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The area known as the Western Gate, the pathway to the afterlife in the Chumash religion, stretches from Point Arguello in the north to Point Conception in the south. (credit: Google Earth)

The Chumash Indians and the Air Force

I have a confession to make: I’m up here to talk about a subject that I don’t know anything about. But I’m from Washington, where not knowing anything is never an impediment to talking about it. Besides, I have actually decided to make my lack of knowledge the subject of this talk.

About five months ago Peter Westwick [one of the organizers of the symposium] called me up and asked me if I would like to speak at this conference. I told him that I’m a policy guy; I only write history in my spare time. And when I write history I write about programs, not locations. The places that things happen are really incidental to the stories that I want to tell. I could talk about some of the things that happened in the California aerospace industry, like the failed Hiller Helicopter facility in East Palo Alto where Lockheed built a top secret spy satellite, or how a handful of Air Force officers managed a highly classified weather satellite program out of a trailer in the back parking lot of Los Angeles Air Force Base. But we talked awhile and I mentioned to Peter that there was a story about an Air Force rocket launch pad that was supposedly cursed by the local Chumash Indian tribe. That’s interesting, he said, why don’t you talk about that?

The problem, I told him, was that I had only heard stories told to me second-hand. I had not actually done any research on this subject, and for me, research means legwork—digging through archives, conducting interviews, and performing intellectual heavy-lifting. You have to do the work, or you’re just a hack. But Peter persisted.

So I said I’d think about it.

Now usually when you’re asked to talk about something that you don’t know much about you have two options: either you can work hard to learn something about, or you can procrastinate and do nothing and then panic just before you’re supposed to give a talk.

I chose the latter option.

Monuments on the Central Coast

But surprisingly, this actually prompted me to think about the dilemmas that historians face when they approach a new subject. How do you gather information when there are no documents, no paper records, and your potential sources may not wish to talk? And how do you go about researching something that is outside of your area of expertise and treat it with the respect that it deserves?

How do you gather information when there are no documents, no paper records, and your potential sources may not wish to talk?

Vandenberg Air Force Base is one of two primary launch sites in the United States. Vandenberg is located at a spot in central California where the coastline runs primarily east-west. This is advantageous if you want to launch satellites into a north-south orbit that flies over the poles. The military launches its reconnaissance satellites into polar orbits because as they go over the poles, the earth rotates underneath them and they can therefore eventually see all of the territory underneath. If you are going to do this, you want a launch site with water to the south. The reason is that by launching a rocket to the south, the rocket is immediately over water and if it blows up, the pieces will fall in the water and not on any occupied land in California.

In the mid-1960s, the Air Force started construction of a new launch pad facility at Vandenberg which they designated Space Launch Complex Six, or “Slick-6” for short. They had already built Slick-1, Slick-2, and so on, and this was the sixth launch pad facility and also the largest that they started on the California coast. The purpose of this facility was to serve as the launch site for a powerful new rocket known as the Titan 3 which was going to launch a small military space station known as the Manned Orbiting Laboratory, or MOL. The MOL was a long pressurized tube with a Gemini spacecraft on top and two Air Force officers inside. Officially the MOL was to serve as an experiments test platform to prove if there was any military mission for men in space. However, by the latter 1960s the MOL had evolved into a powerful manned reconnaissance satellite.

In order to build Slick-6, the Air Force needed more land than they already possessed, so they used eminent domain to acquire an area known as the Sudden Ranch and owned by the Sudden family. The Suddens apparently fought this seizure in court, but they lost and the Air Force took the property, which became what is now known as Vandenberg’s South Base, and began construction of the largest launch complex on the entire base. Huge amounts of concrete and steel were hauled out to the coast there and a pad and launch tower were constructed.

But in 1969 the MOL program was canceled as a result of cost overruns, schedule slippages, and technical reviews that indicated that putting men in the same spacecraft with sensitive optical systems was not a good idea. The MOL was never launched. Slick-6 was incomplete at the time, but the Air Force received enough money to finish it before placing it in mothballs. So now the Air Force had a launch pad that had cost it at least tens of millions of dollars and which it did not need.

Fast forward to the late 1970s. The Air Force decided to use NASA’s Space Shuttle to launch its satellites into polar orbit. Because they could only reach polar orbit from Vandenberg, the Air Force had to launch the shuttle from there. Slick-6 was the obvious launch site for the shuttle and so the Air Force began converting the facility. This was a massive rebuilding effort that ultimately cost several billion dollars. However, it ran into problems. There were technical problems, cost overruns, delays, accidents, and allegations of drug use by construction workers. After the Challenger accident in early 1986 the Air Force chose to not launch its satellites on the Space Shuttle and so it shut down Slick-6 and again placed it in mothballs.

So by this time the government had spent huge amounts of money and not launched a single rocket from the facility.

In 1995 Lockheed took over the Slick-6 facility with plans for launching its first Lockheed Launch Vehicle. But this is slightly misleading. The LLV, as it was called (later renamed the "Athena"), was a very small rocket, Lockheed stuck it on a small corner of the massive pad facility and in pictures it looks like a pencil sticking up from the corner of a desk. They launched the rocket and it failed to reach orbit. A second rocket achieved orbit but its payload, a scientific satellite named “Lewis”, tumbled out of control, four days after launch. A third rocket failed to reach orbit when its payload fairing failed to detach and the drag and added weight prevented it from achieving orbital velocity. Three decades, three different rockets, and yet no successes.

The curse of Slick-6

Now flash back to the early 1980s when the Air Force first started construction at Slick-6 preparing it for the shuttle. This was also a time when an oil company was proposing building a liquid natural gas terminal to the south at Point Conception. That plan was opposed by the Chumash Indians who apparently protested against it. The Chumash also protested the construction at Vandenberg. They apparently held some protests outside the Vandenberg gate and at times Chumash representatives even met with the base commander, in full tribal regalia.

People can be stupid, and people can be superstitious, and undoubtedly some people chose to believe this rumor. But I suspect that for the most part it was a joke among the people who worked at the base.

At some time, probably when the Air Force began experiencing construction problems at Slick-6 in the mid-1980s, a rumor surfaced that the Chumash Indians had “cursed” the site. The rumor was that Slick-6 was built on the site of an “Indian burial ground” and therefore the site was cursed, and people claimed that this explained the delays and the cost overruns and the accidents… and presumably also the drug abuse among the construction workers. That rumor apparently existed for a long time and people who work on the base today are still aware of it.

People can be stupid, and people can be superstitious, and undoubtedly some people chose to believe this rumor. But I suspect that for the most part it was a joke among the people who worked at the base. It was the kind of thing they would say if they bumped their head or spilled their coffee—“that must have been the curse!”—and they laughed about it.

It turns out that the story is clearly wrong on several key points, starting with the claim of an Indian burial ground. There is no such burial ground anywhere on the Slick-6 facility. The Air Force did a careful survey before it began construction and the government is completely aware of every cultural and archeological site on Vandenberg and in fact there are several, including the site of the earliest known village in North America.

What is there, however, is what the Chumash refer to as the “Western Gate.” According to the Chumash religion, when a person dies their soul travels to the afterlife along that section of coast between Point Arguello (north of Slick-6) and Point Conception (well south). So the area does have a connection to Chumash religious beliefs about death, but it is not a “burial ground.” In fact, one possible origin of the myth of the curse of Slick-6 could be the 1981 movie Poltergeist, where a house is haunted because it was built on the site of an Indian burial ground.

But this is where I have to pause in order to be cautious and make sure that you all understand me: we do not know when this rumor first started or who first started it. And we do not know where its origins lie. We also do not know about Chumash Indian protests at Point Conception or at Vandenberg.

And by “we” what I really mean is me. Right now all that I have are stories told to me by a few people that I’ve talked to, only one of whom could be considered a direct source for some of the information. I don’t have documents or first-hand accounts. I’m probably the only person who has devoted much time to this subject and yet I’ll admit that I’m pretty much in the dark about it. I don’t know anything at all about the Chumash in the area. And I know almost nothing about their religion. Is there even such a thing as a “curse” in the Chumash religion? Or is this some superstition invented by the white man and applied to them?

In the late 1990s Boeing took over control of Slick-6 in order to convert it once again to launching a new rocket. This time they planned on launching satellites atop the large Delta 4 rocket. A contractor—nobody has told me who—decided that they needed to “lift the curse” at the launch pad, and so they hired a local Chumash religious leader to come to the site and perform a ceremony to lift the curse. When they did this they did not obtain the base commander’s permission, nor did they clear it with the other local Chumash groups, and so they managed to anger a lot of people. There are pictures of this ceremony—I know somebody who has seen them, but refuses to show them to me… because he wants to keep his job.

There is only one problem with all of these stories: nobody has ever bothered to talk to the Indians.

Now this myth about the supposed Chumash “curse of Slick-6” has apparently been around for decades. But it has never been written down. There are perhaps only a handful of articles that refer to it. The first one was written for a magazine in the mid-1990s by a friend of mine named Roger Guillemette. Later, he modified that article for more general readership, and it appeared on Florida Today’s Space Online website and was their most downloaded article—even ABC’s World News Tonight picked up on it and ran their own “curse” segment based upon his work. Last year the first Delta 4 was launched from Slick-6 and just before that occurred a few articles appeared that were clearly based upon Guillemette’s work and did not contain any original research. (One of them was written by Phil Chien, who was later exposed for fabricating several parts of his stories, including a nonexistent source used for his article on Slick-6).

There is only one problem with all of these stories: nobody has ever bothered to talk to the Indians. The Chumash were not a federally recognized tribe until very recently, which means that there are few federal records about them. And contacting them is apparently not easy, because they are apparently split into several groups and it is unclear which group to talk to.

Keep in mind what we are talking about here: white men telling stories about red men blaming them for bureaucratic ineptitude on lands that they took from the red men. For the Chumash Indians, this must be a deeply offensive story.

Now imagine if the shoe was on the other foot. What if somebody told a story about Presbyterians putting curses on people, or Baptists practicing voodoo, or Catholics engaging in cannibalism? Don’t you think that the people who practice these religions would be offended by these stories? And don’t you think that if somebody was going to write about these stories, they should start by trying to find out the truth by, perhaps, actually talking to these people?

page 2: attacking a myth and a dilemma >>