Reframing The Past

Amah Mutsun Conference sheds new light on California mission system

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Valentin Lopez, the chairman of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band since 2003, and Rebecca Hernandez, Ph.D., director of the UCSC American Indian Resource Center, started out the conference with introductions and gave an itinerary for the day. Photo by Josephine Joliff

Europeans landed in the Americas centuries ago, leading to the emergence of many new nations, including the U.S., but also massive destruction of Native American civilization. Our entire nation rests upon ruins of Native American territory, including UC Santa Cruz.   

The 17th consecutive Amah Mutsun Conference, held on Oct. 16 at the Stevenson Event Center, featured 12 speakers who explored the degradation and destruction of Native American civilization — specifically California’s indigenous population at the hands of Spanish colonizers.

UCSC Chancellor Cynthia Larive delivered opening remarks — including a land acknowledgment — and recognized Native Americans for their resilience in the face of historical hardships.

The Amah Mutsun Tribal Band organized the conference in order to raise awareness of the effects of colonization on California Native Americans. Valentin Lopez, Chairman of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, emphasized the historical significance behind the timing of the conference.

“Oct. 16, today, marks 250 years since Portola passed through this territory. Portola was the first Spanish expedition into California,” Lopez said. “He brought with him priests who sought to establish the California mission system. That was the beginning of our destruction and domination by the colonizers of Spain.”

According to conference speaker Steven Newcomb, the beginning of the California missionary system can be traced back to public decrees by the Pope in the 15th century, which established an aggressive attitude toward non-western civilizations.

The California missions served as outposts for further Spanish expansion in the region and spaces for religious conversion. Indigenous people were converted to Catholicism, often dying from foreign disease and mistreatment in the process. This contributed greatly to the cultural, spiritual and physical death of indigenous populations in California. 

Student Lesly Martinez Ibanez noted the importance of events that elevate Native American voices.

“It’s a total loss of knowledge and tradition that would get passed down from generation to generation,” Ibanez said. “We need to understand what has happened and to avoid acknowledging the history of the oppressors, but rather, learn more about the history of indigenous peoples.”

Around 12 p.m., guests got in line to enjoy a lunch of “uncolonized food,” including a variety of fruits and vegetables, and water collected from a natural spring, before continuing with the afternoon guest speakers. Photo by Josephine Joliff

Amah Mutsun Chairman Valentin Lopez and others have reached out to members of California Bishops Conference and Pope Francis himself for an acknowledgment and apology for the California mission system. So far they have received no reply.

While governing members of the Catholic Church have refrained from commenting on the effects of missionaries on Native Americans, other sects of the Catholic Church have spoken in support of indigenous peoples.

“We as European descendants have to see and understand our own history, and the truth about where and what has happened in our name,” said Molly McGettigan Arthur, Society of the Sacred Heart Associate and Sister of Earth. “It’s a very deep process of grief and realization about what we do when we understand the truth of what actually was done.”

During lunch and after the conclusion of the conference, the room was abuzz with conversations involving identity, religion and impacts on indigenous cultures across the world. Antonio Rangeo, a critical race and ethnic studies major at UCSC, remarked on this discourse.

“I’m glad that students and faculty are taking an interest in such important matters,” Rangeo said. “We’re in a constant battle to teach ethnic studies, and this conference allows us to learn about our ancestors and their struggle through colonization and systems of oppression.”

The Amah Mutsun Conference approaches European expansion into the Americas in a critical manner. Organizers of the conference have no desire to shame present day white Americans.

“We don’t blame the citizens of today for what happened to us,” Lopez said. “But we ask people to realize how they have benefited from the destruction of our people, to recognize the true history and work with us so that we can heal from the historic trauma.”