Saturday, February 9, 2013

The Tomol Revival

In our most recent posts, which looked at the cultural background of the Chumash tomol and at tomol construction, both referred to replica boats – tomols that have been built since the end of "natural" indigenous use of this interesting sewn-plank canoe.
Tomol under construction by Fernando Librado, 1912 or 1913. (Click any image to enlarge.)
The first such replica was built in 1912 or 1913 under the direction of Fernando Librado, probably the last of the Chumash "Brotherhood of the Tomol" – the guild that built and used the boats. Librado, then 73 years old, built the boat at the request of John Peabody Harrington, an anthropologist who "discovered" (for the purposes of modern science) that the Chumash had not died out by the 1870s and were, in fact, still a living culture in the first decade of the 20th century. Recognizing the central role the tomol had played in Chumash culture prior to and well into the era of the Spanish missions, Harrington plied Librado with hours of questions about every aspect of tomol construction and usage, and had him build a full-size replica that is now in the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. (See the museum's pages on Chumash life.)

Librado's replica was not correct in all respects -- it used commercially sawn lumber and its shape was not quite authentic -- but through its construction, Harrington was nevertheless able to capture much detail about the building process, and through his intensive questioning of Librado, he was able to tease out the differences and arrive at was is probably a very accurate depiction of the boat's original form and construction. Harrington continued to live among the Chumash so intensively that he became one of them and, after receiving a post with the federal Bureau of American Ethnology, he documented their culture in thousands of pages of hand-written notes, leaving virtually no aspect of Chumash life unrecorded.
Librado's tomol in the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. (Photo from  blog Jack Elliott's Santa Barbara Adventure.)
In the 1970s there was a widespread reawakening of American Indian/First Peoples pride and culture, and in 1975, members of the Quabajai Chumash Indian Association built Helek, a tomol that took advantage of Harrington's notes and Librado's replica. (I've seen the word helek defined variously as hawk, falcon, and peregrine falcon.) This boat was launched in 1976, and it was campaigned on historic Chumash stomping grounds between San Miguel Island, Santa Rosa Island, and Santa Cruz Island in the Channel Islands group.
Plans for Helek, based on Harrington's description and Librado's replica. This is probably the most accurate depiction possible of a tomol.
Helek's maiden voyage.
Helek proved the be the first of several modern replicas. The Chumash Maritime Association was founded in 1996 and built the tomol 'Elye'wun (Swordfish) which, in 2001 crossed from the mainland to Santa Cruz Island: a 21-mile voyage taking 10 hours. Since then, channel crossings by the group have become a nearly annual event (the trip was cancelled in 2012 due to rough seas on the scheduled day).
'Elye'wun, built by the Chumash Maritime Association
A Google image search for "Chumash tomol" turns up photos of several additional replicas, although details on most of these have proven elusive. Some of them are clearly more authentic than others, and the quality of workmanship varies widely. Nonetheless, it appears that tomol construction is no longer in danger of becoming a lost art, and that it is being practiced by cultural organizations and individuals as a means of preserving both Chumash heritage and native skills.

I invite readers to provide information and photos about specific tomol projects. We'd love to learn and show more. Thanks!


  1. Thanks for the ongoing Tomol saga. All grist to the mill for ideas of the utility of planks and sewing technigues in boat construction.

    Glad they are building their own again, apart from anything else it demonstrates achievable technology for the amateur "primitive" boat builder in a medium other than "skin" boats, great those these are of course.

    Incidentally the sewn plank Ferriby Bronze Age boat reconstruction at Falmouth, Cornwall, is virtually complete and has a launch date of the sixth of March.

  2. Thanks Edwin. Please send us a link to any stories when Ferriby replica is launched.

  3. A few comments. First on the nature of materials. I have read that redwood wasn't used for building western boats because of its inability to hold screws and other metal fasteners. Still, I have started experimenting with using redwood in paddles and found that it has some good properties which the Chumash obviously exploited. Because the wood is brittle and relatively soft, drilling holes in it without metal tools is doable. Also shaping the wood by the use of abrasion is also made easier by the soft and brittle nature of the wood. No doubt, the rot resistance of redwood is an extra bonus.
    As for the authenticity of the replicas, or the lack thereof, we should probably be happy that someone is bothering even if the results are not perfect. Authenticity is an elusive goal in any case since replicators have to decide just how authentic they want to be. Most likely they will use steel tools, store bought cordage, sealant out of a tube and so on and the culture that supported and financed the construction of these boats is gone so that the replication tends to be a more lonesome activity than the building of the original was.
    But probably the most useful part of building replicas is to actually get people out on the water to let them experience what it was like to be out in a particular boat in a particular place. There's no substitute for direct experience.

  4. Hi. No disrespect, but the picture you have titled as 'Elye'wun is actually the Helek. That is my dad (second from front) and my uncles. They called themselves the Brotherhood of the Tomol. beautiful pic of them! thank you for sharing it.

  5. Luhui: Thank you for the correction.

  6. Doesn't the term "replica" imply that it's fake? The issue is the reinvigoration of a Chumash traditional practice of building and paddling tomols. They're not replicating one old canoe. A replica would belong in a museum. These are live boats, being paddled in treacherous waters.

  7. Burr - Thanks for your note. Since I find historic boat replication as an entirely praiseworthy endeavor, I don't perceive the negative aspect of the word "replica" that you seem to in equating it with "fake."
    In any case, the modern boats are being used not for the same practical purposes for which the Chumash designed and used them, but rather, specifically to harken back to the Chumash culture of the past -- to celebrate it, attempt to re-experience a small part of it. There are peoples in S.America and Africa who build dugout canoes as a functional tool, part of their day-to-day cultural needs, and they are not making replicas, even though the designs they use may be unchanged from centuries ago. But if I were to build an identical dugout, with good will and cultural respect, I'd call it a replica, since I'm copying a design for the sake of copying it. And whether I actually paddled that canoe or hung it in my living room on display (or if a museum bought it from me for a display), I'd call it a replica in any case.
    But in my opinion, the question is just semantics: I mean nothing negative by using the term "replica," and I think both you and I respect those who are building the new tomols.