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Chumash Fight State Over Access to Morro Rock

MORRO BAY, Calif. (CN) - The Chumash Indians claim California has no right to allow members of another tribe to climb Morro Rock, a 576-foot landmark at the edge of the Pacific Ocean.

The Northern Chumash Tribal Council on Dec. 5 sued the Native American Heritage Commission, a state agency, and its Executive Secretary Cynthia Gomez, in San Luis Obispo County Court.

The Chumash say they have requested documents from the defendants that prove the Salinans have a long history in the city of Morro Bay.

"Petitioner believes that there is no historic of religious connection between the ancient Salinan People and Morro Rock, and they should not be allowed to desecrate a registered Chumash Nation sacred site," the complaint states.

The Salinan tribe is not a party to the lawsuit.

The Salinans claim both tribes have a history in Morro Bay, but the Chumash claim that Salinan territory ended north of the city, at the very northern portion of San Luis Obispo County.

"There is no record that ties the Salinan people to Morro Rock," Chumash attorney Dennis James Balsamo said.

Frequently photographed by tourists, painted by plein air artists and filmed in movies ("Murder by Numbers," "The Monster of Piedras Blancas"), Morro Rock -- sometimes referred to as the Gibraltar of the Pacific -- was spotted by Portuguese explorer Juan Cabrillo in 1542. Quarried for 80 years, the majestic, dome-shaped volcanic creation has been a historic landmark since 1968.

The general public is not allowed to climb Morro Rock, which is home to a protected peregrine falcon preserve. But in 1999, John Burch, a leader in the Salinan tribal council, won a permit to conduct rituals atop the state-owned rock. Amid political pressure from the Chumash, that permit was revoked.

Since 2006, however, the Native American Heritage Commission has authorized the California Department of Parks and Recreation to allow the Chumash and members of the Salinan Tribe of Monterey and San Luis Obispo counties to climb it.

The Chumash-who say no one should climb the rock, including the Chumash - say the NAHC did not gather input from them before making its decision.

In Salinan folklore, Morro Rock - which they refer to as Lesamo - is where the serpent-monster Taliyekatapelta was destroyed. Salinan elders climb the rock on the shortest and longest days of the year.

A woman who answered the phone for the Salinans said the tribe would not comment on the matter. Terrie Robinson, attorney for the NAHC, said she could not comment on pending litigation.

Balsamo said the Chumash history in Morro Bay dates back roughly 10,000 years, and he doubts that the NAHC or the Salinans can prove they have a lengthy history in Morro Bay. If they can't, further legal action might result, he said, if the Salinans continue to climb the rock.

The Chumash don't mind if other tribes gather at the base of the rock, Balsamo said. "Just don't trespass on The Rock."

In 2001, the tribes, citing territorial rights, fought over who would oversee modernization plans for the Morro Bay Power Plant, within eyeshot of Morro Rock. The plant has since been shut down.

The Chumash also say in their complaint that the NAHC has required members of the Chumash to prove their ancestry. Believing the Salinans could be behind that, Balsamo said, he also seeks documents that might have led the NAHC to make such requests.

"It's unheard of that any Native American would be required to prove their heritage," the complaint states, "and petitioner believes its members were being singled out for harassment."

The Chumash seek writ of mandate, declaratory judgment and an injunction.

Historical, and prehistorical records of the two tribes are fairly sketchy. Anthropologist and linguist Edward Sapir classified the Salinan language as an isolate, though he felt it might have belonged to a theoretical Hokan language group, in which Sapir also placed Chumash and Seri.

Few if any Chumash are native speakers of the language today, and the Salinan language is believed to be extinct.

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