Features & Columns

Val Lopez gave up the life he knew to save his tribe, the Amah Mutsun, from extinction Photograph by Bill Lovejoy

'Great men do not seek
power; it is thrust upon them.'

—Klingon proverb, 'Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.' Linguist Marc Okrand, who studied Mutsun grammar in college, used the Native American language as the foundation for the fictional Klingon dialect in the sci-fi franchise

Val Lopez makes the
150-mile trek from his home in Sacramento to Santa Cruz and South County and back again several times a week. Nearly every day is booked, dawn to dark. Meetings with the tribe's lawyer, with authors, with reporters, with park rangers and scientists, with grant-givers and historians, with students and teachers.

The 63-year-old elected leader of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band of Ohlone/Costanoan Indians works in a roving office—a beat-up Camry with a dusty dashboard, sun-flaked white paint and frayed upholstery. Stacks of binders fill the back seat and more sit in the trunk—packed with letters from government agencies, a dictionary of a once-forgotten language, federal papers relating to the tribe's legal standing and pages and pages of botanical lore. The sum of his life's work.

"I used to lament that we lost so much and we'd never get it back," Lopez says, his burly 6-foot frame hunched over the steering wheel, eyes fixed on the winding descent of Highway 17. "How do you recover from that—from so many generations of hurt?"

Present-day Amah Mutsun trace their lineage back to two tribes of Central Coast natives, the San Benito-Santa Clara Valley Mutsun and the Santa Cruz Awaswas. After two-and-a-half centuries of Spanish, Mexican and American rule, only 600 enrolled members remain. Most, like Val and Sonya, are unable to live in their ancestral home.

As a tribe un-recognized by the federal government, they have no land, no money and no right to keep their children out of foster care and in the community if a guardian is deemed unfit. In the last decade, the tribe has lost at least three daughters to the system. They have no political sovereignty and no claim to college scholarships or other benefits given to government-sanctioned tribes.

"At stake is our ability to be a community," Lopez says. "Our ability to have a place to call home."

Mutsun elders applied for federal recognition through the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) in 1990. They've waited ever since, watching their case wend its way through a bureaucratic Gordian knot, made even more difficult to untangle with a disgruntled former tribe chair's attempt to sabotage the process.

In the spring of 2000, the tribal council forced Chairwoman Irene Zwierlein to resign from the post she had held since the early '90s. The decision led to years of internal political battles that called into question her management of grants designed to advance the tribe's pursuit of federal recognition. "For a time, it seemed like this was a lost cause," Lopez says.

The council sent a letter to the BIA with signatures from six council members notifying the agency that their leader had resigned. But Zwierlein sent her own letter, too, telling the federal agency that she had retained power and the rest of the council stepped down to form a splinter group. She had a lot to gain.

A 2007 investigation by the Gilroy Dispatch showed that Zwierlein had struck a deal with San Diego-based developer Wayne Pierce, borrowing heavily against the Sargent Ranch property that would have come under tribal control if the BIA application went through. If the BIA had approved her request for recognition, Zwierlein would have been able to seize control of the land and wield her newfound political clout, bypassing zoning rules and green-lighting new development.

"That went directly against our vision for the tribe," Lopez recounts.

Forensic analysis later proved that Zwierlein forged signatures of six council members to make it look like they had resigned. The fraud threatened to derail the group's fight for federal recognition.

"She was trying to hijack our tribe for her own gain," Lopez says. "It put our whole future in jeopardy."

Despite the setback, the tribe is now second in line for consideration. Still, Lopez does not expect to see it finalized in his lifetime.

"We feel that they don't want to recognize any more tribes," he says. "They've only recognized one in the past few decades and they're in no rush to do it again. It's a real conflict of interest."

Frustrated by the lack of progress and still reeling from Zwirelein's obstruction, elders approached Lopez in 2003, asking him to step up as tribal chair. Even landless they could create some semblance of community, they thought, with or without help from the government. They could raise the profile of a tribe that had dropped off the map and out of history. Until then, the tribe never spoke publicly about themselves, a silence left over from a time when their identity could get them killed.

"A lot of us, over time, began to identify as Mexican," Lopez says. "We could look the part. To the rest of the world we all but disappeared."

Three years out from a full pension, Lopez wasn't prepared to quit his job. The Gilroy native had spent most of his career designing tests for people applying for state jobs. But in Mutsun culture, one must do as the elders say. Even if that meant retiring early and reducing his income by two-thirds.

"They told me that it's time to make the public aware of who we are," Lopez recalls. "We need to claim it. Otherwise, we're going to lose our identity and never get it back."

He began work on bringing the tribe's families together for reunions. Pineida and her family were among the first he helped register into the tribe. He petitioned the Catholic Church to apologize for atrocities committed against his people during the Spanish conquest. He teamed up with the University of California system to reclaim knowledge of native plants and histories. He began to study the effect of historic trauma on surviving Mutsun members. He began to learn the Mutsun language.

Slowly, Lopez began to pull together the pieces of his broken tribe.

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