This is the first in a two part series on the Amah Mutsun peoples of San Benito County.
“We have a goal to come back to San Juan Bautista. That is where we belong,” said Valentin Lopez, chairman of the modern-day Amah Mutsun Tribal Band. “That is the heart of our territory.”
For thousands of years before Europeans arrived, generations of Indigenous people lived a vibrant life full of culture and tradition in San Benito County.
Few families still live in the county today. They hold traditional ceremonies and gatherings, and steward their ancestral lands. Theirs is a story of resilience in the face of incredible adversity.
Pre-contact tribes and languages
Before contact with European settlers, native tribes dotted the local area, united by their common language, Mutsun. It was spoken along a stretch of coastline around modern Moss Landing all the way to the east into the Diablo Range, to the north beyond modern Gilroy, and to the south beyond modern Paicines. The exact boundaries are unclear.
Neighboring regions in the Southern San Francisco Bay and Monterey Bay spoke eight similar languages—together known as Ohlone or Costanoan in modern day. Though closely related, they were distinct languages, much like Spanish and Italian. Chalon was spoken to the south, Awaswas to the north and Rumsen to the southwest.
“Mutsun is not a tribe, Mutsun is a territory,” said Steven Pratt, 24, a tribal member and land steward. “Within that territory there were many, many individual tribes that occupied their own little area.” The Calendurac tribe occupied the coast, Motsumm tribe the San Juan Bautista area and Ausaima tribe the hills to the east—among many others.
Tribal bands today
Currently two tribal bands representing the Mutsun people use the name “Amah Mutsun.”
“‘Amah’ is the Mutsun word for ‘the people of,’” Pratt said, so Amah Mutsun means “the people of Mutsun.” However, some Mutsun descendents don’t associate with either of these bands or use the name Amah Mutsun. To include everyone descended from pre-European contact Mutsun speakers, the term “Mutsun people” is used in this article.
Valentin Lopez, chairman of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, said it is currently made up of almost 600 members. He said they descend from tribes “whose villages and territories fell under the influence of” Missions San Juan Bautista and Santa Cruz. Today, most of the band’s members live in California’s Central Valley. Lopez estimated that about five families still live in San Benito County.
Another group, called the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band of San Juan Bautista, includes descendants of Mission San Juan Bautista influence only, and not those of Mission Santa Cruz. Over 600 members of this band are “scattered all over California, West Coast, Nevada, Wyoming, the East Coast,” said Michelle Zimmer, the tribe’s communications officer. She estimated that about 50 members live in San Benito County. Irene Zwierlein is the band’s chief and chairperson. The band does not have its own public website.
Neither tribal band has been recognized by the federal government, and neither has its own tribal land.
In 1990, the single group then known as the “Amah Band of Ohlone/Costanoan Indians,” chaired by Zwierlein, filed its letter of intent with the U.S. Department of the Interior to be recognized as an official tribe—known as “federal recognition.” The request was formally acknowledged in 1991.
In 2000, following a dispute over Zwierlein’s leadership, the group split into two separate bands: the one currently led by Lopez, and the other by Zwierlein.
In 2018, both bands received a letter of suspension because of conflicting leadership claims of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band and the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band of San Juan Bautista.
In June 2020, both bands were notified the application remains paused until the leadership dispute is resolved internally, or they apply again as separate tribes.
Ann-Marie Sayers grew up and still lives in Indian Canyon, her ancestral home, nestled in the Gabilan Mountains south of San Juan Bautista. Her brother, Christopher Sayers, also lives in the canyon, alongside her daughter, Kanyon Sayers-Roods, who lives there part-time. Together they run a nonprofit, Costanoan Indian Research, which provides a “place for Indigenous people who need land for ceremony” and “research and exchange opportunities for students and interns from throughout Northern California.”
“The entrance of the canyon is the old village site dated 4,200 years ago,” Ann-Marie Sayers said. “Our ancestors have always been here.” It’s “the only land continuously held by the Ohlone”—the native peoples of San Francisco Bay and Monterey Bay. According to indiancanyonlife.org, their land is “the only federally recognized ‘Indian country’ along coastal Northern California from Santa Barbara to Sonoma.
“The American Indian did not get the right to practice their religion freely until 1978, with the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, so in 1980 I opened [Indian Canyon] to all Indigenous people,” Sayers said, referring to the land that has passed down in her family for generations.
Indian Canyon hosts sweat lodges, ceremonies and special events. “We have Indigenous people come in from New Zealand, from South America, Central America, from Mexico, all throughout the U.S.,” Sayers said. “We have had Sami peoples here from Finland, Aboriginals from Australia. They come in for ceremony, and to ask for permission to do what they are going to do in our territory.”
San Benito resident Yvonne Guerra-Ehret, 69, moved to Hollister from the Fresno area in 1976. She worked as an administrator for many years at San Benito High School and is now retired. While researching her genealogy, she found her mother “ended up being 10th-generation California, so I would be 11th. It went back all the way to the mission there at San Juan Bautista.” She submitted her genealogy and was approved to join the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band in 2000.
Tribal members looking to return
Some tribal members living in surrounding counties have strong connections to San Benito County and they say they would love to return to their ancestral lands.
Richard Lopez lives in San Francisco and has deep ties to San Juan Bautista. In 2019 he was recognized at the city’s 150th anniversary for his work on preserving native culture. His family is not affiliated with either tribal band.
Lopez and his nephew, Marciano Lopez, from Stockton, can trace their lineage back to Maria Ascención Solórsano, the last fluent Mutsun speaker and a well-known traditional healer. Her parents Bárbara and Miguel Solórsano lived on a ranch in the foothills of present-day Pinnacles National Park.
Marciano Lopez is an independent Indigenous researcher. “We’ve been able to retrieve our records with birth certificates, death certificates and military. A lot of our ancestors come from the beginnings of the missions, from San Diego to L.A., all 21 missions,” he said. Through research, they hope to gain a deeper understanding of the true history of their people.
Economic factors are preventing more Mutsun people from returning to San Benito County. “It’s cost of living. It’s much cheaper to live in Fresno than it is to live in this area,” Pratt said.
“They’ve nicknamed us Silicon Valley’s bedroom. People buy their houses here and they work up there,” Guerra-Ehret said. “Hollister doesn’t have a lot of industries or big businesses to hire people.”
“People move for economic reasons and jobs,” Zimmer said. “San Benito isn’t like Silicon Valley where they can just go to Facebook or Google.”
Beyond housing, the relationship to land is an important part of Mutsun culture.
“We are part of the land,” Pratt said. “We didn’t do agricultural work, we tended [the land]. A huge aspect of our culture is we don’t believe in land ownership. And I think it’s really crucial to acknowledge that, because I think that the Western mind has a very difficult time grasping that concept.”
Mutsun spirituality is deeply entwined with the land itself, according to Valentin Lopez. “We have a sacred covenant, an obligation with Creator to take care of Mother Earth and all living things. This is what our ancestors have been doing for thousands of years,” he said.
Before European contact, Mutsun-speaking tribes used sophisticated ecological techniques to manage the land and enhance the abundance of the natural resources they relied on. Prescribed burning was used regularly to spur plant growth and prevent catastrophic wildfires.
Land stewardship today in San Benito County
Today, the Amah Mutsun Land Trust is applying traditional Mutsun practices to steward public lands. “We developed the land trust to bring us back to our land,” Lopez said.
The trust does not yet own any land, “but we do hold two conservation easements,” said Sarah French, interim executive director of the land trust. “One is at the Costanoa Lodge [north of Davenport], and the other is on the summit of Mt. Umunhum [near Los Gatos], which is the site of the Amah Mutsun’s creation story.”
At Pinnacles National Park, Lopez said, “We do a lot of restoring native grasses, we are stewarding the basketry plants in the traditional way, we participate in the care of the condors,” he said, adding that the trust also aims to “return fire to the land” to help reduce the threat of wildfires.
Even so, Pinnacles National Park bans the gathering of materials, central to Mutsun culture and craft. Because of lack of access to materials, Lopez said, “We are not actively teaching basketry. We don’t buy the materials. We have to grow them from an initial plant. We have to steward them. Then after four or five years, they are ready to gather.”
There are few places locally where Mutsun descendants can freely practice all aspects of their culture and spirituality.
Apart from Indian Canyon, there isn’t any federally recognized Indian Country along the Central Coast of California between Sonoma and Santa Barbara Counties.
Indian Canyon is a striking exception. Land in Ann-Marie Sayers’ great-grandfather’s family trust was originally allotted by President Taft. After inheriting it, she campaigned long and hard for it to be federally recognized as sovereign Indian Country.
Gaining federal recognition
Sayers said that gathering evidence took a long time. “The National Archives of San Bruno, 1000 Commodore Drive—I became very good friends with that building!”
The federal recognition process is an arduous journey for tribes, often taking several generations to complete, if at all.
The Amah Mutsun Tribal Band has worked for years to document their tribal members’ ancestry. Guerra-Ehret worked on the files for many years. “We started making files for everybody,” she said, “cleaning them up, going through them and seeing if everything was valid. We worked with a genealogist at that time who helped us out a lot.”
Although the band started the process over 30 years ago, the application remains in limbo today.
Sayers said the process is especially difficult for Indigenous Californians. “The requirements for federal recognition are such that 50% of California Indians can not meet them, because you have to show you have always been living in the same area and that the tribal members have always been identified as Native American. In California, because of the Missionization, it’s almost impossible to do it.”
For tribal bands, economic benefits of federal recognition include greater financial support for members. “We would have easier access to medical and dental, to scholarships for our children and to federal grants which are only offered to federally recognized tribes,” said Zimmer of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band of San Juan Bautista.
For Sayers, the benefits are significant. “I am not governed by the city, county or state regulatory agencies,” she said. “We have our own ordinance, it’s true sovereignty.”
Valentin Lopez of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band added that federal recognition “would allow us to protect our cultural and sacred sites, to have a land base to bring our tribal members together, to receive money for health care, education, job training, to return to our lands so that we can steward them, to have economic development so that our members can have a better standard of life and to take better care of our elders.”
Lopez said it would also bring the band much-needed recognition in the community. “Right now because we are federally unrecognized, people don’t see us as a legitimate tribe,” he said. “We don’t feel like the public accepts us or recognizes us. A lot of the issues are trust … I mean all they wanted to do is to exploit, dominate, destroy our people. So we learned not to trust. We learned not to get involved or to go public.”
The breakdown of dialogue and trust, Lopez said, has its roots in the waves of turmoil and displacement of the Mutsun people have endured since European contact.
“When have we ever been able to trust anyone? After getting knocked down 10, 20, 50 times for 10 generations or more—I mean, how much more do we need?” Lopez said.
In October 2018, Valentin Lopez refused an official apology offered by Governor Newsom to California Native American tribes.
To build trust and move forward in the present day, Lopez said that both sides must first heal.
“Before we have trust, the non-Indigenous person has to recognize the truth and tell the truth about our history,” he said. “They also have to work to heal themselves and to be healthy, so that we can have a healthy relationship. If we can have a healthy relationship then we can go forward.”
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