PCC LOGO revised BLACKsquare web.jpg

Portraits of the Central Coast Blog

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.”