After more than 250 years of cultural upheaval and oppression, the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band is working to reclaim their ancestral homeland — from the beaches to the windswept peaks of San Benito, Monterey, Santa Cruz, Santa Clara and San Mateo counties. Most recently, they’ve been at work helping heal the forests of POST-protected San Vicente Redwoods.
But let’s back up a minute. Historical context is key to the Amah Mutsun’s story, one of three tribes commonly referred to as “Ohlone.” For millennia, the Amah Mutsun sustainably cultivated the Pajaro River Basin and surrounding landscapes, tending the land that supported them and, in doing so, maintaining the health of its natural systems.
“Creator gave us a responsibility to take care of all living things,” said Valentine (Val) Lopez, the chairman of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band. “It’s our culture, it’s who we are.”
The idea of owning land was foreign to the Amah Mutsun. Their ties to the land instead came from a deep sense of responsibility and union with the life that surrounded them.”The land never belonged to us,” Lopez said. “We never considered the land to be our property. The land belongs to Creator.”
With the invasion of the Spanish in the 18th century (followed by the Mexicans and finally the Americans), the Amah Mutsun were brutally persecuted and forcefully removed from their homeland, subjugated to the missions of San Juan Bautista and Santa Cruz. Since that time, they have struggled to reconnect with the places that remain their responsibility, to live up to their sacred covenant with Creator. And yet, today, like many indigenous tribes in California, they remain a landless tribe.
“Our obligation and responsibility to the Creator remains as it has since the beginning,” Lopez said. “We have to find ways to live up to that responsibility.”
In 2013, the Amah Mutsun Land Trust (AMLT) was formed as a vehicle for tribal members to return as stewards of their lands. Core to its mission is to “conserve and restore the indigenous cultural and natural resources within the traditional territories.” Through cultural and spiritual necessity, they invented a way to reaffirm their role as the land’s stewards.
And that was just the beginning. Shortly thereafter, AMLT formed the Native Stewardship Corps, an ecological restoration crew made up exclusively of tribal members. Through this program, their community’s young adults receive training in traditional knowledge as well in the latest techniques of restoration ecology.
This month, members of the Native Stewardship Corps (pictured above) have been at work on a portion of POST-protected San Vicente Redwoods, an 8,532-acre redwood forest near Davenport. They were hired by POST to remove excess fuel from the forest floor to mitigate the risk of wildfire.
Historical context is key for this forest’s story too. In the early 1900s, nearly all of the trees were cut down at San Vicente Redwoods — back before it was clear just how devastating such a practice was. And while some areas of the property have returned to their former health, much of the forest is still struggling to recover. When we acquired this property in 2011 with our partners at Save the Redwoods League, Sempervirens Fund, The Nature Conservancy and the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County, we took on the responsibility of healing this damaged forest.
Much of what has grown back at San Vicente Redwoods is denser than it was in the past. Overcrowded and stressed from too much competition for available resources, the forest is more susceptible to drought, wildfire and disease — all of which are more likely as our climate continues to change.
We have begun the work to heal this landscape, thinning some of the smaller, less healthy trees to allow the larger ones to flourish. In doing so, we have accelerated the recovery of a forest still affected by reckless management long ago.
Caring for this forest also requires that we mitigate the risk of large, uncontrolled wildfire. And in the process of thinning this overcrowded forest, we created unwanted fuel on the forest floor. To remove this threat, the Native Stewardship Corps has helped us sort and pile this material and prepare it for controlled burns by CAL FIRE.
But for the Amah Mutsun, this work is more than just good land stewardship. For these tribal members, healing this forest serves as a way of also healing themselves.
“It’s more than a job for these individuals,” Lopez said. “It’s a way of reconnecting with what was lost — it is still our responsibility to protect and steward this forest.”
Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST) protects open space on the Peninsula and in the South Bay for the benefit of all. Since its founding in 1977, POST has been responsible for saving more than 79,000 acres as permanently protected land in San Mateo, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties. Learn more