Charlie Cooke: The man who kept Chumash culture alive

Monday, February 24, 2014
Clifford E. Trafzer

Book Review

"TIQ SLO’W: The Making of a Modern Day Chief, Charlie Cooke, Leadership in Restoring and Sharing Native Heritage"

By Mary Louise Contini Gordon (Tucson: Amethyst Moon Books, P.O. Box 87885, Tucson, Arizona 85754, 2013), 315 pages.

Note: The book is available on Kindle and in paperback on Amazon. It is available at book stores on demand. More information at the Amethyst Moon Publishing website.

In 1994, Vicki Goldschlager, a representative of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, took her 4-year old daughter to Satwiwa, a Native place. The little girl arrived at the cultural site to learn the relationship of Native Americans to the natural environment in the coastal mountains rising above the Pacific Ocean.

Chumash leader Charlie Cooke, with the Indian name "TIQ SLO’W" or "Eye of the Eagle," led a group of children and adults on a nature tour. Charlie took a special interest in this young girl, insisting she walk beside him as they made their way along the trail. At one point in the walk, Charlie put tiny chia seeds in her hand and kindly spoke to her of the way Chumash and other indigenous runners carried small bags of these seeds, eating them for the high energy.

Throughout his life, Charlie Cooke was a man of high energy. He took many people by the hand to help them understand the deep relationship of California Indians with their natural and spiritual environment, a bond as ancient as the land. He led children and adults on nature walks pointing out the sustenance his forebears saw from mountain top to valley.

A voice for Native Americans

In 1988, Governor George Deukmejian appointed me to the California Native American Heritage Commission, a position I held for 22 years. Many California Indian people attended our meetings throughout the state, including a large, powerful, and soft-spoken man who normally sported a cowboy hat and leadership staff. I came know and respect Charlie Cooke who cared about the business of the Native American Heritage Commission, especially the protection of human remains and sacred sites.

When Charlie testified at the end of our meetings, he always had something significant to share about preservation and protection of places, plants, animals, and the remains of indigenous people. His interests in protection extended beyond the vast boundaries of Chumash Country. He was equally interested in the preservation of remains and sites associated with the ancestors of Gabrielino-Tongva, Kawaiisu, Ajachemen, Luiseño, and others.

Simply put, Charlie Cooke cared about the history, cultures, religions, and environments of all indigenous people, and he spoke eloquently about the depth of the spiritual and environmental foundations of all California Indians. This was his charge and his passion. He lived to preserve, protect, and perpetuate Native American cultures. The ancient spiritual beliefs remain alive today, in part, through Charlie’s work and the many people he influenced.

Dr. Mary Contini Gordon has captured Charlie’s Cooke’s dedication in this book about him. She has written an important cultural history of his work among the Native Nations of Southern California. She offers colorful details about Charlie’s life with her narrative and the words of many, many people who know Charlie well enough to add their voices about the effectiveness of this contemporary Native leader. Gordon centers her work in the environment that helped shape the character of Charlie Cooke—the mountains and Pacific coast in the present-day areas of Los Angeles, Ventura, and Santa Barbara. But Charlie’s interests and influence extends far beyond that area to much of California—into the deserts.

Before focusing her story on Charlie’s activism, Gordon lays the groundwork for understanding what made him the dedicated leader fighting for cultural and environmental causes. She tells about his youth.

The early years

As a young cowboy, ranch hand, and rodeo competitor, Charlie followed in the path of many California Indians who became involved in the cattle business during the era of the Spanish missions and then continued as cowboys into the twentieth century. Charlie developed a tremendous appreciation for the land from riding with and listening to his cowboy/Indian father over great expanses. Between 1953 and 1957, Charlie served in the Air Force overseas during the Korean War. There he honed the leadership skills that he applied in Indian affairs once he returned to California. Concurrently, he started a long career driving a cement truck. Ironically, dumping cement was a factor in helping him learn even more a about American Indian issues, Native rights, and threats to a burgeoning California.

From this point on, Charlie spent his life preserving the indigenous association with mountains, islands, and trails located in the public domain such as civic parks, federal, or state lands. Gordon tells of his leadership in developing the Satwiwa Native American Indian Culture Center, a national park site surrounded by native plants and terrain. There and elsewhere he saw the connections between water, animals, and plants, which he often pointed out on his walks. He advocated for the preservation of human remains and sacred sites. He cared about protection of natural and cultural features, including trails, mountains, caves, water ways, pictographs, petroglyphs, cleared circles, effigies, and more.

Gordon captures all this. She also provides many details about Charlie’s work with scholars, tribal people, government representatives, attorneys, park rangers, and a host of others. Readers will learn about the dedication of other Native Americans such as Kote Lotah (Chumash spiritual leader), Vince Ibanez (Luiseño activist in the 1960s), Robert Dorame (Gabirelino-Tongva leader), and John Dawson (Apache) and Sallie Cuaresma (Creek/Cherokee) who were early directors of Indian Center West serving the greater Los Angeles area.

Gordon illustrates the interaction of Charlie’s leadership style over a 30-year period with that of NPS superintendents from Bob Chandler (the first at the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area) to Woody Smeck, who recently was superintendent of SMMNRA but took the post as superintendent of Sequoia/Kings National Park in 2013.

Gordon illustrates Charlie’s planning conversations with state park superintendents such as Dan Preece. She incorporates his association with high level decision-makers such Joe Edmiston, an executive with the Natural Resources Agency of the State of California. She interlaces much of the story with collaboration between Charlie and NPS anthropologist Phil Holmes. At the end of the volume, two National Park Service leaders, Woody Smeck and John Reynolds, deputy director of NPS retired, add insights to Charlie’s understanding of the land and his leadership skills.

Need for more Native American books

In sum, this book offers an examination into contemporary Native American leaderships and identity focused on cultural matters, not gaming, tribal government, or national Indian policies. The material is rich with people and topics important to American Indian history in Southern California. For some it will require a close read. Scholars, tribal members, and lay readers will find the bibliography highly useful, a presentation that may lead to future research about cultural preservation in California during the twentieth century. The index, however, could be more comprehensive.

Gordon provides one of the few accounts of modern Native American leadership, and her book on Charlie Cooke may well encourage other volumes on Native American peoples of the 20th century. Her book features the work to revitalize and preserve the rich cultural traditions of California’s indigenous people which includes stewardship of land and sea.

Charlie Cooke is a worthy subject, but Charlie would agree that many, many leaders among several tribes of California deserve examination. Their contributions have been great.

Like the heroes of the ancient songs and stories, Charlie has lived his life to support and continue the rich beliefs and spirit of Southern California’s first Americans. He is part of the indigenous continuum of contemporary California Indian nations. Cooke was born into a sacred tradition, which he sustained and perpetuated during his life. He conducted many blessings and ceremonies, interacting with indigenous and non-Native peoples. He is seen on the book cover in his youth and as a mature leader conducting one of these ceremonies. Gordon’s book enters his story into the annals of history as an example of many across this country who have worked to rediscover and promote what went before affecting what is and what is yet to come.

Clifford E. Trafzer is a professor of History, University of California, Riverside Rupert Costo Chair in American Indian Affairs.

Photo: Charlie Cooke taking children on a hike in the Santa Monica Mountains. Credit: National Park Service Archives circa 1982.



A must read book on the heritage of the Chief of the Chumash Indians, Charlie Cooke. A wonderful story of the influence of one man working with others and bringing this subject to the forefront. Mary Gordon did extensive research and has written a well informed narrative.

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