Local tribe refuses governor’s apology 

Amah Mutsun turns down the olive branch offered by Governor Newsom and suggests measures state can take to heal past atrocities.

In April 1846, Captain John C. Fremont led a contingent of American troops in a preemptive strike against an indigenous village along the Sacramento River. Hundreds of Wintu were slaughtered at the hands of those under the command of a man immortalized by place-names across California, including Fremont Peak State Park in San Juan Bautista.

In an Oct. 21 letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom, the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band—descendants from the mission Indians of Missions San Juan Bautista and Santa Cruz—referenced Fremont’s role in the Sacramento River Massacre and insisted that the state “change the name of locations that are named after persons who committed atrocities against the California Native Americans.” (See Amah Mutsun Letter to Gov Newsom.)

The letter comes four months after Newsom issued an executive order apologizing to California’s indigenous communities for acts of genocide and other atrocities perpetrated against them by the state. In its correspondence, the Amah Mutsun withheld acceptance of Newsom’s declaration, as is its practice to reject apologies on grounds that they are often used to “sweep the horrific truths of Native history from public view.” 

In addition, the tribe’s letter decried the establishment of the Truth and Healing Council, a body overseen by the Governor’s tribal advisor and tasked with “examining and producing a written report of the historical relationship between California Native Americans and the State from the Native perspective,” according to the Office of the Tribal Advisor’s website.

In a recent interview with BenitoLink, the Amah Mutsun’s tribal chairperson, Val Lopez, addressed many of the topics mentioned in the tribe’s letter to Newsom.

“Whose truth and whose healing?” Lopez asked when describing the council. He said that the state must “truthfully tell the story and correct the history books,” while allowing California’s indigenous peoples to “restore their traditions, culture, spirituality and stewardship of the environment.”

Twice a month the Amah Mutsun hold what they call wellness meetings. Facilitated by a tribal psychiatrist, the gatherings provide tribe members an opportunity to discuss a range of physical and mental health issues, including historical trauma—a condition that often plagues descendants of those who directly suffered systematic subjugation, violence, and displacement, and that manifest itself in subsequent generations as feelings of low self-esteem, substance abuse, and high rates of suicide and domestic abuse. 

Lopez said he feels that California needs healing more than California Native Americans do, and doubts the proposed Truth and Healing Council can steer the state in the right direction.

“A healthy relationship requires two healthy partners, and the state is not healthy in any way,” he said.

The tribe has requested a seat on the council, but feels its status as an unrecognized federal tribe may hinder its prospects.

In a recent email to BenitoLink, Vicky Waters, media and public affairs deputy director for the governor, explained that the state is still in the process of creating the council and accepting recommendations from all stakeholders.

“We are in receipt of the Tribe’s [Amah Mutsun’s] letter. We are thoughtfully considering it along with input from tribes and representative tribal organizations from throughout the state to inform the framework of the Truth and Healing Council and next steps,” she wrote.

To the Amah Mutsun, an important first step is for the state to stop honoring individuals like Fremont, and instead use indigenous words and phrases for its “freeways, cities, schools, parks, etc.,” the tribe stated in its Oct. 21 letter.

In the Mutsun language “tooyohtac” means “Place of the Bumblebee.”

Lopez recounted the origin of the place name: During the time of creation, a hungry bear attacked a bumblebee hive full of larvae and honey. The surviving bees devoured the bear, save for his hide and skeleton. The bees then spread a mixture of tobacco and other ingredients on the bear’s remains, creating “tooyohtac” ( pronounced tow-yo-talk).

“Fremont was a killer, a murderer,” Lopez said, adding that the state should consider renaming Fremont Peak State Park, “tooyohtac,” the 3,169-foot summit’s native honorific.


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.