Researcher gave the Chumash a gift: their heritage
Everyone thought the tall, strange white man was some kind of genius. But to teenage Ernestine De Soto he was a giant pain in the neck, a nosy, "Ichabod Crane-like" character who drew her mother's attention from its rightful place -- on her.

John Peabody Harrington studied De Soto's Chumash family for nearly 50 years, pumping her great-grandmother, her grandmother and her mother for the tiniest details of their lives. Everything fascinated him: the Chumash names of places mostly forgotten, of fish no longer caught -- even, to the family's puzzlement, of private parts never discussed in polite company. A brilliant linguist and anthropologist, Harrington had been just as relentless with countless Indian families throughout the West, but that didn't impress the young Ernestine.

"I was just a brat to him," she said. "He'd never speak to me if he could help it."

Toward the end of his life, Harrington was ravaged by Parkinson's disease, and De Soto's mother spoon-fed the lonely old man. Sometimes De Soto's 5-year-old daughter would tickle his feet. In a few months, he would die, poor and obscure, most of his obsessively collected notes gathering dust in barn lofts and attics. But over time his work would profoundly influence De Soto and many other Native Americans whose heritage was on the verge of vanishing.

"It's due to his madness that we are who we are today," said De Soto, a 71-year-old nurse who works at a Santa Barbara rest home. "We have a language. We have an identity."

Paranoid and secretive, Harrington was a fiercely devoted researcher of California tribes. He had a particular fascination with the Chumash, recording virtually every sound and word of their language, every nuance of their belief system and daily lives. As he did with other Native Americans until his death in 1961, he furiously quizzed De Soto's relatives for days at a time, sometimes recording their recollections on wax cylinders or scratchy aluminum disks.

At her kitchen table, De Soto vividly recalled how annoyed she was by the Smithsonian researcher's constant questions on "everything from the hair on top of your head to how you trim your toenails." Just as vividly, she slips into the voices of long-gone family members, telling stories that, but for Harrington, would have been lost.

From time to time, De Soto stages one-woman presentations portraying female ancestors back to her great-great-great-grandmother Maria Paula, who was born in 1769, the year Spanish explorer Gaspar de Portola trekked up the coast through Santa Barbara.

Her stories start in a Chumash beach village and culminate with the trials of a modern Chumash woman: Ernestine.

Boat-builders and astronomers, the Chumash lived in villages scattered from Malibu to Morro Bay and spoke about eight dialects that are virtually separate languages. Before Spanish colonization, there were as many as 20,000; by the end of the mission system in the 1830s, there were perhaps 3,000. Most died in epidemics.

None of this was of more than passing interest to the young Ernestine. Today, though, she's intensely proud of her lineage in Santa Barbara's Barbareño band of Chumash. She says her DNA is a rare strain of Haplogroup D, a genetic sequence that links her to present-day Ecuadorean tribesmen and a 10,000-year-old human tooth found in an Alaska cave. And, though no full-blood Chumash are thought to survive, De Soto was pleased to be chosen years ago as the model for an early Chumash woman in a diorama at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History.

"As soon as I die, they'll probably throw it in the basement," she joked.

She also stars in the poignant documentary "Six Generations," a museum project produced and directed by filmmaker Paul Goldsmith that traces her roots to the days when Spanish monks established missions along the California coast. Generation after generation, the stories of De Soto's ancestors are punctuated by disaster, displacement and disease.

As De Soto uncovered them, they resonated with her.

By the time she was 24, she had five children and more hard lessons than she could count from a string of abusive men. For a few years, she drifted. At points, she was sick, broke, disowned by her family. Only in her late 30s did she start pulling her life together, taking classes at Santa Barbara City College. For one assignment, she wrote about her family -- for a while, she lived in a small house with 17 relatives -- and a tide of memories surged.

"It evoked feelings that were always there," she recalled. "They were just dormant."

Taken by a teacher to the archive of the Santa Barbara Mission, she met an earnest graduate student named John Johnson. His thesis was on Chumash marriage and family patterns, and he was intensely interested in Mary J. Yee, the last native speaker of Chumash. Yee, who had recently died, was De Soto's mother.

The two became fast friends.

With Johnson at her side, De Soto pored over the mission's records of births, baptisms and deaths. To learn about two of her great-uncles, she dipped into records as far afield as San Quentin. She scoured her memory for the old family stories her mother used to tell. And she dived into the microfilmed field notes of Harrington, her old nemesis.