The Santa Ynez Chumash: A question of legitimacy

In a recent commentary published by Capitol Weekly (November 1, 2007, “Gonzo journalism gone wild”), Vincent Armenta, Chairman of the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians continued a litany of disparaging remarks concerning citizens groups and media outlets located in Los Olivos (POLO) and Santa Ynez (POSY), groups that have in the past questioned the Chairman’s leadership and tribal activities.

Behind all the comments and counter-comments made between the tribe and these two groups there is not only a question of distrust, but a core issue that centers upon the question of legitimacy. Myriad questions have arisen as to the legitimacy of the tribe, the legitimacy of the Santa Ynez reservation, and even the genealogical legitimacy of Chairman Armenta. We are confronted then, with three such core issues: tribe, reservation, and leadership. When these three issues are examined, we will be able to see why there is such a controversy.

First of all, there is the question of the legitimacy of the reservation. Chairman Armenta, in his May 2005 testimony presented to the Senate Indian Affairs Committee claimed that a reservation was established in 1901 for the Santa Ynez by the federal government. When the historical record is examined, we find this was not so.

In 1899, the Roman Catholic Bishop of the region bought suit against the Indian population living on the Church-owned lands at Santa Ynez. The Church, in its suit named five families who were the descendants of the original Santa Ynez Mission Indian population as defendants. In 1901, a settlement was agreed upon wherein the Church and a second property owner (Santa Ynez Land and Improvement Co.) agreed to convey the acreage in question to the Department of the Interior with certain stipulations, the principle one being that if the five families or their descendants ever abandon the tract, ownership would revert back to the owners. There were also other issues of residual rights. What is important also was the lands were being conveyed to the Interior Department, not to the tribe. The agreement was never put into effect due to title-related issues. The problem was still not resolved in 1940, when again the property-owners agree to “donate” the land to the government under a 1931 Indian donation Act.

Historical investigations into the resolution of this issue find no actions in the federal record that indicate that the federal government finally took ownership of the lands of the reservation. Yet we find in a 1967 document that the land is now a considered a reservation. Where is the documentation signifying that the United States took ownership of the reservation lands? Where is the documentation or announcement in the Federal Register declaring the existence of a Santa Ynez reservation? An additional question is thus raised. If the title to this land was assumed by the federal government as title-holder, how can these lands be declared to be “in trust”, if the Tribe never had ownership title to be placed into federal trust to begin with?

Our second question concerns the legitimacy of the tribe itself.  Both the tribe and the current Bureau of Indian Affairs leadership claim that the Santa Ynez received federal recognition as an Indian tribe by virtue of the 1891 Mission Indian Relief Act. Yet when the congressional record of the Act is researched, we find a listing of the names of the Mission Indian bands that were to come under this Act. The Santa Ynez was not listed among them. Further investigation reveals no subsequent amendment or specific legislation that places the Santa Ynez band under this Act. There were no subsequent Acts by Congress recognizing the Santa Ynez as a tribe nor were their any administrative acts by the Bureau of Indian Affairs bestowing such recognition. In 1964 the Santa Ynez voted to come under the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act. This vote would or should have declared invalid in that the band did not meet the qualifications or requirements specified in the Act to be eligible to come under its auspices (residing upon a reservation for one). Thus there is no record of the Santa Ynez Chumash ever having been federally recognized as a tribe nor was such an announcement ever published by the federal government.

Additionally, none of the current membership of the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians can trace their genealogies back to the five families present on the church-owned lands at Santa Ynez in 1901. As a matter of fact, none of the current membership can trace their ancestry back to the Santa Ynez band prior to 1940. Thus the result was a tribal constitution written in 1964 which required that the members of the tribe need only prove their Santa Ynez ancestry back to 1940. Bureau of Indian Affairs documents, census’s as well as federal census records from 1910-1930 described this post 1910 population as being Mexican, Shoshone, and from Senora (the documents do not tell us whether they meant Senora in Mexico or from the Senora Mission Band in Arizona)
Third, there is the question of Chairman Armenta. Vincent Armenta is the son of Manuel Armenta and his wife of German descent, Iona (Selig) Armenta. Manuel’s father was a “Spanish-Mexican” Loreto Armenta. His mother was Florencia (Pina) Armenta.

Florencia according to census records was listed as having 1/4 Indian blood in 1910. She was the daughter of Jose Deserderio who was born in 1866 at Purisima. Her mother Maria Antonia Pena was from Senora (Arizona or Mexico?). Maria was the daughter of a Maria Solares and a man of unknown ethnicity named Aguirres. None of these descent lines can be traced back to any of the five families so-named by the Catholic Church in 1901 as being the descendants of the Santa Ynez Indian community at Mission Santa Ynez. According to a Bureau of Indian Affairs census Vincent Armenta’s family did not move onto the Santa Ynez reservation until 1940.

Is it no wonder that  residents of Los Olivos and Santa Ynez question the legitimacy of the current Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians, its leadership, and by extension the legitimacy of their gaming facility established under the provisions of the 1988 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, and act intended for federally-recognized Indian tribes, residing upon federally established Indian reservations whose lands are held in-trust by the federal government. All POLO and POSY are asking for are accurate and honest answers to fair, legitimate questions.

Want to see more stories like this? Sign up for The Roundup, the free daily newsletter about California politics from the editors of Capitol Weekly. Stay up to date on the news you need to know.

Sign up below, then look for a confirmation email in your inbox.


Support for Capitol Weekly is Provided by: