Monterey Bay Area’s Native Amah Mutsun Seek Return to Lost Way of Life

Jul 21, 2016

Descendants of the Native Americans who lived on the Central Coast before the establishment of the missions have an ambitious plan.   The Amah Mutsun Tribal Band wants to restore ecosystems that once flourished here:  from the deer herds that roamed the land to the medicinal plants that sustained the tribe. It’s a plan that will take generations to realize, and the tribe is taking small, but real steps to get there. 

At Pie Ranch, an educational farm on Highway 1 near the northern border of Santa Cruz County, Abran Lopez walks through a garden he tends. Every plant is native to the Monterey Bay Area, and all were used by the Native Americans of the region. 

The garden is laid out in the shape of a medicine wheel; it’s a big circle with two paths crossing in the middle.  Abran explains that each quadrant is devoted to a different kind of plant.

“Over here we have seed plants. Over there are our berry plants,” says Abran. “And on that far side we have it set up for our crafting: a lot of stuff that we would have used for cordage and basket weaving.”

Abran and his brother Paul are members of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band. Their ancestor’s once lived in villages that dotted the region.  The plants in this garden were critical for a culture that relied on the environment. 

“The focus is the lifestyle, what we can learn from our ancestors,” says Abran. “The way they tended the land and how that would have affected their life and the landscape around.”

The brothers are in the tribe’s Stewardship Corps, a youth group that teaches them the culture and ecological knowledge that their people lost when they were forced to live at the missions in Santa Cruz and San Juan Bautista.

They’re learning how to make flour from native grasses.  It involves using a special stick to knock seeds into a basket and burning the husks off by adding hot coals. They’re also learning to identify plants like yarrow, and how they were used for medicinal purposes.

“When you actually learn the plants and their medicinal uses, it’s like you're walking through a pharmacy,” says Paul.

The Stewardship Corps is part of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band’s plan to re-learn lost knowledge. They’re collecting skills from other California tribes and the memories of their elders. 

Tribal Chairman Valentin Lopez references a 78,000 page oral history left behind by Ascencion Solorsano de Cervantes, an Amah Mutsun woman who died in 1930.

“So we’re able to go through to read about our culture, our spirituality, our history, our language our botany etcetera,” says Valentin.

Part of that re-learning also involves reclaiming land – in a sense.  The tribal band recently signed an agreement with the Bureau of Land Management allowing them special access to the Cotoni Coast Dairies property. Cotoni (pronounced chuh-TOH-nee) is the name of the village that once stood in that area. The land has been proposed for a new national monument.

Valentine Lopez says it’s all about returning to the spiritual path of their ancestors.  “They’re path was never completed.  And it’s our job to get back on that path so that we as descendants of the Amuh Mutsun can continue and finish that path.”

The agreement allows them to perform ceremonies and work with BLM to manage the land as their ancestors would.  This might include pruning manzanita bushes to grow straighter branches for tools. They may use controlled burning to maintain grasslands, a technique they studied in a project at Pinnacles National Park.

Having access to this land is important in part because the Amah Mutsun are not federally recognized.  They have no tribal reservation. Of the 600 or so members, most of them live well outside of their native Monterey Bay Area. In fact, to tend to the Amah Mutsun Tribal Garden at Pie Ranch, Abran Lopez drives every other week from Napa.

“It’s worth it to us because this is our homeland this is the land of our ancestors,” says Abran.

According to the oral history of Ascencion Solorsano de Cervantes, the Monterey Bay Area once hosted flocks of geese so big they’d turn day into night when they flew overhead. There were plentiful salmon, deer and elk. The Amah Mutsun hope the steps they’re taking now will bring them back in future generations.