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.”

Reynolds Yater

"It is an interesting biological fact that all of us have in our veins the exact same percentage of salt in our blood that exists in the ocean, and therefore, we have salt in our blood, in our sweat, in our tears.

We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea--whether it is to sail or to watch it--we are going back from whence we came."

- John F. Kennedy 


Reynolds Yater, Yater Surf Boards

At least that holds true for many of us who have an inexplicable need to be near the ocean. One such person is Reynolds Yater.  Native to California, he was born in 1932 and grew up in the sleepy little beach town of Laguna Beach.  His childhood was shaped by the sea, where free time was spent bodysurfing and fishing.  Those were the days before "surfboards". Yes, there was a time, less than a lifetime ago, that “surfing” did not exist as a common household word.  Most likely, if you were to ask anyone in the world what they know of California, they would most often include “surfers”.  As Central Coast Californians, many of us recreate, meditate or earn our living on or around the Pacific, the largest of the earth’s oceanic divisions.  This massive body of water covers one third of the total surface area of the entire planet and laps at the western boundary of what also happens to be my home state.   As many of you already know, surfers have their very own culture, which includes fashion, music, literature, films and their very own language. The surf industry in the U.S. generates an estimated $7 billion annually according to the Surf Industry Manufacturers Association.  And Renny Yater was there at the very beginning.

Although the act of surfing is ancient and well documented in the Hawaiian culture, it really only became well known in California during the 50s and 60s. Hence, many of its founding fathers are still alive and hanging ten. Renny still surfs today, here in Santa Barbara, but more often down in Mexico where the water is just a bit warmer.  However, his earliest surf experience was on Doheny Beach in Dana Point. At age 14, Renny had his Dad drive him and his 90 pound Pacific System Homes Surfboard down to the beach to catch some waves.  This little honey cost a whopping 35 bucks used.  Brand new boards cost $55.  This was the era when surfboards were made of wood and could weigh over 100 pounds.  The strength that was required to haul a board of that size would automatically define who would and could participate in this water sport.  An early surfer would have to be strong, determined, and passionate in order to feel the “stoke” (slang adjective for feeling an exciting rush) from riding a wave.  Santa Barbara is also a winter surf zone, so only the passionate and stoically tough could endure our water temperatures. No wetsuits back then! You would also have to have a suitable transportation, thus Renny’s ’31 Model A was converted into a surf wagon. 

Reynolds Yater was there at the very beginning of the surf industry, starting out in Laguna Beach when surfing was still pretty “primitive”.  He did the fiber glassing for legends such as Hobie Alter in Dana Point.   Hobie would make 6 boards a week from raw wood.  By Thursday they were shaped, then Renny would start glassing them and they would be ready to sell by Saturday.  This was Renny’s first introduction to the surfboard business.   Later, he moved on to work with Dale Velzy in San Clemente. Here Renny was shaping the boards. At the time there were so many orders that they wouldn’t have time to clean out their work stalls, so he would be buried up to his waist in wood shavings. Dale Velzey called Renny “the best, most consistent shaper he ever had.”

After learning and perfecting surfboard craftsmanship with his Southern California counterparts, Renny came to Santa Barbara at the end of the 50s as a lobster fisherman.  As this was a seasonal business, he relied on his board shaping skills to augment his income during the summer.  By the end of 1959, he opened his own store, aptly named Yater Surfboards, on Anacapa Street in Santa Barbara. Our waves here on the Central Coast, inspired the design of theYater Spoon, which was one of the most innovative designs for Long Boards throughout the 60s.  This thin, light and maneuverable board was the perfect match for long, point break waves like those found at Rincon, just south of Santa Barbara.  Legend has it that Renny rode the biggest wave ever recorded at Rincon in 1969.  However, he won’t directly take the credit and brushes the claim off with “It’s just the way the picture was taken.” 

In the late 60s and early 70s, Renny designed the Pocket Rocket with Hawaiian surfing in mind.  This was at the early stages of the short board revolution.  Surfing legends, such as Joey Cabell, Gordon Clark, Mickey Dora, Phillipi Pomar, Kemp Auberg, Bob Cooper, Bruce Brown and John Severson have all been Yater fans and customers.  Renny is a living legend, featured in the John Severson’s surf classic Big Wednesday (1961).  HisYater Spoon and Santa Barbara Surf Shop t-shirt also adorn Robert Duval in the movie, Apocalypse Now (1979).  In addition to his well known craftsmanship, Reynolds Yater has an impeccable reputation in this world of surf.  He is not only known to have an incredible work ethic, but also to have a genuine humbleness in light of his celebrity.  This quality of character is mirrored in his commitment to his craft.  He continues to create exceptional boards that still require handcrafting.  This has been maintained by keeping his business small and local, and is remarkable when you consider we live in an unprecedented era of mass production and marketing, where branding can take precedent over quality.  

The surfing industries’ roots may be in long boards, but its line up now includes, short boards, big wave boards and stand up paddles.   However, Renny has such an understanding of the sport and the physics behind wave riding that he continues to be an innovator today.  Yater surfboards continue to adapt to the latest trends.  New designs include the Fun Shape and The Buddha Board as well as beautiful surf boards that are designed to be individual pieces of art. 

There is a wonderful room devoted to Yater surfboards at The Beach House Surf Shop in Santa Barbara. As you walk through The Beach House, you are surrounded by surfing lore.  The Beach House owner, Roger Nance, has quite a collection of retro surfboards suspended from the ceiling including the original Yater Spoon.  Boards like these are sentinels for the rugged history of this sport and hang in the midst of the other cultural icons such as bikinis and skateboards, that spun out of our surf culture.  Even if you don’t surf, I hope you will stop by The Beach House and take the time to pick up one of Renny’s boards.  Feel the smooth surface. Admire its shape designed to catch the perfect wave.  You will be holding a part of California’s culture personally shaped by Renny’s 80 year old hands. 

Renny Yater, quietly, but consistently, contributes to this multi billion global industry with the ultimate in cool:  the uncompromised quality of a hand made product. That is what I have chosen as the subject of Reynolds Yater’s portrait.  Him, working his craft, experienced hands, deftly, and affectionately finding his best work.  Timeless.