A View from the Labyrinth – Morro Rock, California

Guest Post By Christopher Roth

Leaving San Luis Obispo and heading northwest on Highway 1, you travel through several canyons – where the hillsides are decorated with a wonderful peppery scented mix of sagebrush and chaparral.  The steeper canyon ridges are interspersed with gently sloping pastureland that is studded with the captivating elegance and expansive crown of Quercus agrifolia, the Coastal Live Oak.   Certain times of the year this landscape alone can resemble some sort of bizarre hybrid world – when surreal pastel base tones are overlaid with Kinkadian[1] light filters cutting through swirling mist.  When that dense Pacific Ocean marine layer pushes into the canyons one can spot little elfin foglets dancing in emerald fields as they evaporate in imagined splendor.  It can be quite beautiful.  Then you break out of the canyon, and on those clear, typically cloudless afternoons, you are confronted with the magnificent sight of a living behemoth – Morro Rock.

Morro Rock, if you have never seen it, is an impressive feature of the California coastline.  Morro Rock has been known as a sacred site to at least two first world peoples in the area, the Northern Chumash Tribe, and the Salinan Indians. Just one of the “Nine Sisters” (or nine volcanic peaks in San Luis Obispo County), Morro Rock is part of a relatively small, long since extinct volcanic complex from the Oligocene epoch that formed over 23 million years ago. Morro Rock is the last of the Sisters and is the only one that sits at the water’s edge. 

The Salinan people called it Lesa’mo’ and believed it to be a holy place where the Hawk (or Falcon) and Raven of ancient legend lured the two-headed serpent Taliyekatapelta to the rock where it wrapped itself around the base.  As the beast chased them into the air the birds took their knives and cut the Serpent to pieces.  Salinan elder John Burch remembered when he was as boy his grandmother would take him to the top of Morro Rock twice a year, on the calendar Solstice’s, to commemorate the defeat of the two-headed Taliyekatapelta.[2]

The council members of the Northern Chumash Tribe, however, have come to believe that the Rock was so sacred that it should never be climbed.  The Chumash called the rock Lisamu and insisted that “Lisamu is alive with life that needs to be protected and honored, not trampled upon.”[3]  Since becoming a state park Morro Rock had been deemed a critical species habitat and provided an immense rookery for migratory and seafaring birds as well as raptors like the once endangered peregrine falcon. 

Sparing the reader from the full-fledged Silent Spring[4] debacle and the tendency for DDT to remain in the soil for decades, it should be noted that the peregrine falcon was an endangered species, for reasons we will not fully investigate here, and it was the kind of endangered species that was adored by the American public and Government scientists alike.  Being a raptor, it hunts with uncanny vision and kills its food, reaching top speeds of up to 240 mph in its signature swoop.  It hits its prey from above, knocking it unconscious before carrying it off to its nest to be picked apart by its brood.  It is the fastest bird in the world, and it is renowned for its maneuvering abilities and trainability alike.  It is an apex predator and has been used in falconry across the planet for thousands of years.  In other words, it is precisely the kind of animal humans love to worship and Governments love to promote.    

Since 1969, climbing the rock was made illegal.  By that time, Silent Spring had been out for over five years and pressure was mounting from the public to establish Morro Rock as a peregrine falcon preserve.  It was an obvious place to make studies and record data with easy to document declines in several bird populations, not just the falcons.  On January 1st, 1969, Morro Rock was designated California historical landmark 821 and the entire surrounding area became a State Park and peregrine falcon wildlife preserve. 

In the years before it was afforded state protections, Morro Rock had been quarried extensively, losing up to 40% of its natural mass since colonial contact.  Originally it was blown up to provide the rock to build the Port San Luis Breakwater between 1889 and 1913.  According to construction records, approximately 250 tons of stone was taken from Morro Rock to build the breakwater.[5]  And as listed on the Port of San Luis website the breakwater at the Port of San Luis wharf was constructed by congressional action to provide safe harbor for the export of cattle and agriculture goods and import of lumber and dry goods.[6] 

Morro Rock continued to be quarried off and on as needed through the decades, all the way up until It’s 1969 landmark status.  In addition to the Port San Luis breakwater material, the stone for the enhancements at Morro Bay and structures around Morro Rock itself, including the present-day causeway connecting the rock to the shore, was also blasted off the massive rock face.  It is hard to imagine the original size of Morro Rock and how it might have looked before it was pilfered. 

Initially, before American Industrialists set up shop, and even before the Spanish missionaries and ranchos had established their dominion in the area, Morro Rock was an island, surrounded by water.  In her research paper titled Preserving Nature and Culture at Morro Rock Angela Dillon wrote of a time she spoke with “Patti,” the sister of the well-known Salinan Tribal member John Burch.   Dillon recounted a phone conversation she had with Patti in March of 2002.   Patti told Dillon a story that when Patti’s mother was a little girl, water completely surrounded Lesa’mo’ and that “Kids would take rowboats out to the rock, but they were unable to land because of the hundreds of little black rattlesnakes that inhabited it.”

Patti also explained to Dillon that the Salinan’s believed that “all rattlesnakes originated from those on Morro Rock.” Dillon opined in her paper that perhaps this is the reason behind the ancient Legend of Falcon and Raven defeating the serpent, the rattlesnakes being the remnants of the many cut up pieces of Taliyekatapelta that fell back to the land.  Patti also told Angela that “John had been climbing Morro Rock since he was a teenager” and wanted to obtain “legal” permission so he could continue to do so.[7]

Thus, if Burch had been climbing Lesa’mo’ all those years in accordance with his tribal customs and rituals, Dillon found it a bit irresistible to ponder as to precisely why Burch had waited until the year 2000 to express his interest in “legally” obtaining a permit to ascend the rock and resume age old tribal traditions with the state’s permission.  John Burch’s case sounded sincere.  What sort of elite educated environmentalist or overly patronizing government agency wouldn’t abide with such a modest request by one lone Indian?  Joe Mette, Superintendent of California Department of Parks and Recreation said at the time: “It’s broadly the policy of the department to allow reasonable requests for religious practices to take place on state park property.”[8]

Although the Northern Chumash were believed to be the exclusive inhabitants of the area, John Burch from the Salinan Tribe was awarded a permit from the CA State Parks Department in the year 2000 to climb the rock for “ceremonial purposes.” By 2006, the Salinan Indians, the CA State Parks administration, and the Native American Heritage Commission had sketched a use plan for a select number of Salinan tribal members to legally climb the rock on certain pre-ordained dates.[9]   

Perhaps by chance, but the year 2000 was also around the same time that the Duke Energy Corporation, who was at the time the lawful owner of the old PG&E steam plant directly adjacent Morro Rock, announced their intention to demolish the three iconic towers and build a new, more modern power generation station.  Had that demolition gone through, the company would have been required by law to have any associated tribal members present to oversee excavation should artifacts or burial grounds be unearthed.  As indicated in Dillon’s paper, some of the peregrine egg counting environmentalists and some of the local Chumash people suspected Burch may have been attempting to curry favor with Duke Energy executives in the hopes he might be awarded the responsibility of monitoring their construction project on behalf of the Salinan tribe. 

The Salinan tribe, being much smaller in tribal enrollment numbers than the federally recognized Santa Ynez band of Chumash Indians, (and the unrecognized Northern Band of Chumash Indians) could certainly have benefited from the added attention in the spotlight.  The process for a tribal community to become ‘federally recognized’ in the modern legal sense of the word is daunting.  It takes years, more typically decades, and along the way it often divides whatever fragile tribal community existed as the Elders who have been holding their people together for generations are once again forced to make concessions and negotiate with the Federal Government of the United States. 

In the year 2022, many modern tribes still struggled to gain recognition. I have imagined this process for the present-day Indian to entail a sort of hybrid necromancy whereby the Indian is asked to make a pledge to join the same violent fraternity that has violated him and denied him so many times before.  Hazing rituals may include reanimating generational bloodline traumas for the sole purpose of extracting tokenized relics that could establish legitimacy before the courts and possible trading rights with the enemy.  But then, at the very last minute, the whole hazing ritual will be exposed as a cruel joke, an elaborate production – and the room will be flooded with spotlights, leaving the poor Indian naked and exposed in his religion and worldview.  There he stands, the entire audience staring at him, laughing at him, amused amongst themselves that he fell for the same trick, again.

I will not speculate a definitive motivation as to the ‘why’ and the ‘when’ John Burch appealed for ‘permission’ from the state government when he did.  For purposes of this discussion, it does not matter.  What does matter is that regardless of his sincerity, John Burch drew criticism from both Northern Chumash tribal members and peregrine falcon crazed environmentalists.  In fairness of the environmentalists, there was a substantial return on investment at stake.  “Under a cooperative effort among the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, state wildlife agencies, The Peregrine Fund, Santa Cruz Predatory Bird Research Group, and the Midwestern Peregrine Falcon Restoration Project, more than 6,000 American peregrines have been released since 1974.”[10]

Infringement into the sensitive falcon habitat of the rookery atop Morro Rock was deemed necessary if performed as part of an employee’s official duties.  Authorized state agents and assigned personnel need not bother to obtain permission to do their job.  Officially, the peregrine falcon was removed from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife list of Endangered and Threatened Species in August of 1999.  However, post-delisting monitoring was set to continue until 2015.[11] 

The ‘to climb or not to climb’ dispute continued well past the Duke Energy plans to demolish the power plant.  The Chumash, despite admitting that their peoples had ascended to the top of the rock for ceremonies in the past, now insisted they would be content honoring those ancient traditions at the base of the rock.  The Northern Chumash Tribal Council (a separate entity then the Federally recognized Ynez Band of Chumash) went so far as to file suit in 2014 to prevent any claim by Salinan people to the rock. 

Dennis J. Balsamo, attorney for the Northern Chumash council, wrote in documents submitted to San Luis Obispo County Superior Court that “there is no historic or religious connection between the ancient Salinan people and Morro Rock.”[12]  The documents further asserted that the historic boundary between the two tribes was forty miles to the north at Ragged Point in Monterey County, as researched by the anthropologist Robert O. Gibson.

State Law in California required that the state parks department consult with Native American tribes when sacred sites of first world peoples are caught up in public works projects or marred in controversy.  The Native American Heritage Commission[13] was an organization set up in 1976 by the State of California legislature to, among other duties, act as legal counsel or mediator in such disputes as the one that brewed between the Salinan and Northern Chumash tribes. 

In a letter dated December 4th, 2017, the Commission reached the conclusion that while “Morro Rock is sacred for many Tribal communities and individuals…any climbing of the Rock should be prohibited in accordance with federal law.”[14] At the time of this writing, that letter was still proudly displayed on the Northern Chumash Tribal website.

To reach this rather unclimactic finding, the NAHC contracted with two Doctors who served on the State University payroll as college professors, both of whom had “extensive education and experience” and were “experts in this field.”  No substantiation was given as to how the experts had arrived at this distinction and no further appeal was made by the Salinan to divulge the processes the University Doctors and NAHC had used in their determination.  The peregrine falcon, perhaps itself a descendant of the mighty bird that defeated Taliyekatapelta, had been deemed the winner and was granted supreme roost on the rock.

The state, always eager to absolve itself of guilt (past present or future), evaded further entanglement by reminding both tribes that Federal Law (predominantly the Endangered Species Act and its lingering preserve for peregrine falcons) should trump any ancestral claims to the rock.  The state, despite acknowledging the rock is in fact state property and as such, did possess all legal authority necessary to permit or deny religious observances on top of the rock if it desired, did an about face and denied either party the right to climb the rock.  The state did this by enacting collaboration between two experts who also served on the state payroll. 

Lest I remind the reader, this is the same state who had acted as benefactor at the request of federal legislators a century prior to blast Morro Rock apart and build the Port of San Luis breakwater.  This is the same state that led the nation and developed its own pesticide law in 1901 requiring manufacturers to guarantee their concentrations.[15] 

The Northern Chumash Tribal council insisted this was some sort of victory for their Tribe and that “from now and into the future our most sacred Lisamu (Morro Rock) will be honored in a good way.”[16]

I see no winners. Nor do I see any losers.  I see only confusion.  I see confused souls swimming in a sea of cognitive dissonance where the continued tides of state violence ebb and flow, lapping relentlessly against the dwindling memories of a people that refuse to die, who refuse to drown as they bob helplessly looking for a ‘permitted’ place to moor their lost souls. 

Like Morro Rock itself, the Salinan and the Chumash have been blasted apart and stripped of their natural inherent beauty as human beings.  And as it too often the case, if anyone, or anything is to decide their lives shall be “improved,” it shall be at the sole permission of the same state or government or military that took away their birthright.

In August of 2022, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers held a ceremony called “Reunite the Rock.”  The purpose of the celebration was to “welcome home” rock that had been quarried to build the breakwater.  Many prominent Chumash leaders and people of other tribes gathered as pieces of the original Morro Rock returned by tomol (a type of planked, seafaring canoe made by the traditional Chumash) and the pieces were carried by human chain from the landing beach up the rocky shore where the stones were placed in a circle around a fire.   Col. Julie Balten, the Corps’ LA District Manager said: “The story of this reunification is one of hope and collaboration,” and “It is the story of realizing what is possible if we work together for something greater than ourselves.”[17]

Despite the fact that the Corps first approached the Northern Chumash in 2017 with their intent to merely remove and replace the stone during improvements to the breakwater, this recent event was orchestrated with much publicity as a way to, according to Balten, “support the indigenous people here, bring back some of their culture and reunite this rock.”  Only in 2021 was it determined that new, more modern rock would be required for the breakwater improvements and that the “old stone” would in fact no longer be needed.  Thus, despite this small concession, the ceremony marked the beginning of the return of Morro Rock.  While the project is slated to return the displaced rock, the placement area will be approximately 1500 feet west of Morro Rock in an area designed to “provide ancillary environmental benefits to marine species.”[18]

During the Reunite the Rock event one tribal community was noticeably absent, despite their long and well documented connection to the sacred landmark.  On the Salinan Tribe website Robert Piatti, Council member, Cultural Preservation & Protection Lead, offered his own opinion, quoted in full below following the Salinan Winter Solstice ascent of Morro Rock:

Welcome to Winter Solstice.  We, the people today known as the Salinan Tribe, welcome all to the base of Lesa’mo’, Morro Rock, as we share food and stories, and members of our tribe ascend to celebrate all that is sacred.  Sacred is the defining term – the Creator made the World, all the plants and animals, even all humans.  I personally believe, as Lakota spiritualist Little Crow taught, “Everything is Sacred.  Everything is Related.”

We are often asked, who owns Lesa’mo’, Morro Rock?  Isn’t this Chumash land?  Our answer is easy, but not simple.  Morro Rock belongs to nobody, but rather, we, the Salinan Tribe, belong to Morro Rock.  Our ancestors lived and prayed here, and we continue this today and tomorrow.  We are still here, and we will remain.  The very Western Civilization concept of “land ownership” is part of the heart of what troubles us all today.

Ignorance, greed and hatred are powerful evils.  Just look at dysfunctional Sacramento, war-ravaged Ukraine, the assault on the spirit of American Democracy in Washington D.C. for examples, and the fractionation (it’s a word, look it up some time – fractionation) of today’s world is on display.  Ignorance and greed win too often, and when they do, we all lose.  I’ve been trying to fight against ignorance and greed and outright hatred of others for just a short time now, and in those fights, I find myself challenged to not let those characteristics find their way into my own thoughts and words.

I wish to bring up something that happened this year.  The Army Corp of Engineers planned to bring rock material back to Lesa’mo, Morro Rock, under the belief that they were doing something right, or rather, trying to “correct a past wrong.”  The Rock should never, ever have been quarried, dynamited, but the illusionary act of returning rock added nothing positive.  Nothing made whole, nothing fixed, just a useless gesture from which some small groups of people profited.  Several cheered this effort, some as a public relations act by a specific pretendian (pretend Indians = Pretendians) group claiming, “see, we did good.”  Big woo hoo.  Our tribal council made the educated decision to not support this effort of ignorance, as we believed and still do that it was a wasteful and futile effort.  The returned rocks, that were dynamited and hauled away to build neighboring breakwaters, were always part of Lesa’mo’, but fractionalized and divided, just like the native peoples were by governments agents and church leaders.  Still, those rocks knew that they remained part of Morro Rock, belonging to it no matter how far away.

Our traditional lands the Salinan People belong to count a large swath of what is now known as the Central Coast of California.  Our 13 known villages stretched from Monterey County to the Santa Maria River, inland along the Temblor Mountains, an all along the coast, from Big Sur to south San Luis Obispo County.  We lived along the length of the River now known as the Salinas with which we share our name, from its Adelaide headwaters flowing north into Monterey.  But our ancestors – whether known today as Salinan, Chumash, Yokat, or European Colonizers – didn’t own any of that land.  The Land owned them.  They shared what they had with any who joined with them, as we do today.  As we recognize the Creator’s truths – Everything Sacred, Everything Related; and celebrate Solstice together, I want to say that, if you are here, today you are Salinan.  We are still here, and will be so tomorrow.[19]

[1] In reference to the style of the painter Thomas Kinkade.

[2] Dillon, Angela H. “Preserving Nature and Culture at Morro Rock,” Woodbury University, Burbank, CA, 2008, Accessed December 30th, 2022, http://morro-bay.com/morsels/dillon/.

[3] Covarrubias, Amanda. “To Climb Morro Rock or not?  Question 2 divides Native American tribes,” Los Angeles Times, March 14th, 2015, https://www.latimes.com/local/california/la-me-morro-rock-20150314-story.html.

[4] Carson, Rachel.  Silent Spring (Boston: Houghton Mifflin), 1962.

[5] Reese, John. United States Army Corps of Engineers, Los Angeles District Website, Corps Joins Chumash to celebrate reunification of Morro Rock, August 26th, 2022, Accessed December 30th, 2022, https://www.spl.usace.army.mil/Media/News-Stories/Article/3141283/corps-joins-chumash-to-celebrate-reunification-of-morro-rock/.

[6] Port of San Luis website. Port History, accessed December 30th, 2022, https://www.portsanluis.com/2206/Port-History.

[7] Dillon, Angela H. Ibid.

[8] Covarrubias, Amanda.  Ibid.

[9] Covarrubias, Amanda. Ibid.

[10] “Peregrine Falcon Recovery,” National Park Service, last modified December 17th, 2017, https://www.nps.gov/yuch/learn/nature/peregrine-falcons-recovery.htm#:~:text=In%20August%201999%2C%20the%20U.S.,of%20the%20Endangered%20Species%20Act.

[11] “Peregrine Falcon Recovery.” Ibid.

[12] Covarrubias, Amanda.  Ibid.

[13] Native American Heritage Commission Website, “About the Native American Heritage Commission,” accessed December 31st, 2022, https://nahc.ca.gov/about/.

[14] Rootamental.  “Honoring Lisamu,” Northern Chumash Tribal website and Letter to tribal attorney from Native American Heritage Association, December 20th, 2017, https://northernchumash.org/2017/12/20/honoring-lisamu/.

[15] Wilhoit, Larry. “History of Pesticide Use in California” Managing and Analyzing Public Use Data for Pest Management, Environmental Monitoring, Public Health and Public Policy, American Chemical Society, p.3 July 31st, 2018, https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/bk-2018-1283.ch001.

[16] Rootamental. Ibid.

[17] Reese, John. Ibid.

[18] Reese, John.  Ibid.

[19] Piatti, Robert.  “Winter Solstice address at Lesa’mo’, Morro Rock,” Salinan Website, accessed January 4th, 2023, https://salinantribe.com/.

3 thoughts on “A View from the Labyrinth – Morro Rock, California

  1. Elle says:

    Exquisitely written, thank you for sharing this fascinating story about this glorious place.
    The relentless Native American Indian colonization revelation stories that continue coming out genuinely give me great pause, to honor their pure worldly wisdom.

    Robert Piatti’s term, “Pretendians”, is absolutely priceless!

  2. I A n says:

    Great to read your latest post Alison. Just like the ancestors not owning the land & the land owning them, the post owned my consciousness reading through every delicate passage.

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