Dispute tangles plans for Dana Adobe

The Dana Adobe is proposed to be the home of a visitors center, amphitheater and exhibits exploring the history of the local Chumash people.
The Dana Adobe is proposed to be the home of a visitors center, amphitheater and exhibits exploring the history of the local Chumash people. Special to The Tribune

A plan to transform Dana Adobe and its environs into a tourist destination and teaching center focusing on ranchos and Native Americans is in jeopardy after members of the Northern Chumash said they were frozen out of decision-making after they were used to secure a $3 million grant.

The proposal, long in the pipeline, was headed for what was expected to be a smooth approval by the Board of Supervisors on July 17. It would pave the way for a visitors center, outdoor amphitheater, and Chumash village with exhibits and “interpretive features,” among other changes and improvements.

But Fred Collins, administrator for the Northern Chumash Tribal Council, told supervisors that Dana Adobe Nipomo Amigos, the group pushing the project, has not adequately considered the thoughts and suggestions of the Chumash.

“The minute the grant was given, there was a complete change of attitude,” he said during the sometimes contentious hearing last month.

Collins said the board needed to support a continuance “or it’s going to go straight to litigation.”

The board approved the continuance to Tuesday and told the Chumash and Dana Adobe representatives to meet and work out their differences.

Backers of the Dana Adobe plan have sent out an email asking supporters to show up at the Tuesday hearing.There was initial reluctance on the part of Dana Adobe consultant Jan DiLeo to meet with Collins.

“We’re not sure any future relationship will (be) fruitful,” she said.

She said it might work, “as long as they’re respectful.”

“We’re trying to get a permit here,” she added.

She had hoped the board would grant approval July 17.

DiLeo said Collins had removed himself from the process and insisted that the Chumash will be well represented if the plans go forward.

“We’ve encouraged all Native Americans to participate,” DiLeo said, even though “Native Americans are not bringing any money to this project at all.”

Hanging over all this is a time limit: The county could lose grant money if it does not have the approvals by October.

Supervisors also said they don’t want to lose the project, or see it go forward “with a cloud over it,” as Supervisor Paul Teixeira put it.

Underlying the dispute is who gets to make a decision regarding the Chumash part of the exhibit.Collins said he wants it to represent a Native American vision and even become a place where Native Americans can congregate.

Collins made several broad general assertions about the history of Native Americans in the area that were disputed in a letter from an anthropologist, John Johnson, curator of anthropology at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History.

Johnson wrote that “there is absolutely no evidence” that the land in the area was ever used as a “great gathering ceremonial site.” In addition, he said, at the time Europeans arrived, there were roughly only 25,000 people who spoke Chumash languages in the region.

“There is no evidence (that) pan tribal gatherings of 10,000 individuals ever took place anywhere in Native California, much less the Chumash region,” Johnson wrote, and claims that they occurred at the Dana Adobe site are “a figment of someone’s fertile imagination and should not be considered credible.”

It is this sort of language that aggravates Collins, who, like many people “studied” by anthropologists from a dominant culture, likens them to outsiders stealing their history.

“You’re destroying our culture and handing it back to us piece by piece,” he told supervisors.

Although the Dana Adobe plan intends to showcase the contributions of ranchos and Native Americans for schoolchildren, tourists and others, it does not appear to include any plans that show the results of the interplay between the two subcultures — an interaction that did not turn out well for Native Americans.

Collins wants further analysis done by other archaeologists, with Native American input. He wants Johnson removed from the equation.

In his letter, Johnson touted his credentials as a scholar who has “specialized in the anthropological and historical study of Chumash peoples for nearly 40 years.”

Johnson’s scholarly credentials are important because supervisors must base their decision on the evidence, including credible expert testimony. If there is a “disagreement among experts,” Supervisor Bruce Gibson asked, do Collins and Johnson carry equal weight?

“It has to be based on more than their opinion,” Deputy County Counsel Tim McNulty said.