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SLC-6 image
Satellite image of the large Space Launch Complex 6 facility at Vandenberg Air Force Base. (credit: Google Earth)

The Chumash Indians and the Air Force

<< page 1: the curse of Slick-6

Attacking a myth and a dilemma

So this brings me to my dilemma: how does one go about researching and writing a history of this subject? What we have is a rumor that has been passed along by word of mouth among people at Vandenberg Air Force base, possibly for decades. How does one track down the origins of a rumor?

How does one track down the origins of a rumor?

Several years ago I visited Vandenberg to conduct some research for a book that I want to write. The Air Force public affairs office on the base was very accommodating and allowed me to interview several civilians who worked there. One of them was the cultural affairs officer who was responsible for all of the cultural sites on the base, including all of the archeological sites. If an archeologist wants to go onto the base and excavate for artifacts, he was the guy that they talked to. He was the one who answered a number of my questions about this rumor. And he was someone who had worked for a long time to improve relations with the local Chumash Indians. But all I have are the notes from that meeting.

While in the area I also went through about ten years of issues of the Lompoc Record, the newspaper of the town closest to Vandenberg. Unfortunately, the newspaper had very little information on Slick-6 or anything else concerning this subject.

I did make an oblique attempt to contact some of the Chumash through an intermediary. However, he told me that the people he knew were wary of talking to me because they thought that I worked for the Air Force. I did not have the time or the money to continue my research in the region.

(Mr. Guillemette recalls reaching out to the Chumash tribal offices on several occasions, once speaking to the tribe’s “librarian,” another time to someone purported to be a “tribal historian.” Both were aware of the so-called “curse” myth and one even alluded to how the Air Force “trampled on our ancestors” or something to that effect. What that meant is unknown, but after many phone calls and leaving many messages that were never returned, Guillemette also gave up on verifying the Chumash statement.)

So that was the limit of my research on this subject. The story of Slick-6 and the Chumash Indians was not the focus of my book and at most would only comprise a few pages of the book, so I did not take the time to track down more information on this subject. My hope has been that somebody else would do this research instead. And if somebody is to do this, they should not limit themselves to simply investigating “the curse of Slick-6,” they should expand the scope of the study to the relationship between the Chumash Indians and the Air Force at Vandenberg. This is just one aspect of that story.

There are possibly ways to research the story. First, one should start with a literature search. Start by searching through local newspapers and magazines from the early 1980s to see if anything shows up. I have already looked through old issues of the Lompoc Record and they were not helpful. But perhaps a better solution is to go through the records in Santa Barbara, which is much bigger than Lompoc, and see if the local newspaper and magazines mention anything about protests at the Point Conception site in the early 1980s.

There are probably no federal records that might help—not unless the Chumash protestors were arrested at Vandenberg’s front gate. There are also probably no private records of this story. There are photographs of the ceremony from the late 1990s, but the people who have them don’t want them to become public. But that’s the way to start, by going through public media and see what they have to say.

Another early step would be to contact museums or archeologists in that area who are knowledgeable about the Chumash and their history and their religion and culture. Maybe there are records such as oral histories of Chumash leaders, or even newspaper clipping files on Indian protests over the years. There are certainly books about the Chumash that might shed some light on this.

A primary goal of anybody conducting research on this subject should be to try and understand the Chumash and be sensitive to their culture. Although this was not a vicious rumor, it was not a very polite one—it was an attempt to blame the Chumash for the ineptitude of the American government and aerospace industry.

And so that is where we are at: an interesting story that has persisted for a long time and may never be properly researched and recorded.

In fact, I will be the first to admit that an aerospace historian is probably poorly equipped to research and write about this subject. There have been numerous times where I have read an article by a journalist who is obviously not a specialist in the subject he is writing about. And although he may have done a lot of research and his article may contain no factual inaccuracies, what stands out is that the author clearly does not understand the context of the subject he is writing about. He may report that certain things happened, but not explain, or even understand, why they happened. That kind of deep knowledge can only be gained after years of immersing oneself in a topic, and an aerospace historian may never be able to write about this subject with the kind of understanding, knowledge, and even empathy that is required to do it justice. An anthropologist who knows the Chumash may be better suited to this task. But an anthropologist may have no interest in this subject at all.

And so that is where we are at: an interesting story that has persisted for a long time and may never be properly researched and recorded. I’m hoping that somebody out there is willing to look into this and do the work and publish it, so that way I can read their account and put it in a footnote.

Author’s Postscript: After delivering a version of this talk at the conference, several people came up to me with some questions and a little bit of information. One person informed me that he used to work for one of the oil companies involved in drilling along the California coast and he confirmed that there had been Indian protests about the Point Conception site. He said that one of his bosses had been involved in negotiations with the Chumash, but that he had no other information about this subject.

Another person, however, made a bigger impression. “Chumash curses are real,” he said, and at first I thought that he was telling me something about the Chumash religion. But then he continued to tell me about a current park construction project that has been “cursed” by the Chumash. Apparently they have had all kinds of delays and accidents there too, just like at Vandenberg.

The depth of our ignorance is bigger than I thought.