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September 26, 2022

Preserving the Past: Bringing attention to Juristac

Recently, Pope Francis traveled to Canada to apologize for the Catholic Church’s role in the abuse of Indian children. He met with Indigenous groups to acknowledge the scandal of abuse, and the erasing of indigenous culture.

Last year, hundreds of unmarked graves were discovered on the grounds of former residential schools in Canada. More than 4,000 Indigenous children died from neglect or abuse in these schools, many of which were run by the Catholic Church.

The Pope related “sorrow and shame for the role Catholics have had in all these things that wounded you, in the abuses you suffered and in the lack of respect shown for your identity, your culture and even your spiritual values.”

A church apology in San Juan Bautista

An earlier Catholic confession came in 2012 when Bishop Richard Garcia of the Monterey Diocese formally apologized to the Amah Mutsun in a “Mass of Reconciliation” for the Church’s abuses against the tribe as far back as 1797, when Franciscan monks colonized parts of California.

More than 300 people heard the Bishop apologize for diseases, slavery, rape and genocide, atrocities that nearly wiped out the Mutsun and other tribes, and for the destruction of sacred landmarks. He said, “Brothers and sisters, I ask for forgiveness for the times when individuals and communities of our Catholic Church have disrespected you, have abused you, and I apologize.”

Amah Mutsun fear a new offense

Juristac (Huris-tak) occupies 4,540 acres in the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains, and is crucial to the Amah Mutsun. It’s where their ancestors lived and held sacred ceremonies for thousands of years.

Previously named Rancho Juristac, but also called “La Brea” because of its tar and oil deposits, since 1835 Juristac has been called Sargent Ranch. Now an investor group is trying to obtain a permit seeking to develop a 403-acre mining operation, an open pit sand and gravel quarry on the property.

Long ago, the Amah Mutsun believed Juristac had special power. For centuries, spiritual leaders held ceremonies there to prepare for dances, which the Mutsun consider a form of prayer. These healing and renewal ceremonies were often attended by neighboring tribes. They believe Juristac is the home of Kuksui, a powerful being. Juristac translates to “place of the Big Head,” because of the large headdresses worn at dances associated with Kuksui.

The Amah Mutsun today is made up of survivors of the brutal years at Mission San Juan Bautista and Mission Santa Cruz, taken into the missions from villages in the area. When the missions closed in the 1830s, some Mutsun people returned to their homelands at Juristac, until a smallpox epidemic and pressures from American settlers caused them to move to surrounding towns and ranchos.

The tribe owns no land within this traditional territory, and today’s threat to these sacred sites seems to them a reminder of the past violence their people endured. Chairman Valentin Lopez said, “The destruction and domination of Amah Mutsun culture, spirituality, environment and people never ended. It just evolved to the destructive and dominating projects that we see today … When you look at our other ceremonial sites and our hunting, fishing and gathering places, the vast majority of these places have been lost to development … Juristac is one of the very last remaining undisturbed areas… We honor our ancestors by returning to those places where they held ceremonies.” 

For thousands of years they managed and protected those lands. Then they were violently ejected.

”Our people have been destroyed and dominated for generations. Juristac represents an opportunity to recognize the humanity of our ancestors and correct the wrongs that have been committed. It is time we fully acknowledge this difficult history and work together to protect the environment and its resources for generations to come … There are many other potential upland sources of sand and gravel in our region, but there is only one Juristac.”

Questions, comments and other information can be sent to [email protected].

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