The Amah Mutsun tribe rallies to save sacred sites

A proposed sand and gravel mine threatens the heritage of the central California tribe.

 

Wind rushed through the courtyard, billowing the banners on the stage like the sails on a ship. The Uwismak Singers assembled on the stage below the largest banner, which pictured the rolling California hills being ripped apart by bulldozers and cranes. The singing group, made up of multiple generations of Amah Mutsun people, stood with traditional clapper sticks in hand, wearing bright orange shirts emblazoned with the words We Will Protect Juristac. They opened and closed the rally with ceremonial songs, their voices echoing among the sleek glass and concrete towers of Silicon Valley.

The singers, along with several dozen Amah Mutsun tribal members and hundreds of their supporters, had gathered in front of the Santa Clara County offices to rally against the Sargent Quarry, a proposed sand and gravel mine on Juristac, the tribe’s sacred homeland. The county is currently considering the permit and is accepting public comment until Nov. 7. 

At the Amah Mutsun Rally for Juristac in San Jose, California, Hannah Moreno of the Youth Committee of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band holds petitions signed by 21,000 in opposition to the Sargent Quarry, a sand and gravel mine proposed on the tribe’s sacred mountain of Juristac.
Raven Marshall photo courtesy of the Amah Mutsun Land Trust

The proposed mine would be near the town of Gilroy, on the 6,400-acre Sargent Ranch, which encompasses most of the Amah Mutsun cultural landscape. Juristac, which translates to “the Place of the Big Head” in the Mutsun language, is a series of foothills at the heart of the tribe’s homeland that is covered with cultural artifacts and ceremonial sites. It is home to a vibrant oak savannah landscape that the Amah Mutsun have stewarded for centuries. It is also one of only two places in the Santa Cruz Mountains where wildlife can connect to other populations in the state, making it a critical migratory corridor.

When the Spanish colonized the region in the late 1700s, many Amah Mutsun people were forced to convert to Christianity and labor as slaves. Still, as devastating a time as the mission era was, the tribe retained some recognized rights to live and support themselves on the land of their ancestors, which became known as Rancho Juristac. When the land was sold to a white ranching family, the Sargents, in 1856, Amah Mutsun people continued to live on the land and have access to it. By the early 20th century, though, all the Mutsun families had either been evicted or left the ranch. 

The Amah Mutsun are direct descendants of the San Juan Band, which was briefly recognized by the federal government in the late 19th century. Recognition was rescinded in the early 20th century, however, and the tribe is currently petitioning to have its status clarified and restored. The Amah Mutsun were never formally provided lands, thanks in part to an Indian agent named Lafayette Dorington, who, without even visiting the community, declared in 1927 that “these Indians have been well cared for by Catholic priests and no land is required.”

From the Amah Mutsun perspective, the entire landscape is sacred and should not be disturbed at all.

The Sargent Ranch, which is located on the sprawling edge of Silicon Valley south of Gilroy, is still a working cattle operation that has relatively little impact on wildlife and cultural resources. But developers have long looked to build luxury homes and a resort there. Those projects failed in the face of intense public opposition, however, and the developers went belly-up. The San Diego-based Debt Acquisition Company of America purchased the property at bankruptcy auction and is now seeking to recoup its investment through sand and gravel mining. 

If built as planned, the 400-acre mine would inevitably damage cultural resources over its 30-year lifespan, according to the environmental analysis, since the sites in question are dispersed across and intertwined with the landscape. From the Amah Mutsun perspective, the entire landscape is sacred and should not be disturbed at all, whether by mining or by real estate development. Amah Mutsun leaders say they would like to see the land protected, with tribal members having a leading role in stewarding the land. 

The rolling hills of Juristac, an area filled with Amah Mutsun cultural sites. A sand and gravel mine is proposed for the area.
Photo courtesy of the Amah Mutsun Land Trust

Today, most of the Amah Mutsun do not live on their ancestral land, but they have nonetheless committed to reconnecting with and conserving it. The tribe’s Native Stewardship Corps program “brings the Mutsun people back to their tribal homelands to resume the Indigenous stewardship work of their ancestors,” according to its website. That mission would be hampered, to say the least, if the land is torn apart for gravel and sand. 

Alexii Sigona, an Amah Mutsun youth leader and student at University of California, Berkeley, has been involved in the effort to protect Juristac since 2018.  Sigona told High Country News that most of the 50 or so tribal members drove for hours from their homes to join the rally and speak up for the mountain. “I think just so many members know how much Juristac means for our people,” Sigona said, “and the potential it holds for healing and for bringing us together again.”

Noah Schlager (Mvskoke, Florida Cheraw, Jewish) is an editorial intern reporting from unceded Coast Miwok lands in Northern California. Email him at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.

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