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May 31, 2023

Amah-Mutsun: Recognition from City of San Juan Bautista is ‘icing on the cake’

A “big event” for the Amah-Mutsun Tribal Band took place inside the San Juan Bautista City Hall Tuesday night, when roughly 20 members drove from surrounding cities to witness the issuing of a formal proclamation recognizing the current-day tribe as “the historic and continuous Amah-Mutsun Ohlone Tribe that existed before Spanish contact.”

Principally associated with Mission San Juan Bautista and the surrounding areas of Gilroy and Hollister, the Mutsun occupied the San Juan Valley “long before the Spanish arrived in the late 1700s,” as noted on the tribe’s website.

Reclaiming a sense of place and belonging in their ancestral lands is a labor that progresses one milestone at a time.

After requesting the City of San Juan Bautista for more than 20 years to draft an official resolution acknowledging the Mutsun’s place in city history, Thursday’s proclamation is a significant benchmark for the tribe whose roots to the area trace back almost 3,000 years.

“We feel like we haven’t been accepted, (but) we didn’t stop trying,” said Tribal Chairman Valentin Lopez. “Our patience paid off and we’re grateful for that.”

Pointing out four generations of Mutsun members who made the trek from outlying areas including Fresno, Sacramento, Salinas and Hayward to show their presence during Tuesday’s regular City Council meeting, Lopez highlighted the Mutsun as a “vibrant tribe” that is actively working to preserve and share its culture with dozens of California universities and state parks.

“We have a tragic history, but we don’t dwell on the tragic history,” he said, addressing City Council. “We look to the future.”

Lopez sees the proclamation as a catalyst for starting “down a path where we can have cooperation, trust and respect” as the Mutsun work to “present our history to the city.”

He also praised City Manager Roger Grimsley. Since assuming the city manager position in July 2011, mending relations with the tribe has been a “really important” priority, Grimsley said.

“Government should be all-inclusive, and we should welcome everybody,” he maintained. “I was really taken back by the fact that it wasn’t done long ago.”

Prior to Tuesday’s meeting, Lopez said a major goal is bringing the “truth” to educational tours and interpretive media dotting San Juan’s state park –  something of a massive time capsule that includes not just the mission, but an entire plaza complete with livery stable, hotel and several other stately buildings filled with museum-quality displays and historic replicas.

Historical unpleasantries such as widespread diseases, death and the destruction of the Mutsun’s sacred landmarks by Spanish soldiers, have been somewhat glossed over, or for the most part “ignored” by the mission, the state park and the city, according to Lopez.

“That’s one of the big things,” he asserted. “Insisting our story be told.”

Lopez alluded to this goal as he addressed City Council, stating “there are some dark sides to San Juan, and we’re not going to sugarcoat or hide it – but we’re not going to traumatize people either. There’s a lot of promise there. We’re hoping this is the start of a wonderful, wonderful relationship … this is a big deal to our tribe.”

When it comes to fleshing out the Mutsun’s overarching goal of establishing a physical monument to their tribe, updating interpretive state park displays and educational tours, City Manager Grimsley said local government officials are on board to help make it happen. 

“I indicated to Val that anytime we can be of assistance to him to promote the Amah-Mutsun tribe, we’re going to be very cooperateive and work with them hand-in-hand to achieve that,” he assured.

Following the reading of the proclamation, several tribesmen approached the dais and chanted a ceremonial prayer together.

Mutsun members revere the newly drafted proclamation as the first page in a bright new chapter that has yet to be authored by the tribe and the city.

As for the tribe’s relationship with the San Juan Mission, a special reconciliation ceremony between the church’s bishop and the Mutsun is scheduled to take place inside the main sanctuary, according to Lopez. The tribe is not publicizing the exact date of the event, in hopes it will not be viewed as a tourist attraction.

Motioning towards City Hall after tribal members filed outside and onto the front lawn, Lopez’s cousin, Eleanor Castro from Fresno, called Tuesday’s proclamation “icing on the cake.”

She’s looking forward to December’s reconciliation ceremony, which will help patch the relationship between the tribe, town and mission. Acknowledging that “we belong here, and that we were wronged” is a major step in the right direction, she said.

“This place belonged to us,” agreed Eleanor’s nephew, Nick Carabajal. “It’s an injustice for our people to not be acknowledged.”

As the Mutsun tribe awaits federal recognition from the Bureau of Indian Affairs – and the subsequent land trust that comes with it – Carabajal, who lives in Los Banos, hopes the proclamation will strengthen the tribe’s sense of home, place and community in San Juan. The tribe is currently No. 2 in line on the BIA’s list for federal recognition.

Carabajal and Castro were two of several members donning glittering necklaces handcrafted from beads and abalone shells, or “masse,” as the Mutsun call it. Traditionally, Nick explained the shininess and jingling of the necklaces once served to frighten off rattlesnakes.

After decades of not feeling welcome or recognized by the town of San Juan, Eleanor says it feels like the town is city is making a genuine effort “to embrace us.”

“It’s been good to work with them,” echoed Grimsley. “I’m really excited about having their participation; particularly when they get ready to have the church festivitiy over here and meet with the diocese.”

Standing on the grassy lawn in front of City Hall, where her children and grandchildren congregated and conversed, tribal elder Rose Castro smiled and she felt “good inside.”

“This is good for my kids,” she said, referring to the slow but dogged effort to continuously bolster city-tribe relationships and the preservation of the Mutsun heritage.

Tribeswoman and Hayward resident Alesia Moniz, whose great-great grandfather lived in San Juan, said the long-term vision is to sustain the Mutsun culture in San Juan for generations to come.

“Our relationship with the city means a lot to us,” she stressed.

Echoing Lopez, Alesia said the process of mending ties between the Amah Mutsun and the City of San Juan Bautista is not all about dwelling on the past.

“It’s about moving forward,” she said.

The Proclamation of the City Council of the City of San Juan Bautista acknowledging the Amah-Mutsun Ohlone Tribe reads as follows:

WHEREAS, the Amah-Mutsun Ohlone Tribe of Ohlone/Costanoan Indians of the Monterey San Benito, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz Counties constitute the surviving documented aboriginal Native American lineages of this region; and

WHEREAS, a distribution of the Mutsun speaking peoples occupied portions of Ohlone/Costanoan Territory; and

WHEREAS, as a result of the impact that the Hispanic Empire, the Missions and the American conquest had upon the lives and means of living of the Amah-Mutsun Ohlone people, these aboriginal people were incorrectly believed to be extinct; and

WHEREAS, the Amah-Mutsun Ohlone Tribe demonstrated their cultural heritage, Native American identity and biological continuity by researching and documenting themselves as the aboriginal inhabitants of the Monterey Bay and interior areas; and

NOW THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED, that the City Council of the City of San Juan Bautista, does hereby acknowledge and commend the Amah-Mutsun Ohlone Tribe in its efforts to preserve their culture and ethnicity, and in their struggle, along with other California tribes, bands, and nations, to obtain formal recognition at the Federal level and by the United States Congress; and

NOW THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED, that the City Council of the City of San Juan Bautista, does hereby recognize the current day tribe as the historic and continuous Amah-Mutsun Ohlone Tribe that existed before Spanish contact and has continued to exist through the Mission era, the Mexican era and the American era to the present.

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