (CCS) near Santa Barbara. The spaceport is being built on 100 coastal acres leased from Vandenberg Air Force Base -- on land once the home of the ancient Chumash Indian nation.

Vandenberg AFB covers a vast area of coast containing numerous Chumash religious shrines and the remains of the ancient Chumash towns of Xoqto and Saspili. The spaceport is being built at Point Conception, a Chumash site known as Humqaq (meaning "The Raven Comes"). The Chumash believe that it was at Humqaq that the souls of the dead left the Earth to begin their journey to heaven.

For more than 30 years, military rocket launches and space shuttle missions have rained toxic chemicals and sonic booms over the coastal lands and waters of ancient Chumasia. More distant landmarks, including the sacred Chumash peak Iwihimnu (Pine Mountain) and the Tejon Indian Reservation, where many Chumash once lived, have also been affected by sonic booms from the space shuttle.

Rattlesnake Shelter, an important Chumash religious site near the spaceport that has been studied by many scholars, was not adequately addressed in the spaceport's first environmental impact report. Seen from a distance, the quartz banding in the rock face reflects the sun with a mysterious light. Rock art at the site, consisting of fine lines cut into areas of red ochre, includes ancient white-on-red images depicting a European ship and anchor.

Prior to the arrival of Europeans (and the cultural genocide of the California Catholic mission system), the Chumash were one of the largest native groups in the western US. Today, 200 descendants of the Tsmala Chumash inhabit the 99-acre Santa Ynez Reservation, the US' only federally recognized Chumash reservation. The majority of the 3,000 Chumash descendants live outside the reservation and lack both land and federal recognition.


The discovery of ice on the moon has accelerated the race to build commercial spaceports. The presence of water means the moon's mineral wealth can be extracted at a much lower cost than previously predicted. Water on the moon also can be converted into low-cost rocket fuel, enabling aerospace corporations to use the moon as a staging ground for commercial exploitation of Mars.

Last March, a report by a group of leading US space scientists estimated the minimum value of the ice on the moon at $60 trillion. NASA predicts that water extracted from a football-field-sized plot of lunar rock could sustain six astronauts for ten years.

The Christian Science Monitor followed up by estimating the amount of water on the moon to be enough to "enable a modest amount of colonization for centuries." Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), chair of the House Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics, reacted to the news by declaring: "American pioneers didn't bring lumber and food west in their covered wagons; they brought axes and plows and built a life off the land. Now we know that the same will be possible as we move into the solar system, starting with the moon."

Japan is set to launch a mission to probe the moon's surface in 1999, with Russia, China, Europe, and two private US companies set to follow in 2000. Several nations and six US states -- New Mexico, Nevada, Florida, Virginia, Alaska and California -- are competing to build a new generation of private, for-profit spaceports.

The prospect of increased profits for industry and increased revenues for governments have stimulated a space race between the US, Russia, China and Australia. In the US, the Vandenberg spaceport -- near a site believed to be the spot where Chumash souls depart this world for the afterlife -- is slated to become the space industry's commercial ladder to the stars.


A well-financed coalition between the aerospace industry, local and state politicians and big business has pushed ahead with spaceport construction Without consulting the Chumash or including them on their planning boards.

Due to a lack of media attention, the public has little understanding of the seriousness of increasingly contentious relationships between the aerospace industry and Native Americans. Also underexamined are the actions of economic and political powers allied against the Chumash over the spaceport issue. Events are moving so rapidly that the public may only learn about these power struggles after the fact.

To address native claims, California Commercial Spaceports Inc. (CCSI) contracted with Brian Haley and Dr. Larry Wilcoxon to research Chumash ethnohistory and the cultural validity of religious shrines in the area near the spaceport. After completing this research, they published an article in the December 1997 issue of Current Anthropology. The article suggested that the majority of Chumash lacked the necessary degree of continuity with their ancestral past to qualify to participate in formal negotiations over the preservation of Chumash historic and archeological sites. The article also questioned the validity of contemporary Chumash religious beliefs about Point Conception.

Haley and Wilcoxon wrote that "Chumash Traditionalists lack the kinds of biological and cultural linkages with the region's aboriginal past that they claim -- few are descendants of the aboriginal inhabitants they consider their ancestors." The authors argued that the only legitimate Chumash Indians were the 200 "nontraditionalists" at the Santa Ynez Reservation who are "descendants of the Catholic Indian communities in San Luis Obispo, Santa Ynez, Santa Barbara, Ventura and Tejon." The rationale for this favoritism is that a large number of the ancestors of these people appear in the California mission records. (How sweet it would be for the aerospace industry to deal only with this small band and to ignore nearly 3,000 other Californians who identify themselves as Chumash.)

Haley and Wilcoxon acknowledged that "A portion of our research was performed under a contract with California Commercial Spaceports, Inc.," but they did not reveal the dollar-amount of their grant.

The result of these charges was confusion in the public's mind over the proper role of the Chumash in monitoring future sites. Weren't any Chumash rights protected under California laws governing monitoring activities? Why was a representative for the oil industry challenging Chumash cultural identity so aggressively?

There is a certain amount of racism implicit in the legal argument that ethnicity must be dependent on European and Catholic rules of verification. One of the most important powers any cultural group possesses is its ability to define its own membership. If outsiders usurp this function, the group's self-identity is fundamentally compromised.

European imperialism was not gentle with the conquered people of the Americas. All too often, Spanish, Mexican and US armies were allied with proselytizing Christian churches. As a consequence, few native people volunteered to reveal the full truth about their religion to hostile priests. The most sacred truths were carefully hidden from the conquerors.

What this means for students of native California religion is that one cannot rely solely upon ethnographic materials when trying to understand the ancient theologies of the region. As a result of the ongoing repression of religious freedom among defeated populations, ethnographic data captured only a fractured view of the full richness of native thought.


The Haley/Wilcoxon article recalls a similar event from the 1980s. One of California's biggest environmental battles of that decade involved a plan to build a massive Chevron liquefied natural gas (LNG) pipeline through western Chumash lands. One of the most serious impediments to the development of Chevron's project was the presence of Chumash monitors at development sites.

In a 1989 article in the National Association for the Practice of Anthropology's NAPA Bulletin, Chevron's principal anthropologist, Mary O'Connor, argued that all contemporary Chumash groups lacked cultural validity. (O'Connor also acknowledged the trouble and expense Chevron encountered working with Chumash monitors at the construction sites.)

By dismissing all evidence of descent other than Catholic mission records, O'Connor denied the Chumash self-determination of their tribal membership and shifted authority to incomplete and culturally-biased records of hostile Spanish and Mexican colonizers.


The western coast of Chumashia is ideal for a commercial spaceport, Chumashia promotional literature advises, because it is ideally positioned to inject space vehicles into a broad range of popular orbits. Best of all, no over-flights will take place over populated areas.

The promotional literature ignores the negative impacts that rocket launches will have on coastal flora and fauna. Instead, investors are assured that they will benefit from reduced environmental permit requirements engineered by pro-industry legislators.

But what effect will the awesome sound of rocket liftoffs have on migrating whales, on the critical ocean flyway that links birds from California and Mexico to summer feeding grounds in the northern US and Canada, and on ocean mammals that rest and breed on nearby beaches and downrange islands?

Chumash traditionalists are concerned about the environmental cost of the spaceport in a region that is vital to the survival of many species, including the whales and seals that frequent the coast. Spaceport operations will increase the impact of sonic booms that can disturb both land and ocean-dwelling creatures.

The Guadalupe fur seal may prove a critical issue during future hearings on the spaceport. This rare species has been reappearing on the islands near the spaceport and is protected under Section 7 of the Endangered Species Act.

If the commercial spaceport is fully developed, the Santa Ynez Valley and the Santa Barbara coast could face growth similar to that which turned the San Fernando Valley into a "little Los Angeles."

Finally, there is the risk to people. The US Air Force is justly proud of a safety record that, over the last 50 years, has seen no US civilian population centers hit by wayward rockets. An internal military document obtained by Florida Today revealed the USAF's concern that shifting safety responsibilities to commercial interests could pose "potentially catastrophic consequences." In the heat of a profit-oriented atmosphere, the document suggested, a commercial operator might be tempted to try and save an out-of-control rocket, even when such a delay could run the risk of civilian casualties.


The situation seems daunting for the Chumash, environmentalists and no-growth advocates who are trying to preserve the Chumash coast from further development. Many of the world's largest companies have allied themselves with local, state and federal politicians as well as with top officials at Vandenberg.

A number of aerospace giants such as Lockheed Martin and Boeing (and newly emerging companies such as Kistler Aerospace and Pioneer Rocketplane) saw potential for immense profits if they could secure leadership in the California industry. In 1993, the California legislature enacted a law to exempt the commercial-space industry from state sales taxes. Supporters said the special tax favors would bolster California's competitiveness in aerospace: Critics called them corporate welfare.

Spaceport Systems International (SSI), the company building the spaceport, is owned by ITT Federated Services, a $9 billion (1996 figures) multinational concern with vast influence in US state and federal governments. ITT's contracts include expansion of oil fields in Oman, joint-ventures with powerful Saudi Arabian firms, development of radar facilities for the 30th Space Command and commercial support for Vandenberg's Ballistic Missile Defense Program (the reincarnation of President Reagan's "Star Wars" program).

One of SSI's major goals has been to align government and private industry to promote a pro-space business climate in California. SSI's website boasts that this effort includes a "public/private partnership [with]... over 20 aerospace and support companies; the US Air Force; and the State of California."

In 1996, California Rep. Tom Bordonaro (R-Paso Robles) authored Assembly Bill 1240, which exempts commercial space launches from "mobile source" air quality regulations. "Development of the commercial space industry depends to a great extent on the existence of low-cost access to space," Bordonaro explained. Without such an exemption, it is unlikely that the spaceport could have operated in a region already impacted by a growing population and emissions from offshore oil platforms. In a press release, Bordonaro acknowledged writing the bill at the request of the Western Commercial Space Center.

In 1997, Bordonaro joined State Sen. Jack O'Connel to author California Assembly Bill 1475, which placed the California Spaceport Authority under the California Space Technology Alliance to "promote changes in federal, state and local statutes and regulations." AB 1475 not only established a mechanism for channeling public funds into the development of space-related commerce, it also ensured the spaceport a unique place in the history of corporate welfare when it declared SSI the only California business exempt from state sales tax.

Governor Pete Wilson signed AB 1475 into law in October 1997. Since then, a new bill, AB 1765, has been introduced to remove sales taxes for all commercial space activities in the state.


The California Department of Transportation (CalTrans) may prove to be the next battle ground for political justice in this struggle. Existing laws have created a Spaceport Office within CalTrans charged with the responsibility to work cooperatively with the Western Commercial Space Center "to support rapid development" of California's space programs.

CalTrans is so entrenched in a pro-growth tradition that it likely will remain impervious to influence by the Chumash.

If CalTrans remains in the back pocket of military and civilian developers, the next best option for opponents will probably be to approach the California Coastal Commission (CCC). In 1997, Assembly Speaker Cruz Bustamante appointed four new members to the CCC. The appointments removed several pro-growth members and gave the CCC an 8-4 environmental majority. Fortunately, the CCC still has a lot to say about the environmental impact of spaceport operations on the fragile California coast.

Perhaps environmental and no-growth interest groups can still persuade the public to carefully examine the wisdom of the spaceport project, but if government and industry are going to build a spaceport, the price of developing such a facility should not include cultural genocide. Billions of dollars are at stake, and clearly the Chumash deserve the public's support in this classic battle between corporate America and a relatively impoverished native population.

On June 25, 1968, David Brower wrote a forward to a book called Almost Ancestors: The Last Californians by Theodora Kroeber and Robert Heizer. He spoke of the extermination of many of the First Californians and pondered the tragedy of someone's being the last person on Earth to speak an ancient native language:

Perhaps we can wonder a moment what it might be like to be the last man on Earth who could speak French.

Man has been forgiven often for knowing not what he does. For the kind of error that wiped out this kind of uniqueness, there cannot be much more forgiveness. Too many species are down to the last that speak their language, and organic wholeness will be lessened when they go, on whatever part of this planet they inhabit.

What lessens them, diminishes us.


"Three days after a person has been buried, the soul comes up out of the grave in thc evening. The soul goes first to Point Conception, which is a wild and stormy place... In ancient times no one ever went near Humqaq; they only went near there to make sacrifices at a great shawil shrine.

There is a place at Humqaq below the cliff that can only be reached by rope, and there is a pool of water there like a basin, into which fresh water continually drips. And there in the stone can be seen the footprints of women and children. There the spirit of the dead bathes and paints itself Then it sees a light to the westward and goes toward it through the air, and thus reaches the land of Shimilaqsha. "

-- Maria Solares Piliqutayiwit, 1912 as recorded by John P. Harrington

RELATED ARTICLE: The Chumash Straggle to Save Humqaq

In July 1978, a long caravan of vehicles led by Al Whitebear's white Jeep Cherokee passed the security checkpoint for exclusive Hollister Ranch, home to wealthy people with a taste for the rustic and wild country of the central coast, some 30 miles west of Santa Barbara. It proceeded along the narrow, winding road that overlooks ocean swells as they crash upon the rocky cuffs below. The collection of small cars, old vans, and pickups held more than 100 Chumash Indian activists and supporters.

Fifteen mites further on, the caravan reached its destination, a wind-swept coastal plain adjacent to a small bay named for Cojo, a Chumash master boat maker who once lived there, just three miles from the Point itself.

The next day, on the sheltered, sandy banks of a creek, the caravan established an encampment they called Shishilop, "the landing place." The occupation of Point Conception had begun.

For nine months, the encampment would be the most dramatic manifestation of resistance to a plan by the giant power company, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) to build a liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal on this pristine coastline.

It was designated a spiritual encampment, and time was taken up with sunrise ceremonies, sweat lodge purifications twice a day, communal meals, camping chores, around-the-clock security, hunting and fishing expeditions, and singing and story-telling at night.

Kote Lotah was the spiritual leader, Whitebear and Wan-Sak the security chiefs, and business was handled through councils of the men and women.

Non-violence was maintained by a general council where the late "Uncle" Therman McCormick (Luiseno), told the people to fight "using your religion."

The delays caused by the occupation eventually forced a reconsideration of the LNG project and in 1980, PG&E pulled out of the consortium.

Now, in the summer of 1998, development again threatens Humqaq.

To the east, two oil and gas processing facilities have been built and urban sprawl from Santa Barbara inches ever closer.

To the north, Vandenberg Air Force Base has been slated for a commercial spaceport, estimated to generate $200-300 billion in annual business by the year 2000. The environmental impact of 1,265 rocket launches between 1998 and 2007 is unknown. Humqaq lies within the fallout perimeter.

From "The Struggle to Save Humqaq Pt. Conception: A Challenge to Anthropological Domination Over Native Culture," published in News from Native California.

Dr. John Anderson [] is an ethnohistorian and the author of several books on Native American mythology. This commentary was excerpted from Anderson's soon-to-be-released booklet, Heavenly Pioneers: How America's Commercial Space Race is Fueling Attacks Against the American Indians [available for $6.80 from American Designs Publishing, Box 546, Kootenai, Idaho, 83840].
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Author:Anderson, John M.
Publication:Earth Island Journal
Date:Sep 22, 1998
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