Walking to renew the sacred

Amah Mutsun tribe leads five-mile pilgrimage from San Juan Bautista to threatened ceremonial land

Walking on San Juan Highway

On September 8, four hundred people gathered in the quiet town of San Juan Bautista, in support of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band’s efforts to protect their sacred grounds from a proposed sand and gravel mining operation. Led by a group of about 100 Amah Mutsun tribal members, a procession stretching for multiple city blocks passed through downtown San Juan Bautista and continued for five miles to the boundary of the threatened land.

“I get angry, sad and tired, that we have to keep fighting for who we are. But if we have to fight, I’m glad that we are here, fighting together,” said tribal member Veronica Martinez, who hosted the opening gathering of the walk. “I’m glad that we are doing this as one, not just as Amah Mutsun, but with neighboring tribes, and our many allies.”

Tribal leaders and special guests offered prayers and impassioned speeches to the crowd assembled in San Juan Bautista Plaza Square, prior to the commencement of the walk. Amah Mutsun Chairman Valentin Lopez expressed his gratitude for the overwhelming show of public support.

Chairman Valentin Lopez (photo: Josh Sonnenfeld)

“Creator never rescinded our obligation to take care of Mother Earth. That is our responsibility today, and the Amah Mutsun are going to fulfill that responsibility,” Lopez said. “We ask the public to join us, and that’s why today is such a beautiful, beautiful day— you’re here to stand with us.”

Former Santa Clara County supervisor Blanca Alvarado delivered a strong message of opposition to the proposed Sargent Quarry. “You will hear political arguments that, with all the construction and the development that is taking place in the South County, we need that sand and we need that gravel,” Alvarado said. “What we need is clean air. What we need is unpolluted rivers. What we need is respect for culture and the dignity of indigneous people. Together, we will achieve a victory for Mother Earth and for all of us, by making sure that the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors does not approve this project.”

Seven out of ten Amah Mutsun tribal council members participated in leading the Walk for Juristac. “Our religion is polytheistic, so we believed in many deities, many Gods,” Councilmember Quirina Geary told the crowd. “Sargent Ranch is a special place, because many ceremonies happened there…these Gods [came] together, to heal the land, the people— to keep our world turning. And so, to destroy this place, it’s unconscionable to think what could happen.”

Louise Ramirez of the Ohlone Costanoan Esselen Nation, and Veronica Martinez of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band (pic: Josh Sonnenfeld)

Tribal leaders from other California indigenous nations, including Louise Ramirez of the Ohlone Costanoan Esselen Nation, Wounded Knee DeOcampo of the Tuolumne Miwok tribe and Caroline Ward of the Fernandeño Tataviam tribe spoke in solidarity with Amah Mutsun tribe’s efforts to protect Juristac.

“We need you to continue to stand up, to step up, and to respect the history of all of our people that goes back thousands of years,” said Louise Ramirez. “Stand tall, and continue. Remember, there are many threatened sacred sites, and we can all, together, take care of them.”

Representatives from conservation organizations Committee for Green Foothills, Preserve Our Rural Communities, and Center for Biological Diversity delivered remarks about the importance of stopping the proposed Sargent Quarry. “We can’t afford to continue plowing through and fragmenting lands with high ecological and cultural value,” stated Tiffany Yap of the Center for Biological Diversity.

“The destruction of habitat, the noise and disturbance from quarry operations, and the waste generated by the quarry all would significantly impact the wildlife that live on and move through Juristac,” Alice Kaufman of the Committee for Green Foothills added.

Amah Mutsun youth representatives (photo: Sonya Pineida Sanchez)

Just before the walk departed from the Plaza Square, a group of Amah Mutsun tribal youth took the stage to offer words of inspiration. “Today is so powerful because we are finally coming home,” 16-year old Roxanne Gaona said. “As youth it is our responsibility to make sure Juristac is protected. Our dream is to one day bring our own children here for the Big Head ceremony, as our ancestors did before us for thousands of years and hundreds of generations.”

With elders of the tribe in the lead, holding prayer staffs, flags, and banners, the crowd poured out onto 2nd St in downtown San Juan Bautista. Mutsun songs reverberated across the downtown streets and a spirit of reverence and purposefulness prevailed among the walkers.

As the procession continued down the San Juan Highway, members of the San Jose and Watsonville Brown Berets flanked the group with flags to ensure traffic safety. When the walkers arrived to a planned rest stop just before the San Benito River crossing, Amah Mutsun historian and tribal councilmember Ed Ketchum stood in the bed of a parked pickup truck, sharing stories with the crowd about the tribe’s rich history in the area.

Ed Ketchum, Amah Mutsun tribal historian, speaks to the crowd of walkers (pic: Benedicto de Jesus)

Ketchum explained that Juristac was a “power area,” where ceremonies were held, medicines were gathered, and the tribe’s doctors (shamans) resided. He also explained that after Mission San Juan Bautista was secularized in 1835, many tribal members re-established residency along the Pajaro River in the vicinity of Juristac, on lands which the Mexican government promised to the Indians— only to be driven off the land years later, when American settlers claimed title to Rancho Juristac.

“When they went to church, they came home, and the house was boarded up and all of their possessions were out in the front yard,” Ketchum said, relating the story of his own family ancestors who lived on what was to become known as the Sargent Ranch. “So, they had to collect everything and relocate to the Anzar property to the west.”

Photo: Josh Sonnenfeld

As the walkers crossed the San Benito River on an old dirt trail and completed the final mile of their journey, the sun was hanging low in the sky. With elders still in the lead, the group streamed over Highway 101 at the Betabel overpass and arrived at an open field adjacent to the Pajaro River, where a group of Amah Mutsun women received them, singing traditional Mutsun songs.

“What happened today is historic. When have the people of this area ever stood, and walked beside the indigenous people of this area?,” Chairman Valentin Lopez declared. “Today shows that the times are changing and people are ready for healing.”

Marie Perez, tribal elder, speaks at the closing gathering (pic: Josh Sonnenfeld)

Lopez introduced Marie Perez, who at 83 was the oldest tribal member to walk the entire 5 miles for Juristac. “I know that my mother would be very proud of me for doing what I did today. I wish she could have lived long enough to see this. But…she’s always with me.”

“Once again we thank you for being with us here today, this means so much,” said Chairman Lopez. “For so many years, our spiritual and cultural sites have been destroyed. We say enough! There’s going to be no more free rides within Amah Mutsun territory. We’re going to fight for every one of our cultural sites, our spiritual sites. And we’re going to be calling on you to please stand with us.”

The La Jolla, California based Debt Acquisition Company of America has applied to the County of Santa Clara for permits to operate a proposed sand and gravel mining operation at Sargent Ranch (Juristac). The Draft Environmental Impact Report for the Sargent Quarry Project is due to be released in the coming months, at which time the County will open a public comment period.

Walkers arriving to the closing gathering site. Photo credit: Benedicto de Jesus

For more photos of the day, view the Walk for Juristac album on our Facebook page. For additional photos and videos of the day and future events, follow @protectjuristac on Instagram and the Protect Juristac Facebook page.