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Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Biographer Chronicles Chumash Activist’s Life Story


Chumash Elder Charlie Cooke has spent a lifetime fighting for the preservation of Native American cultural identity and history.
Oral historian Mary Contini Gordon, who has a doctorate from UCLA in educational psychology, has taught graduate courses in quantitative and qualitative research at California State University, Northridge, is in the process of compiling a biography of Cooke’s life.
At a recent National Park Service-sponsored lecture, she shared her information organizing techniques and some anecdotes culled from many hours of interviews with Cooke and his contemporaries.
Over the course of a year, Gordon conducted more than 26 interviews with Cooke, who has been a cowboy, construction worker, archeological expert, Korean War veteran and lifelong Native American advocate. She also traveled with him to dozens of sites that have been important in Cooke’s life and interviewed numerous friends, family members and associates.
The data she amassed—including many hours of phone interviews—has been transcribed and entered into a spreadsheet software program. This unconventional tool has enabled Gordon to sort and organize the information to an unusual degree.
The searchable database and audio of the actual interviews will be archived with the National Park Service when the project is complete, allowing future researchers access to the entire body of oral history Gordon has collected.
Cooke, a hereditary Chumash chief who represents five generations of Chumash heritage, has fought to set standards for archaeological testing and monitoring and continues to testify for the protection of archaeological sites throughout the Chumash people's historic homeland, including Malibu.
According to Gordon, Cooke has had a great influence on how sites are monitored.
Cooke was also instrumental in the creation of the Satwiwa Native American Indian Cultural Center in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, which preserves and teaches about the local Chumash, Tongva cultures and other Native American arts and traditions.
According to Gordon, it was often easier to get answers from secondary sources than directly from her subject.
“He does not talk about himself. He's very humble,” Gordon said.
Some of the things Cooke did talk about were early memories. He received his Chumash name, Tiq Slo’w, from his father, because he could see great distances. “Dad gave me the name Tiq Slo’w, Eagle Eye, when I was seven years old,” Cooke told Gordon. Cooke and his father were traveling down a country road together, when young Cooke saw their neighbor’s pick-up truck approaching far off in the distance. “‘How can you see that far?’ my father asked [when the truck came into sight a minute later]. That’s how I got my name.”
Gordon also recounts an early memory that she said influenced Cooke’s entire life. A stranger stopped by his family's ranch and asked his grandfather about their last name, enquiring if the family was Mexican or Indian.
Cooke's grandfather, afraid of the stigma attached to being labeled Native American, reportedly replied “Mexican.” After the stranger left, the boy heard his grandmother shout to his grandfather “You are an Indian and don’t forget it.”
According to Gordon, that moment was a catalyst for Cooke. In 1959, Cooke was appointed hereditary chief, after a family conclave. The title passed from his grandmother to his aunt and then to him, as the most likely member of his generation to keep the tradition alive.
Their trust in him was well placed. Cooke has been influential in restoring the Chumash to their place not just in history, but as a contemporary tribe with a living culture, heritage and traditions.
“There was little awareness that the Chumash [still] existed in the 1970s,” Gordon said, discussing some of the catastrophic impact the Spanish mission system had on the Chumash and other California peoples, and the almost insurmountable difficulties faced by the surviving 20th century California Native Americans in reclaiming their cultural heritage.
“[Now there is an] awareness of California peoples,” Cooke, who was in the audience, said at the end of the presentation. “People thought we were all extinct. The missions took our Native American names.
“We are still here,” Cooke said. “Years ago it wasn’t a good thing to be called an Indian—like signing a death warrant. Our people never forget.”
“Tiq Slo’w, without you, some of the beautiful lands are here that wouldn't be,” Gordon said.
“I’ve tried to create awareness for Native Americans in California,” Cooke replied.
Gordon’s biography of Charlie Cooke is not yet ready for publication. She told the Malibu Surfside News that she anticipates completing the complex project in the next year.
Malibuites interested in learning more about Cooke and the Malibu area’s Chumash heritage are encouraged to visit the Satwiwa Native American Indian Culture Center that Cooke championed and continues advocate for. The center is located in Malibu's backyard, at 126 1/2 W Potrero Road in Thousand Oaks. It offers free, Native American programs almost every weekend. Cooke is a regular speaker, at the center, sharing his cultures stories and traditions.
More information and a calendar of events is available online at

ORAL HISTORY—Chumash Elder Charlie Cooke and his biographer, Dr. Mary Gordon, discussed the process of recording a life history at a recent National Park Service lecture. MSN/Suzanne Guldimann