Voice of Stewardship: An Interview With Valentin Lopez

The chairman of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band talks about his people’s past, present and future.

PUBLISHED JUL 18, 2022 7:51 A.M.
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Valentin Lopez at the ceremony to remove the bell at Santa Cruz Mission Plaza. To see the full video, visit RemoveTheBells.org.

Valentin Lopez at the ceremony to remove the bell at Santa Cruz Mission Plaza. To see the full video, visit RemoveTheBells.org.   RemoveTheBells.org

The push for Indigenous rights, recognition and reparations in California involves tens of thousands of modern-day descendants of the tribes who once thrived in all regions of the state before the Europeans arrived.

In an area that stretches from the coast of Santa Cruz County to the rich farmland of San Benito County and the southern end of the Santa Clara Valley, the people who predate the European conquest are the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band. This tribe, whose history is outlined on the Amah Mutsun site, were the first to care for these lands—and their descendants continue that mission to this day.

For those who follow present-day efforts to protect the environmental health of the region, the Amah Mutsun tribe is often at the center of the action. In 2013, the tribe created the Amah Mutsun Land Trust, a 501(c)(3) organization that works to protect the land through many programs and in conjunction with other partners. For years members of the tribe have worked with the federal government, the Sempervirens Fund and other groups on planning for the Cotoni-Coast Dairies National Monument.

More recently the tribe has fought to protect the Juristac—a piece of land on Santa Cruz County’s easternmost border with Santa Clara County that is of great historic significance to the Amah Mutsun. And since the CZU Lightning Complex Fire, the Amah Mutsun tribe has been closely involved with the recovery of Big Basin State Park and efforts to conserve coho salmon in local creeks.

The tribe has also been in the news because of its struggle to raise awareness of the true meaning behind the mission bells seen along California’s thoroughfares. These familiar posts mark the route traversed by the Spanish soldiers and priests who imposed the Catholic religion on the Indigenous population. The group has a Facebook page, Remove the El Camino Real Bells, that shares news on the campaign, which got off to a newsworthy start in Santa Cruz. (Read more about it in this account from the Santa Cruz Sentinel.)

California Local spoke with Valentin Lopez, chairman of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, about his involvement with the tribe, its efforts to preserve and protect the land, and his thoughts on the painful history of Indigenous people in the United States.

Tell us about yourself and your role as chairman of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, a position you’ve held since 2003.

I was raised in Morgan Hill within the Mutsun territory. The first five years of my life I spent a lot of time living in tents with my family and tribal elders at the different ranches where they worked and lived as farm laborers picking crops. A majority of our members lived in the Fresno and Madera areas but they would travel to the different crops to work depending on the seasons. Our people did not own any of the land that they worked but [the ranchers] allowed us to put our tents up and stay there. They knew that we descended from the missions.

Our people needed a place to live, to stay together and take care of and protect each other. That was the most important thing: that we stay together. I recognize looking back on it now that it was a tremendous hardship for them, but at the time it was the best alternative for them to stay together and not separate and fall apart. Many of our tribal members at that time didn't read or write and there weren’t many other options for them then.

Another important issue of this time was the issue of trust. We trusted very few people outside of our tribe because of the history of oppression and wrongs done to us. At these ranches where we stayed, we accepted being there as necessary for us to be safe and to have a low profile and avoid contact with the outside.

When did the tribe begin to take back its history and right to existence?

Starting in the 1950s, a lot of the ranches started to break up to be sold into smaller ranches or for development or other reasons. Little by little, the ranches we worked at disappeared and we were forced to make some changes. A lot of our members moved to the San Joaquin Valley because they could find jobs there. A few members went to the military during WWII, and because of that they developed different skills. My dad was one of them, and he transitioned from farm laborer to construction worker like many of our people too. And San Jose was booming in that time, the ’50s, and we were able to survive and do better for ourselves.

In the 1980s, a federal law passed that allowed unrecognized tribes to become recognized and we decided to look into it. Our tribe started working on our treaty and constitution and got it passed in the early 1990s. And a lot of our people didn’t know about it and didn’t know what to think about it, and so we kind of just went along with the process. At the same time, a lot of other tribes were claiming to be Amah Mutsun and started claiming our culture. The elders came to me and asked me to run for tribal chair and start representing our tribe to the public. When the elders ask, it’s not a true ask. It was a directive. I got elected and at that point things took off. We were on a mission to help take care of Mother Earth and all living things here and reclaim our history and traditional knowledge that had been passed down from generation to generation.

Is the tribe currently recognized today?

Our tribal oral history tells us that in 1851 we signed a California Indian Treaty that was to provide 8.5 million acres of reservation land to California tribes. The State of California sabotaged those treaties because they do not want treaties or reservations; they want extermination. So as a result of the state's actions we are unrecognized today.

What do you want Californians to know about the Amah Mutsun legacy, past and present?

All we want is to be able to take care of Mother Earth and restore the indigenous knowledge that is being lost. Soon after we were recognized, we got invited by [officials from] Pinnacles National Park to have a say in how that park is managed due to our historical knowledge of that region. We saw that as a path from our creator to help steward the land. Soon state parks and land management were contacting us and asking us to join other similar efforts. That's what jump-started our land trust effort in 2012, which was designated to restore and protect our sacred sites and to tell the truth about our history.

We are also very focused on the education of our young people about the tribe and its traditions. Our Youth Leadership Committee was established to learn the history of what’s happened to us and our traditional ways, and they are serious about giving back to their tribe. One of our youth leaders graduated from law school and is going to work for the Supreme Court of California. Another medical school student wants to work for the tribe when they are done. Three Ph.D.s all plan to work for our tribe. And we have other tribal members in school.

How does the tribe preserve its culture and traditions in today’s world?

We're not trying to live as Americans. We’re trying to live as Amah Mutsun. But we live in two worlds–the native world and the American world—and everyone has to decide what that balance looks like in their lives. They get to decide that for themselves.

What are the most pressing issues for the tribe today?

Currently in San Benito County there’s a lot of development and growth pressures there, and that region is the heart of many of our ancestors. That’s a big part of our traditional territory and so those issues are challenging for us. At the southern end of Santa Clara County near Gilroy is Juristac, our most sacred spot, where [county officials] want to bring down four of our most sacred mountains for sand and gravel mining. That’s our major challenge of our time. [Editor’s note: Four cities have passed resolutions urging county officials to deny mining permits. For details, see ProtectJuristac.org.]

And there’s a large commercial node being proposed (planned) for another significant Mutsun cultural area where the Pajaro and San Benito rivers come together, and there was a large village site there for hundreds of years. There’s a lot of artifacts and remains that will be dug up and destroyed because of this project, and the county of San Benito is determined to approve it. There’s a lot of pressure there.

There’s also the Casa de Fruta (a famous roadside fruit stand) in Eastern Gilroy, where the Santa Clara Water District wants to build a new dam. There are over 40 cultural sites there and they will be heavily impacted. 

There’s so many areas that are threatened and we are very concerned. Throughout the history of California, tribes have been ignored and forgotten and erased. Whenever you claim  indigenous or tribal burials, they think that we are gone and irrelevant and have no value and native spirituality means nothing. Our tribe has to be respected and treated the same as all other groups and religions in California. To our people it is absolutely essential–our spirituality has been practiced for over 10,000 years.

How much are Native Americans expected to give up? How many of our religious and cultural sites have been destroyed already? There’s very little remaining. Isn't that good enough? Why do they need more? We need to protect the last remaining sites but they won’t do that. Greed and money are more important than history or spirituality and culture. 

The tribe successfully lobbied the City of Santa Cruz to remove the El Camino Real mission bells in downtown Santa Cruz because they celebrated the California Mission system history. What do you want Californians to know about that effort?

Our goal is to have all mission bells come down, and we have launched a statewide campaign to have them all removed. Those bells were developed to glorify a false and fantasy history of California by the Catholic Church as being a beautiful place. They want to glorify these horrible times, and the church created these lies that the Indians were happy to go to the missions and get a better life and learn agriculture and find god. Such lies. The brutal history is that the mission system was responsible for killing more than 150,000 Native Americans. It’s a tourism effort based on lies.

Eighty-five tribes were taken to the missions. More than 95 percent of tribes’ members perished by going to missions. Those are places of genocide that were all about destroying people’s culture and spirituality. To force them to become citizens of Spain and accept Christianity. Assimilate or be killed.

What do you want Americans and others to know about what the Thanksgiving holiday means to Native Americans? And what about other holidays like Columbus Day and Fourth of July?

Personally I do not celebrate Thanksgiving day at all. It’s just a commercial holiday that has no truth behind it. The Indians that supplied that meal were all killed within three years. We have members who celebrate Thanksgiving and we have those who don’t. We try to tell the truth to our members and let them make their own decisions. Indigenous People's Day we ask them to honor the ancestry that was here. Please recognize them.

Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland has banned the use of the term “squaw,” officially deeming it racist and offensive and ordering it removed from the names of at least 650 federal sites. What did you think of that effort?

She is 100 percent right, and why did other administrations before this accept the word squaw? They knew that it was problematic and accepted it. This is so long overdue, and it’s that way for everything. Indigenous cultures and history don't mean a thing to so many people. That has got to stop. It’s historic, and long overdue, and we are grateful to her for that effort.

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