In a long-overdue homecoming, the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band will have access to the Coast Dairies lands north of Santa Cruz for traditional ceremonies and stewardship practices.
Story by Traci Hukill, photos by Chip Scheuer
May 26, 2016—In the diffuse sunlight of a thin marine layer, a couple dozen people gathered yesterday on a windy hillside just north of Davenport to watch two men sign a historic agreement. The Memorandum of Understanding between the Amah Mutsun Land Trust and the Bureau of Land Management guarantees Amah Mutsun tribal members access to the 5,800-acre Coast Dairies lands, currently closed to the public, for ceremonies, cultural practices and “the perpetuation of Traditional Ecological Knowledge”—the land stewardship techniques practiced in this area for centuries.
“The MOU we are signing today allows our people to fulfill our obligation to Creator and to honor our ancestors who lived on these lands,” said Valentin Lopez, chairman of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band.
“It’s a signal that our members are willing to trust that the Bureau of Land Management will respect our knowledge, beliefs and ways. This trust has always been absent. ... Blessings and thank you to the Bureau of Land Management.”
The MOU marks the first time the local BLM Field Office has entered into such an agreement with any tribal group. It also marks the first time in 200 years that the descendants of the Indians who were taken into the missions at Santa Cruz and San Juan Bautista will have a place to congregate and practice their traditional ways, which include fulfilling a dictate from their Creator to “care for these lands and all living things.” They are important firsts for a small landless tribe of 800 that is not federally recognized, and which was nearly extinguished by waves of padres, soldiers, disease, hunger, settlers and real estate booms. Today, most tribal members live in the Central Valley, priced out of their ancestral home.
Rick Cooper, field manager of the Central Coast office of the Bureau of Land Management, noted the recent history of the property, which was donated by the Trust for Public Land to the BLM in April 2014.
“What better way to start the process of caring for and managing these lands than forming a partnership with the people whose ancestors cared for and managed these lands for thousands of years?” Cooper asked.
Under the terms of the agreement, the Amah Mutsun Land Trust and the BLM will share data and work together to protect cultural and biological resources. A top priority is surveying the area for historic cultural sites. In the small percentage (less than 10) of the Coast Dairies property that has been surveyed, archeologists have already found a handful of sites, suggesting more will surface.
Recreation trails will be directed away from these sites. That will continue to be the case even if the Coast Dairies land becomes part of the expanded California Coastal National Monument; the terms of the MOU are independent of national monument status.
Yet Lopez stressed that the tribe does not endorse cordoning off the land. “What we would like to see develop here is to teach the public how to have a relationship with the plants, with the animals, with the environment,” he said. “A lot of times with open space they’ll build a trail, but you can’t go off it. You’d better not touch the plants. You can bring your camera, but you better have a big lens if you want to see that plant up there on the hill.
“But for us, you touch the plants, you listen to the plants, and they’ll teach us. That’s part of the wisdom they have for us.”
For some, the implications of indigenous stewardship are thrilling.
“I want to express my joy for this occasion,” said farmer Kim Hayes of Molino Creek Farm, an inholding in the neighboring San Vicente Redwoods property to the east. “This is great. I’m really excited about the traditional ecological knowledge that can come down for this area.
“We have beautiful coastal prairies that I’m sure are here because of management that was done for centuries.”
One technique used by the Ohlone was controlled burning on a rotating schedule. The first year after a burn would bring tender shoots that attracted deer, antelope and elk, an important food source. The second year after a burn would bring cover for migrating birds, rabbits and other small mammals. Year three brought seeds and plants used for basketry and other household items. The system provided a steady food supply while preventing shrub from taking over the land. “People arrived here and thought it was wilderness,” Lopez has said. “It wasn’t. It was a garden.”
Asked whether the stewardship techniques practiced and perfected on the Coast Dairies lands might be exported to other BLM properties, Cooper answered in the affirmative.
“If we identify techniques that have potential value for stewardship of other lands, we always share that in every case.”
‘Place of the Cotoni’
After an opening prayer and song, Lopez gave some history of the indigenous people in the area.
“Welcome to the place of the Cotoni, who were people of Awaswas,” he said. “The Cotoni lived here 12,000 years. It was here they raised their families ... They knew it was imperative that their children learned the indigenous knowledge.”
The Cotoni (pronounced “Chatoni”) people traditionally inhabited the land near Davenport. Together with numerous other tribelets in the Bay Area, they formed the Ohlone, speakers of eight related languages, of which the local version was Awaswas. (Awaswas is also the name of the Santa Cruz region; Mutsun is the name of the San Juan Bautista region.)
At first contact, more than 30,000 Ohlone made their home in the greater Bay Area—the highest concentration of indigenous people north of Mexico City. When the California missions closed in the 1830s, it was a very different picture. Records showed that fewer than 100 natives who had been taken to the missions had survived. By the close of the 19th century, 96 percent of California’s native population had been wiped out. “Our history is tragic,” Lopez said. "The mission period, the Mexican period and the early American periods were devastating to our people."
Among the few local survivors a memory persisted: a prophecy by an elder who was taken into the mission system that seven generations of suffering would follow before healing came. In 2005 the Amah Mutsun tribal council—representing the descendants of those tribelets in the Santa Cruz and San Juan Bautista mission areas—decided the time had come. In 2012, with support from the Sempervirens Fund, they formed the Amah Mutsun Land Trust, “so we may conduct research to restore indigenous knowledge that we have lost,” Lopez said. “Our goals include teaching our young adults and youth the stewardship traditions of our ancestors. And we want to educate the public on the importance of indigenous land stewardship, establishing authentic relationships with Mother Earth and all living things, and the need for prayer and ceremony to maintain balance in all things."
The Land Trust is active in the Quiroste Valley on the San Mateo Coast. The Coast Dairies land provides a larger home base—and a place closer to the ancestral homeland—for these activities.
“Prior to this we’ve never really had a place to congregate, to hold our ceremonies, because we were a landless tribe,” said Amah Mutsun Tribal Treasurer Denise Espinosa. “This gives us the opportunity to do those things, to reconnect.”