Features & Columns

The Lost Tribe: Amah Mutsun
Native Americans

After generations in the shadows, the Amah Mutsun Native Americans reclaim their identity and pursue legal recognition
TIME CAPSULE: A mural at University of California, Santa Cruz depicts life in an Amah Mutsun village before European conquest. Mural by Ann Thiermann

The hand-me-down clothes stuffed into a backpack and a black, scratched-up VCR, the only things she owned in the world, became her ticket out of foster care. With no cash, 13-year-old Sonya Pineida traded the video player for a cab ride from a cramped Madera County house to a friend's home in Fresno. Away from the foster mom who treated her like a paycheck. Away from a father locked up in prison for life and a mother addicted to drugs.

Sonya bounced from foster home to group home to no home over the next several years. Attempts to flee landed her in state-run programs and detention halls. "They tried to scare me straight," she recalls. "But I already knew that life. I wasn't scared. I was institutionalized, so that was the world I already knew.."

Sonya became pregnant at 16 and named the baby girl with a little red mark in her eye Julisa, after Sonya's twin, Julie, and her little sister, Lisa. "She was mine and I was going to do everything I could for her," Sonya says. A year later, emancipated from the courts, she reunited with her own mom, who by that time was clean and sober. "But I still felt empty," Sonya says, "like I was a stranger to myself."

In 2000, her grandfather died. At the funeral with family and strangers, a man the age of Sonya's father approached and offered his condolences. He told her she was not alone. Her grandfather was his uncle. He told her that he too was a member of the Amah Mutsun, a tribe of coastal Indians.

He, too?

"I couldn't believe I was Native American," Sonya says. "I couldn't believe that not one person ever told me. I wonder if I were raised in my culture if I would have had a different life. I could have dealt with things differently, with prayers and songs and medicine my people use."

She pauses, tears up at the memory. It hurts to think what could have been had she known there was a community waiting to welcome her.

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