Ernestine DeSoto


Ambassador of Chumash Culture



Anapamu, Malibu, Sisquoc, Sespe, Point Mugu -- these Chumash names are familiar to many of us on the Central Coast—we are not only surrounded by Chumash history here but we also have many neighbors who share Chumash heritage.  Archaeological and genetic evidence suggests that Chumash ancestors were among the earliest peoples in the New World, settling on the Central Coast and Channel Islands as early as 13,000 years ago.

  The ancient Chumash left signs of their presence in symbolic rock art throughout the region, including at Painted Cave on San Marcos Pass. The historical Chumash built the missions of our region, from Ventura to San Luis Obispo. At the Santa Barbara Mission, there is a Chumash altar that includes Chumash designs and abalone inlay. Their songs and stories persist into the current generation, and their seafaring and canoe building skills are celebrated with occasional tomol crossings to Santa Cruz Island.

  Among our Chumash neighbors is Ernestine Ygnacio De Soto, a Barbareño Chumash descendant and an ambassador of Chumash culture, “All you hear about are the conquistadors,” she observes, “we were here first.”

  The Spanish explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo explored the California coast in 1542, and recorded the names of many Chumash towns. Prior to the railroad and modern constructions, Santa Barbara’s Mission Creek met the sea in an extensive lagoon. One of the main Barbareño towns, Syuxtun, was located adjacent to this lagoon at what is now called Burton Mound, not far from the Santa Barbara pier.

  Ernestine can trace some of her relatives to Syuxtun. She was born in Santa Barbara and raised by her loving mother, Mary Joaquina Yee, the last native Barbareño Chumash speaker, and her generous step-father, Henry Foo Yee. Their house was always full with siblings and visitors, and the ever-present figure of anthropologist, John Harrington, who worked with Mary Yee to record and preserve the Chumash language. Their research partnership and friendship lasted over a half-century, and their work continues to be studied today.

  Ernestine remembers her mother’s stories well, “The Chumash parables were serious stories—these were not kiddie stories.”  They included fierce bears, trickster coyotes, and shapeshifters.  “I heard these stories every night.” As you appreciate Ernestine’s portrait, you might look for the bears that are symbolically represented.

  Ernestine began to research her family history over thirty years ago in a class with Professor Kristina Foss at Santa Barbara City College, and with anthropologist John Johnson, who was conducting his own studies using the mission archives. Their interests in Chumash history came together in this research. Since that time, she has become an authority on Chumash history, and with Johnson, co-wrote a script for the documentary,

Six Generations

, in which she discusses Chumash history through the perspectives of her maternal ancestors. Now an acclaimed film,

Six Generations

is unique in all of native North America for its portrayal of a single family line, going to back to Ernestine’s grandmother’s grandmother. The film highlights the strength of Ernestine’s family in facing the adversities of violence and dislocation that accompanied European settlement. In viewing the film, one not only learns about a critical chapter in California’s history, but one can also see that Ernestine comes from a long line of heroines.

Caring for the Community

  As a child, Ernestine attended Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic Church with her mother, where she continues to worship. As an adult, she has raised five children of her own. In addition to her deep interest in her family history, she also works as a registered nurse.

  In conversing with Ernestine about her work, one is immediately struck by the intensity of her compassion. “I worked at the Mission infirmary and fell in love with the guys here--they were all retired friars, Franciscan brothers and priests.”  She remembers many of them fondly. “The Mission is a big part of my life--it turned my life around—not in a bad way—in a good way.”

  Her passion is evident in her work for caring for the elderly and mentally ill—including those with Alzheimer’s and dementia. She also serves the soup kitchen on behalf of her church. She is the essence of charity, and encourages some of the chefs in town to share their soup recipes.

  “[One must have] love for your fellow man. How can you drive by all the people lying on the ground? We must take care of the addicts—most are mentally ill.” She is also familiar with the challenges of caring for younger family members who have mental illness.

  “There is a sickness of the soul in much of modern culture.” 

  “I want people to start looking into themselves and ask, what can I do to help?”

  Ernestine is a fierce advocate for those in need, but redirects the simply misguided. “I’ve run into people searching for a guru—they think that just by touching you they’ll get something magical.” People often have the expectation that her Indian heritage makes her a guru, but she doesn’t see it that way.

  Her friend, John Johnson, observes, “I have known Ernestine as a dear friend and sidekick for more than three decades. One thing I appreciate about her is that there is no artifice about her. She always speaks her mind, regardless of whether what she says might be considered politically incorrect by those nearby. She possesses a strong sense of what is right and wrong and does not tolerate falsehood in others. Her Catholic faith is very important to her, even though she does not excuse the Church for its role in the conquest of her ancestors.”

Chumash Elder

  In addition to her work in healthcare, Ernestine dedicates time to serving the Chumash community. She has formerly served as a trustee for the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, currently serves on the California Indian Advisory Council, and is also a museum docent.

  She feels a strong responsibility for preserving the past, and also carries a vision for the well-being and security of the Chumash people, especially the seniors in our community. “We [the Chumash] should be helping our own people.” “There is too much greed—it’s the new fire water.” “We need to come together as a nation—the Barbareño, Obispeño, Ventureño, Ineseño.”

  The Chumash are often referred to by regional designations, which are named based on association with the missions, including Ventura, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, and Santa Inés. The Ineseño Chumash (also called Samala) include members who are affiliated with the Santa Ynez reservation. The six Chumashan languages include Island Chumash and Purisimeño, which is associated with the Mission La Purísima area.

  Ernestine would like people to know that the Chumash are not only a historical culture, but many Chumash descendents are part of our central coast communities. “My family alone has about 160 people—in California, Alaska, Japan, Tennessee, Wisconsin…”  While Ernestine has lived in Santa Barbara most of her life, she has traveled widely and also lived for a year in the Wind River region of Wyoming.

  She loves to entertain her family and friends with large gatherings, and she loves to share Chumash stories, especially with children. In a collaboration with Marianne Mithun, a professor of linguistics at UCSB, she has written and illustrated a children’s book,

The Sugar Bear Story

, based on a Chumash tale, and incorporating Chumash words and designs.

  Ernestine is an active participant in scholarly conferences on Native American culture. She would like the young people to learn about Chumash languages and culture, and has encouraged others, including her granddaughter who studies linguistics at the University of Washington, “My granddaughter Regina is carrying the torch.”

  On being asked about her role as an elder, Ernestine thinks of her mother and notes, “I never listened to my mother but now I quote her all the time.”

  Says Johnson, “In tape recordings that have been preserved, I have heard Ernestine’s mother being interviewed. What is evident is that Ernestine’s manner of speaking comes from her mother, including her dry and ironic sense of humor. What I appreciate most about Ernestine is her big heart, and this is evident in the love that she brings to her profession of nursing. Her great humanity is exemplified by her care for those who are suffering.”

  Ernestine is an inspiration to all around her. When asked who inspires her, she immediately recalls her mother. “My mother was my hero—my best friend and the best mothering nurse.”

  Ernestine remembers conversations in the Barbareño Chumash language, between her mother and uncle and she freely shares Chumash phrases so you can hear what the language sounds like, and afterwards she says, “Haku.”

“ ‘Haku' is like aloha—hello and until we meet again.”

3 Mediums



Three mediums are used to create the portraits of people who represent a cultural or lifestyle influence in the Central Coast of California.  Each of them has an unique quality to make an interactive experience with you, the audience.

The first medium is portrait painting.  It is the most traditional and oldest method.  It requires that I commit to one important image that captures the essence of the person being painted.  These painting skills that have been passed down through hundreds of years to create a 3 dimensional image by hand on a 2 dimensional surface.  As the audience, you have a contemplative, quiet experience.

Secondly, there is videography. This is the medium of this century.  It gives us sound and motion and multiple images.  It allows the subjects to speak and share their story.  You can see their mannerisms and hear the inflections in their voice.  In addition, you can see the portrait being made through time-lapse photography and video.

The third medium is social media.  It is a fast growing technology that gives us a platform to connect as subject, audience and artist.  Not only can you see and experience the work at any time through art, video and the written word.  More importantly,  YOU  can interact and influence the project.  These mediums are all accessible on line through my website.

"This project is funded in part by the COMMUNITY ARTS GRANT PROGRAM using funds provided by the City of Santa Barbara in partnership with the Santa Barbara County Arts Commission and through the Colville Foundation.

Mike and Mimi DeGruy

Mike and Mimi DeGruy


Mike and Mimi DeGruy, portrait by Holli Harmon

The Golden Ratio

The tides are in our veins. –Robinson Jeffers

“Do what you love and you will become good at it,” Mike was known to say.

His passion for the ocean took him from the Gulf Shores of his childhood home to ultimately explore the world's oceans and record what he saw on film. With a career as a marine biologist and curator of invertebrates already established, Mike went on to become an acclaimed documentary filmmaker. Two decades ago, while working in Hawaii, he was asked to work on a film project on the American Trust Territories, where he met Mimi.


Mimi's path led her from Pennsylvania to study at Yale for a career in art conservation; her passions turned to working in television news and producing documentaries for CNN. In preparing for a documentary on marine life she traveled to Hawaii to meet the film crew. “She hired me,” Mike says.

Documentary Film

Mike and Mimi DeGruy are celebrities in the world of documentary film. Their combined passion for telling stories about the wonders of the ocean led to two decades of filming around the globe together. Fed by Mike's earliest passion for the ocean – he studied marine zoology at North Carolina and at the University of Hawaii – they made award-winning films for PBS, BBC, and National Geographic, to name just a few. Mike’s scientific background and early career included studying cephalopods and working as a manager of the Mid-Pacific Marine Lab and as curator of invertebrates at the Waikiki Aquarium.

Mike brought a biologist’s perspective to filming the behavior of marine animals. Mimi brought a storyteller’s perspective. She had an eye for the details that would captivate a popular audience. “Part of the magic of us working together is that we bring different disciplines to the table,” Mike reflects.

He observes, “When I first started filming [thirty years ago] there were few people working in this area [of underwater films]. Everyone knew one another. We would clean up beaches to make it look good. In reality we were creating an artful reality because we cleaned up the trash. In the last five, six, seven years, I have wanted to show the oceans as they are, with all of their warts. We have acidification, plastics, declining fisheries.”

The nautilus, the subject of Mike’s early research, is an apt metaphor for the fragility of the ocean. The repetitive spiral pattern of the nautilus is found in many examples in nature. In painting the portrait of the DeGruys, Holli incorporates the nautilus; sometimes used to illustrate the design perspective known as the Golden Ratio. It is similar to the Fibonacci equation, which is based on a series on integers often represented as an expanding spiral.

Like the spiral of the nautilus, Mike and Mimi’s influence has grown over the years, always connecting back with that awareness of the fragility of the ocean.


Mike and Mimi’s great passions have extended from inspiring wonder about the world’s oceans to educating audiences about our impact on the planet. Their recent films have linked the ocean sciences with how we live, illuminating our impact on the environment.

With the birth of their children, Max and Frances, now 20 and 16, their passion also extended to family life and the life of their community. Mimi is a great force as a nurturer in the community. She reflects, “One of my passions about living here is that it is a vibrant community dedicated to building a stronger and better community. I'm passionate about that for myself and my kids.”

Living on the central coast, many of us are familiar with the ocean’s daily and seasonal rhythms. Mimi observes, “[We need to] start looking at ourselves as part of the ecosystem. Without that sensitivity we trash it.”

Mike felt that the experience of a place, and particularly of his time in Hawaii, was enhanced by its mythologies, by its stories. They chose to raise their family in Santa Barbara. Not only is Santa Barbara a part of the spectacular Santa Barbara Channel, home to one of the world’s most diverse populations of marine life, but it is also home to a community that cares passionately about the needs of neighbors, with a thousand non-profit organizations serving the needs of everyone from children to elders, and fostering environmental awareness.

Mike and Mimi are highly aware of our impact on the oceans and patterns of consumption. “In general, people need to lighten their step. Live more simply.  Plant edible gardens.  People become overwhelmed, [they think] what can I do?” notes Mimi.

Mike reflects, “We need to rethink our relationship with the earth. We have the capacity to change the earth and that can be good or bad. We need a paradigm shift in the way we think about the earth. Go to a farmer's market. Take advantage of what's local. Start at home. Take a cloth bag [instead of plastic]. Maybe it's a good thing to think about reusing. If you can't reuse, recycle.”

After their children were born, Mimi spent more time at home and became involved in her children’s education. She observes, “As parents, [we have] our foremost opportunity to influence the world. I see people so hyper-competitive about what their kids should be. Allow them to find what they love.”

Mike says, “The idea [is] that you find what you enjoy, you get good at it;

it has value.” Mike gave countless talks to audiences of schoolchildren over the years. “When I talk with schools, with kids, I tell them, ‘Just start making films.’”

In watching the brief interview clip, it is immediately apparent that Mike and Mimi are devoted to one another, to their family, and to their community. Not long after this interview took place, in 2012, Mike DeGruy died in a helicopter crash, while working on a film in Australia.   His extraordinary life was honored by friends, as well as colleagues who became friends from, every corner of the world.

Mike and Mimi discovered ways to work together, with each bringing their own perspectives and skills to every project. Likewise, they intuitively adapted their partnership when they decided to have a family. They have led lives that have relied on their intuition and their unique passions, including shifting the focus of their respective careers.

How do we help children in our families and in our community to find their truest selves, to develop their own passions? The resounding message from Mike and Mimi is to follow your instincts. It is evident that Mike and Mimi found their calling, because their efforts to be great partners, parents, and filmmakers, have produced great rewards for their extended family, our community.

Together, Mike and Mimi established a legacy of inspiring and educating people around the world about the beauty and fragility of our planet, from distant oceans to nearby coasts. Mimi’s work to celebrate community and nurture our children to follow their own passions continues.

To see Mike in action, view his talk: Hooked by an Octopus.

To read Mimi’s inspiring and informative writings on nature, community, and children, visit her website at 

By Katherine Bradford 

Meet the Team

Katherine Bradford

Katherine is a writer and landscape painter working in California and the Southwest. She studied with visual anthropologist John Collier, Jr. at San Francisco State University and at the San Francisco Art Institute, and is a member of SCAPE. She has also enjoyed a career in archaeology, with a particular interest in the Channel Islands. "I'm inspired by the landscapes of places I've lived and worked, including coastal California and the high desert of the Southwest. Underlying my paintings are questions about what happened there in the past and how should we protect these unique places for the future."

"The Portraits of the Central Coast" project is a wonderful way to help celebrate our extraordinary neighbors and their day to day contributions, providing a sense of the unfolding history of our region, and illustrating the connections between all of us. I'm a longtime fan of Holli's work -- her approach to portraiture echoes the masters of past centuries and her project will no doubt be a valued resource for generations to come."

Tina Love

Tina is both a filmmaker and writer. 

Quastra Productions is a Santa Barbara based corporation formed by filmmakers Michael and Tina Love.  Their documentaries, feature films, and TV movies have been shown nationally and internationally, in movie theaters, film festivals, film series, and cable and network television.  


Their films include the feature documentaries

Santa Ynez River Wilderness (2013),  Much Ado About W. (2007)Last Man in Paradise(2011), and the feature dark comedy Hold It Like A Baby (2009), all of which had world premiers at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. Other works include the shorts Autumn Leaves(premier 2006 Santa Barbara International Film Festival)  and 

Destroying Angel(premier 2011 San Luis Obispo International Film Festival-winner best narrative short over 30 minutes) both written and directed by Tina Love.