Government / Politics

Citing cultural degradation and religious desecration, local tribe opposes mining project

The Amah Mutsun Tribal Band argues that a proposed mining project in southern Santa Clara County threatens its historical and cultural preservation

Following in the footsteps of its ancestors, the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band is seeking historical and cultural preservation at the tribe’s most sacred, religious site. Standing in the tribe’s way is a proposed mining project that it vehemently opposes. Stripping the land of its resources, the Amah Mutsun argue, will not only cause irreversible, environmental damage, but will further degrade the tribe’s indigenous identity by desecrating its spiritual center.

On Oct. 1, the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band—descendants from the mission Indians of Missions San Juan Bautista and Santa Cruz—passed a tribal resolution opposing the Sargent Quarry Project, a four-phase mining and restoration project slated to operate for 30 years.

Located in what is today the southernmost tip of Santa Clara County and just beyond the fringes of San Benito County, the Sargent Ranch Property encompasses 6,200 acres. A little over 300 acres of it will be mined for sand and gravel to be used as aggregate in area construction, according to the project’s website.

Verne Freeman of Freeman Associates explained in his recent phone interview with BenitoLink that his Palo Alto company is the project’s “agent of process,” submitting applications, permits, and attending planning meetings on behalf of the Sargent Ranch Management Company—the landowners of the property.

Deposits of sand and gravel are typically found adjacent to river systems. But the Sargent Ranch deposit, Freeman said, is “found high and dry, out of the flood plain,” adding, “it’s a rare find.” His assertions are underscored in the project’s description, which categorically states that “no riparian” damage will ripple into nearby waterways.

An environmental impact report for the proposed project is currently underway.

The Amah Mutsun are not waiting for the report’s findings because like many of California’s native peoples, its tribal members see themselves as stewards of the state’s landscape.

In its October resolution, the Amah Mutsun stated that the “Sargent Quarry Project…will cause significant adverse environmental impacts on water, wildlife, plants, and other natural resources…of the area…the extent of irreparable damage…is unknown and will continue well past the proposed 30-year life span of the project.”

In a recent phone interview with BenitoLink, the tribe’s chairman, Val Lopez, explained that his tribe could also suffer further cultural degradation if the project is approved.

The tribe contends that California’s mission system stole their ancestors’ lands and subjected them to practices and deprivations that amounted to acts of genocide.

As reported extensively by BenitoLink in 2015, the Amah Mutsun led a multifaceted effort opposing sainthood for the mission system’s founder, Father Junipero Serra. The campaign did not derail Serra’s canonization. Pope Francis declared Serra a saint in September 2015.

The proposed mining project is situated on land that was once home the to the tribe’s ancient, spiritual leader, Kukusi, and site of its most important religious ceremony, according to Lopez. 

Known as Juristac (“The Place of the Big Head”), the land is as sacred for the Amah Mutsun as Jerusalem is for Jews, Christians, and Muslims, he added.

In the 1830s, the California mission system underwent secularization, pushing thousands of Mission Indians out of the adobe complexes that were designed for their spiritual and cultural transformation. Suddenly displaced, many found refuge in settings familiar to their ancestors.

Hoping to piece together the traditional ways that mission life had unraveled, hundreds of tribal members made their way to Juristac (pronounced, Yu-ris-tak), explained Lopez. Through ceremonial prayer and dance, their indigenous identity was mended. 

“They returned to their place of spirituality to find balance and restore their native ways,” he said.

A small pox epidemic later swept through the area, killing 90 percent of its inhabitants. For many, Juristac became their final resting place, Lopez noted.

Freeman explained that he not aware of a mass burial site on the property. However he stated that a cultural resources study of the site a few years ago yielded no artifacts or human remains. 

He suggested that indigenous settlements would have most likely existed near the valley floor, alongside the Pajaro River. But he did not rule out the Amah Mutsun’s claims.

“I do recognize that the Amah Mutsun may have lived on the property, and I’m willing to learn more about” the tribe, he said. 

He also stated that if the tribe wanted its own private tour of the site, he would happily oblige when the rains subside.

In a letter to the Santa Clara County Planning Department dated Oct. 13, the Amah Mutsun made six requests to the agency, including “formal government-to-government tribal consultation with the county” and “the project applicant…regarding the impacts of the proposed project.”

Lopez admitted that the tribe is often unsuccessful in defeating development projects, but letters written to government agencies and other stakeholders often give the tribe leverage and a seat at the table when decisions are made.

In a recent email to BenitoLink, Santa Clara County Supervisor Mike Wasserman, whose District 1 constituency includes the Sargent Ranch property, wrote that his support or opposition for the project will be determined once the project has made its way through the planning process and he has “had an opportunity to carefully consider it and to hear from the public.”

He added that his office has worked with the Amah Mutsun on past initiatives, including adding Mount Umunhum—the home of the tribe’s creation—to the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District.

And Wasserman welcomes a future meeting with tribe regarding this issue.

As the Standing Rock Sioux have discovered in preventing the Dakota Access Pipeline from traversing through its ancestral lands and threatening its environmental resources, the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band also feels that its opposition to the Sargent Quarry Project is an opportunity to raise awareness about indigenous culture and land rights.

“We hope that the public recognizes our history, culture, and spirituality and recognizes that it's time to stop the destruction of our people and to help protect and restore what was lost,” Lopez said.

Like those at Standing Rock, the chairman said that his tribe intends to influence public opinion “through prayer and ceremony.”

He is also careful not to draw too many parallels between the events that unfolded in North Dakota and the story that has yet to be written in southern Santa Clara County.

“What’s happened at Standing Rock is very important,” Lopez said, adding, “But we don’t want to feed off of that.”


Frank Pérez

I’m a lifelong resident of San Benito County. I reside in Hollister with my wife, Brenda. For over two decades, I've been a faculty member at San Benito High School, where I teach world history, Mexican-American history, and Ethnic Studies. I've been reporting for BenitoLink since 2015. My passion is delving deeper into the nuances of the local, historical record, while including lesser-known stories of our past. My hope is that county residents will have a greater appreciation for the diversity and complexity of San Benito County, realizing that its uniqueness depends upon our responsibility as its stewards.