Sacred Site Slated for Development

Amah Mutsun oppose proposed gravel mine

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Juristac, which translates to the “Place of the Big Head,” is the Amah Mutsun Tribe’s most sacred site, said chairman of the Amah Mutsun Land Trust (AMLT) Valentin Lopez. It’s a landscape of rolling hills in Santa Clara County where the Amah Mutsun once held ceremonies for plants, animals and their ancestors and future descendants and to maintain balance with the seasons. Kuksui, the spiritual leader of the Amah Mutsun and four village sites, existed at Juristac before European contact, according to the AMLT website.

Illustration by Owen Thomas

“A goal of our tribe has always been for us to find a way to return to Juristac. That will remain a goal of our tribe as long as the sun rises,” Lopez said.

Today, Juristac — also known as Sargent Ranch — is slated for a sand and gravel mine that is projected to produce about 40 million tons of sand and gravel over 30 years, according to the project description. This could potentially unearth remains of Amah Mutsun ancestors and forever alter the landscape, Lopez said. If this project is permitted, the quarry will be dug into hillsides of the earth, leaving the landscape altered even though the land will be “reclaimed” after the 30-year permitted period.

“Our tribe gave a lot of consideration to if there was some way to compromise that would allow the owner to achieve and go through with his plans and at the same time have our tribe find a way that could work for our tribe,” Lopez said. “We realized that there is no way we can compromise our culture, our spirituality or our environment.”

Amah Mutsun is a non-federally recognized tribe that now gathers under the Amah Mutsun Land Trust (AMLT) to organize and protect Popeloutchom, the Amah Mutsun’s home that ranges from San Mateo County to Monterey County.

“[We] fight to keep it pristine, keep it natural, not dig into the mountain, especially if it is ceremonial because that is cutting into our hearts,” said Nora Castro, an elder of the Amah Mutsun Tribe.

In response to the proposed project, the AMLT unanimously passed a tribal resolution affirming its strong opposition to the Sargent Quarry Project and requested the Santa Clara Planning and Development Department meet for tribal consultation to assess the impact on the tribe’s ancestral land.

Freeman Associates, an aggregate industry resource development company, represents the landowners of Sargent Ranch for this project. If permitted by Santa Clara County, the mine is projected to be up and running in 2019, said CEO of Freeman Associates Verne Freeman.

Sargent Ranch is a 6,200-acre property. The mine would span about 317 acres and create up to 20 well- paying jobs, according to the project description. The rest of the land would continue to be used as a cattle ranch and for oil production as it has since the 1870s. The environmental impact report (EIR) will determine whether or not the sand and gravel mine will be permitted. It’s estimated to be finished by early spring 2018.

In addition to considering environmental impact, the county’s EIR also evaluates cultural resources under Assembly Bill 52 Native Americans: California Environmental Quality Act. This law requires Santa Clara County to have “meaningful” consultations with the Amah Mutsun in an effort to reach a resolution.

“We think, at least, other parts of the ranch might be where the sacred sites are rather than the quarry hills […] The quarry hills in my view are pretty unremarkable,” Freeman said. “We understand that the ranch has a history and was occupied by the [Amah Mutsun] for a long time, for many years I am sure. And there may be sacred sites out there, we don’t know.”

The EIR will assess cultural resources like sacred places, objects or features on a cultural landscape through ethnographic research conducted by the county. The county has initiated an ethnographic study said Manira Sandhir, the principal planner for the Santa Clara Planning and Development Department. However, no results can be published until the EIR goes up for public review in the spring.

“We have met with [the Amah Mutsun], we have been to the site with them, we have been acting in good faith to incorporate their recommendations on how to look at the tribal cultural resources and we will be initiating a ethnographic study as a part of that request,” Sandhir said.

Sandhir said until the EIR is published for public comment there can be no definitive answer on what will happen to Juristac. Regardless, the Amah Mutsun will continue to try to protect their most sacred site where their ancestors once lived, AMLT chairman Valentin Lopez said. He pointed out the existing destruction, including the ways the native plants that once thrived at Juristac have been replaced with grazing grasses and oil wells.

“Our spirituality has never been respected. If this was a Catholic group trying to protect a Catholic site, a sacred Muslim site [or] a sacred Jewish site there would be no discussion, no conversation,” Lopez said. “But because this is a Native American spiritual and culture site, it doesn’t matter. Destroying our culture and spirituality is quite acceptable provided people make money off of it.”