Reviving From the Roots Up

Amah Mutsun tribe relearns indigenous botanical knowledge

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A volunteer works in the California native plants garden across the street from Mission San Juan Bautista. The tribe worked with California State Parks for about five years to obtain permission to plant in the garden. Photo by Stephen de Ropp.
A volunteer works in the California native plants garden across the street from Mission San Juan Bautista. The tribe worked with California State Parks for about five years to obtain permission to plant in the garden. Photo by Stephen de Ropp.

The first step to making acorn flour the traditional Amah Mutsun way is to gather the acorns.

Matt Lopez wanders through Big Basin State Park scouring the ground. He fills five 5-gallon buckets with tanoak acorns. When he gets home, he lays them out in the sun until they’re dry enough for the nuts to rattle inside the shells, about two weeks.

He picks up an acorn, cracks it open with a hammer, takes to it with a mortar and pestle and grinds it to a fine powder. It takes him two days to grind the 350 nuts he collected. It’s a grueling process, but Lopez wants to do things “the traditional way.”

Illustration by Kaileen Smith.
Illustration by Kaileen Smith.

“I just wish there had been someone to guide me.”

He didn’t learn about this process by speaking to his grandmother or other tribal members. He found it on the internet.

Lopez, 32, has been a member of the Amah Mutsun tribe all his life but has no memories of eating traditional Mutsun food growing up. He only started cooking with acorns over the last two years. He has cooked with manzanita and elderberry, two native Californian plants the Amah Mutsun used centuries ago. But even as the son of the tribal chairman, Lopez is struggling to get past the learning curve years of genocide created.

Along with hundreds of other Amah Mutsun tribal members, he is trying to relearn the traditional ecological knowledge their people lost. The tribe has made significant efforts to establish plots of land where members can practice plant identification and traditional ways of resource management, as well as harvest these crops to use in their own homes.

The Amah Mutsun work with public agencies to give tribal members the opportunity to learn on plots throughout Central California, including at UC Santa Cruz’s Arboretum. In 2009, the Arboretum teamed up with the tribe to make the Amah Mutsun Relearning Garden. Outside the garden, UCSC students only hear about the tribe through guest lectures and peripheral reading, even though the campus is housed on traditional Mutsun land.

For thousands of years, the original Amah Mutsun territory encompassed all or portions of what are today the counties of Santa Cruz, Monterey, San Benito, Santa Clara and San Mateo. That all changed when the Spanish arrived in the late 1700s and established missions to spread Catholicism throughout California, including on Mutsun land. When the Spanish got to the area, they forced the nearby Amah Mutsun into slavery to help build the missions.

The Amah Mutsun were taken to Mission Santa Cruz, founded in 1791, and Mission San Juan Bautista, founded in 1797.

Amah Mutsun tribal member Matt Lopez holds a tule reed mat at the tribe’s work day in San Juan Bautista on April 30. The Mutsun traditionally wrapped tule reed mats around a wooden foundation to create housing. Photo of Stephen de Ropp.
Amah Mutsun tribal member Matt Lopez holds a tule reed mat at the tribe’s work day in San Juan Bautista on April 30. The Mutsun traditionally wrapped tule reed mats around a wooden foundation to create housing. Photo of Stephen de Ropp.

“When they were taken to the missions, men were separated from women, children were separated from their families, so that passing down of knowledge could not happen under that time,” said Rick Flores, steward for the Amah Mutsun Relearning Program and a doctoral student in the environmental studies department. “They weren’t allowed to practice their culture, their languages, their ceremonies. So, so much was taken from them.”

But the damage continued even when the missions were secularized in 1833. The pain inflicted on the Amah Mutsun had detrimental effects for centuries to come.

The Spanish conquest meant California Indians no longer owned any land. Without a land base, tribal members splintered into different parts of the region, dismantling any sense of geographic unity. During the gold rush of the mid-1800s, many settlers came into conflict with Native Americans. They set bounty prices of “50 cents a scalp, $5 a head,” making it yet again dangerous to be a Native American in California.

The lack of a unifying land base made it difficult for Amah Mutsun to connect with each other, but the racism made tribal members want to hide their identity altogether. This combination resulted in a loss of thousands of years of indigenous knowledge. The few decades of the mission system had undone it all.

Almost 20,000 Indians died at Mission San Juan Bautista. Today, there are only about 600 members of the Amah Mutsun tribe.

“For our tribe to heal from that historic trauma, we have to relearn that knowledge so that we can fulfill our obligation to Creator to take care of Mother Earth and all living things,” said tribal chairman Val Lopez. “The Arboretum provided us the opportunity to do just that.”

Illustration by Kaileen Smith.
Illustration by Kaileen Smith.

Several times a year, the Relearning Program at the Arboretum hosts work-learn days on its 40-acre plot of the California Native Plants Garden. Visitors learn management methods the Amah Mutsun used, like seed scattering, seed sowing, soil tilling, selective harvesting and coppicing. They also learn traditional Mutsun techniques to create pine needle baskets and process acorns and native grass seeds for food.

The idea is that tribal members can come to the California Native Garden and harvest materials.

The Relearning Program receives California native plants donated by local nurseries. Although not all of the native plants grow in the Arboretum’s garden naturally, the donated plants take to the ground well.

The program wants to help the tribe restore its native plants, used for food and medicinal purposes. Val Lopez remembers his mother preparing “concoctions” for him to ease an upset stomach when he was a boy. He said people still use plants today to treat arthritis and headaches. His sister, who has multiple sclerosis, even uses a plant to relieve the pain.

It’s a traditional Mutsun practice to manage the landscape, like by pruning trees or setting low-intensity fires. Rick Flores, a steward for the Relearning Program, said some conservation methods today have moved in the opposite direction. One of the more common approaches is to put “do not enter” signs in front of ecologically sensitive areas, but Flores said this isn’t conducive to increasing biodiversity.

“There are the old hands-off kinds of practices where you just put a fence around something and call it preserved or conserved,” Flores said. “That kind of ethic isn’t necessarily working anymore.”

Flores advocates for an ethic that uses traditional ecological knowledge to manage landscapes. He insists nature depends on human interaction and calls for a philosophical change among ecological restorationists.

“All the efforts the Amah Mutsun are doing in their traditional territories is really showing a shift away from this kind of old-school wilderness perspective where man was just seen as a visitor and didn’t affect the landscape,” Flores said.

The tribe held a work-learn gathering at a small plot of land across the street from the San Juan Bautista Mission on April 30. As Matt Lopez surveilled what an untrained eye might view as a beautiful garden, he took one look at the waist-high weeds and the flowers that were “way past their season,” shook his head and said, “It looks like trash to me.”

He’s determined to get back on the path of his ancestors and expressed frustration at how far off the current Mutsun territory is from when his ancestors lived on it.

“Instead of growing the population of a plant that’s already there, we’re having to start from scratch and plant new plants,” Lopez said, taking off his ball cap and wiping his brow. “And instead of using fire to weed the area and restore the land, I’m using a pick.”

Lopez and other tribal members may not be digging with manzanita sticks like their ancestors, but every act of planting and weeding pays a small homage to the traditional Mutsun people because of the process behind deciding which plants to include in the garden. Lopez, Flores and other land stewards consult historical notes from Ascencion Solórzano de Cervantes, the last fluent speaker of the Mutsun language.

Between 1929 and 1930, the American linguist and ethnologist J.P. Harrington conducted four months’ worth of interviews with Solórzano. He wanted to catalogue the Mutsun language before she passed away. The interviews included not only the Mutsun dictionary and grammar, but also tribal lore, customs and knowledge of native plants. Amah Mutsun tribal chairman Val Lopez said Harrington wrote about 78,000 pages of anthropological field notes from his interviews with Solórzano.

Solórzano is a huge figure in Amah Mutsun history. Despite her significance, the destructive forces at play have resulted in even her descendants losing the indigenous knowledge.

Josh Higuera spent the work day at the San Juan Bautista garden weeding while wearing a hoodie under the hot April sun. He is six generations away from Solórzano herself.

Higuera said his grandfather recalled learning about the Amah Mutsun folklore as a boy while going on drives around Hollister. “He knew the stories of all the mountains, because every mountain had a story,” Higuera said. “He knew all those but I never did. There was disconnect and a lot of the knowledge was lost.”

His mother’s great grandmother was so scared by the threat of “50 cents a scalp, $5 a head” that Higuera’s mother did not grow up with Amah Mutsun culture at all.

“A lot of Indians had to say that they were Mexican,” Higuera said, “and so [my mother’s family] kind of adopted that lifestyle and culture when she was growing up. Her great grandmother would just make enchiladas.”

Higuera is involved with the tribe’s activity, and he said he identifies more closely with his Mutsun identity, although his father is Mexican.

Higuera’s mother’s story is not uncommon. Centuries after the mission system and bounties, tribal members still struggle with historical trauma. To work through those feelings in a community setting, the Amah Mutsun have held bi-monthly wellness gatherings for the last four and a half years, chairman Val Lopez said, in which they discuss personal and tribal issues.

“None of our members live in their traditional territories anymore,” said tribal chairman Val Lopez. “All of our members are unfortunately at or below poverty line.”

The high cost of living on the Central Coast combined with the high rates of poverty among tribal members makes it difficult for many of them to attend work-learn gatherings at the Arboretum. The tribe developed the Amah Mutsun Land Trust in 2011 to ensure places for stewardship, management and access to traditional lands so tribal members throughout the area can harvest natural resources, regardless of their income.

The Amah Mutsun are not a federally recognized tribe, meaning they are not acknowledged as a sovereign entity and are not entitled to the same benefits, services and protections that federally recognized tribes are. The Relearning Garden is just one aspect of the tribe’s overall goal of cultural restoration, which also includes language revitalization, overcoming trauma and acquiring federal recognition.

Where the Amah Mutsun once danced, ate together and reveled in each other’s company, students now congregate for lectures and rallies. The landscape may have changed, but the Amah Mutsun’s time in Santa Cruz was not so long ago.

“We want to give people a message,” Matt Lopez said. “We’re still here.”