2013-05-24 / Community

Archaeologist digs islands’ history

Professor uncovers artifacts from Chumash and other tribes of archipelago
By Dawn Witlin


GROUND WORK—Jennifer Perry, an assistant professor of anthropology at California State University Channel Islands, at left, led an archeological dig last month on Santa Cruz Island. She was joined by CI students, from left, Melinda Berge, Karissa Neri, Emily Largey and Monica Dollison. GROUND WORK—Jennifer Perry, an assistant professor of anthropology at California State University Channel Islands, at left, led an archeological dig last month on Santa Cruz Island. She was joined by CI students, from left, Melinda Berge, Karissa Neri, Emily Largey and Monica Dollison. Archaeologist Jennifer Perry shares her commute with pods of dolphins and herds of whales.

Several times a year the assistant professor of anthropology at California State University Channel Islands boards a supply boat to the Channel Islands, where she studies artifacts left by Native Americans who took up residence on the islands nearly 13,000 years ago.

She said she considers the job to be therapy for the dayto day stress of writing research papers, teaching students and meeting deadlines.

“No matter how tired I am, if I’m frustrated or if I’m having a bad day, I get on the boat and the boat starts stripping it all away,” Perry said.

The Channel Islands are an archipelago of eight islands off the California coast. The northern islands—which can be seen from Santa Barbara and Ventura—are Anacapa, San Miguel, Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa. The southern islands, visible from the South Bay and Long Beach, are San Clemente, San Nicolas, Santa Barbara and Santa Catalina.

Perry first became enamored with the islands as an undergraduate student at the University of California, San Diego, when she visited San Clemente Island in 1992.

Her research continued on Santa Cruz Island when she was a grad student at University of California, Santa Barbara, in 1997.

“I’m very passionate about the Channel Islands,” Perry said. “I’ve always been interested in how people relate to environments, how they make decisions based on their own cultural values and what they are valuing in the landscape and their seascapes.”

Perry has collected cultural artifacts on seven of the eight islands over the past 20 years to study the Chumash who lived on the northern islands and the Gabrielino-Tongva who lived on the southern islands.

The 39-year-old Camarillo resident said she feels a connection to the native islanders every time she discovers something new.

“Even when you encounter the most simple (artifact) it’s a powerful moment when you realize I might be the first person that’s picked this up since the person who left it 3,000 years ago,” Perry said. “Holding an artifact is the closest I can ever come to having a connection with them, and I take that very seriously.”

Perry conducts her research as part of a cooperative agreement with Channel Islands National Park Service. In exchange for access to the islands, she assists the park service with preserving and documenting the tribes’ artifacts.

As part of her park service duties, Perry completed a technical manual in 2012 for archaeologists who work on park property to ensure they are in compliance with local and federal laws.

Perry is also working on a park service resource project to compile an updated database of information on the known archaeological sites on eastern Santa Cruz Island.

The bulk of Perry’s personal research has been focused on Santa Cruz Island’s 30 known Chumash chert quarries.

Chert is a durable sedimentary rock which the Chumash mined to make tools, build canoes and manufacture their shell currency for trade.

“I’ve been looking at how people made decisions about where chert is located and what kinds of tools they were making and how that changed over time,” Perry said.

“Part of what I’ve been doing is understanding their relationship to the chert source, how it relates to their trade system and their whole economy.”

The industry of mining and manufacturing chert affected the politics of the Chumash society and their interactions with traders from the mainland, Perry said.

Some of Perry’s findings will be published in the book “California Channel Islands: The Archaeology of Human-Environment Interactions,” slated for publication in October.

Perry joined the CSU Channel Islands teaching staff in August 2012 after working as an anthropology professor at Pomona College for 10 years.

She is the first anthropology professor to teach at the university and will also be one of the first to teach students at CI’s new undergraduate research campus on Santa Rosa Island.

The Santa Rosa Island Research Station will serve university students and faculty as well as other universities, governmental agencies, cultural institutions, and national and international researchers.

Perry said combining her teaching with her research is a bridge that gives her students a physical connection with the history they study.

“I’m thrilled when you get a very jaded student, who’s never had any interaction with a natural environment, have a moment of epiphany when they’re on the island where they say, ‘Wow, I guess the environment does matter’ or ‘I am a part of something.’ That is huge.”

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