Features & Columns
"The color of these
Indians, which is that of the negroes; the house of the Missionaries; their storehouses, which are built of brick and plastered; the appearance of the ground on which the grain is trodden out; the cattle, the horses—everything in short—brought to our recollection a plantation at Santo Domingo or any other West Indian island. The men and women are collected by the sound of a bell; a Missionary leads them to work, to the church, and to all their exercises. We observed with concern that the resemblance is so perfect that we have seen both men and women in irons, and others in stocks."
—Capt. Jean-Francois de Galaup, describing his visit to Mission Carmel in 1786, likening it to slave plantations.
The flatbed truck rumbles
down the dirt road to the encampment, kicking up swirls of dust. It's dawn, but Lopez already feels the heat rising. He scrambles into the sputtering rig with his grandmother, Josefa Pineida, and a few-dozen others from his tribe, crammed thigh-to-thigh for the head-jostling ride to the cutting sheds.
Lopez—everyone calls him Val, short for Valentin—worked his first summer job in 1955 at the age of 4. Mother told him to help grandmother, who's blind from diabetes and needs someone to hand her apricots at her station in the open-air shed, to keep the fruit within easy reach so she can grab and cut without interruption. She runs the hooked blade along the seam of the apricot then drops the halves. Val pits and sorts them in tight, neat rows, then sets them on trays to dry in the sun.
Slice, pit, sort. Sunup to sundown. Every day of every summer at Swanson Ranch in Hollister.
The landowner lets members of the Amah Mutsun tribe live in tents on the property for seasonal work like this. Some stay in shacks cobbled together by wood trays, the same used to dry the apricots.
As they sort and slice and stack, Lopez listens to grandmother's stories about how the tribe would cross the Pacheco Pass, walking beside a buckboard wagon packed with tents and supplies, led by a tired old mare named Suzie. Depending on the season, they'd pick apricots, walnuts, prunes and other crops.
Grandmother talks about her work assignments as a young girl, cooking for the tribe while the rest shear sheep. The stink of dung and animal musk swells with the heat. Small children bag wool while the men pin down sheep to shear.
She mostly shares memories. She talks about "the Indian way," but only in passing. Generations of oppression taught her to hide that identity. Franciscan friars brutally beat it out of the Mutsun beginning in the late 1700s, hunting Indians and tethering their thumbs to march them single file to the missions, where they were enslaved during Spanish colonization.
"With the best theological intentions in the world, the Franciscan padres eliminated Indians with the effectiveness of Nazis operating concentration camps," historian Carey McWilliams wrote.
At most missions, they killed nearly as many Indians as they baptized: 150,000 deaths statewide, slashing the Native population in half. Records at San Juan Bautista, the South County settlement where the Mutsun were enslaved, show that by 1833 there had been 3,396 baptisms, 858 marriages and 19,421 deaths.
"All we have done to the Indians is consecrate them, baptize them and bury them," Father Mariano Payeras wrote in a letter in 1820, expressing worry that outsiders would eventually ask what happened to the once-abundant population of indigenous coastal tribes.
Mexican rancheros later seized Natives as indentured servants after the collapse of the mission system in 1833. The Gold Rush brought a third wave of bloodshed: hordes of money-hungry land-grabbers who cashed in when the California government declared a bounty on Indian heads, shelling out $1.1 million in 1852 to slaughtering militias.
"[A] war of extermination will continue to be waged between the two races until the Indian race becomes extinct," California's first governor Peter H. Burnett famously bellowed before the Legislature in 1851, calling to institutionalize violence against Indians with policies of warfare, slavery and relocation that left few alive and almost no Native community intact.
Until a generation ago, most of the Mutsun—like Grandmother Josefa—never learned to read or write. They clung to stories about creation and heritage, some lore of native plants and traditions, but thousands of years of collected knowledge had been forced from their collective consciousness. Families scattered, hundreds to the Central Valley, unable to afford to live on the land where their ancestors once lived and their families later worked. Hundreds of years of trauma sparked an epidemic of abuse, alcoholism and depression in Native homes.
Sonya Pineida's father and grandfather grew up in broken homes, plagued by addiction and trauma, and bequeathed the same pain to their own children. "They call it a soul wound, and it affects all Native people who have been colonized," says Dr. Donna Schindler, a psychologist who spent decades working with Native tribes, including the Amah Mutsun. "Everywhere, whether in the United States or with the Maori in New Zealand, the same series of events plagues them: they're stripped of language, culture and spirituality. It causes this traumatic wound, just like for someone who's gone to war. Left alone, it never heals."
Unlike many people in his tribe, Lopez grew up with some sense of his heritage. When he went to California State University, Sacramento, as an English major, he would visit his grandmother in Madera. By then her legs were amputated, both limbs claimed by diabetic nerve damage. But that never broke her spirit.
"Her optimism would restore faith in myself," Lopez says. "I wasn't good at making friends in college. I had a lot of insecurities. I grew up feeling dumb. But I wanted to go anyway because it was the right thing to do."
Lopez would visit his grandmother as much as he could during those days. She would scoot across the bed with a big smile and remind him that he had greater things ahead. Like in the cutting sheds, they spoke for hours. He would leave feeling like he could take on the world again.
"In a way, it was like grandma was grooming me to one day lead the tribe," he says. "She was giving me knowledge, passing it down. I would think, 'Look at grandma. She's blind and legless, but never sad.'"
"In San Benito County we find the San Juan Bautista band, which reside in the vicinity of the Mission San Juan Bautista, which is located near the town of Hollister. These Indians have been well-cared for by Catholic priests and no land is required."
—Lafayette A. Dorrington, special agent with the Indian Field Service, in a 1927 report that convinced the government to revoke the tribe's federal standing.
Fog trundles in from the ocean, clouding the skies except for a swath of bright blue over the Douglas fir-stippled hills to the east. Lopez plods along a shrub-lined path and on through a clearing in the Quiroste Valley, the site of an old ancestral village near Ano Nuevo state park.
"This place is sacred to us," he says, pausing for breath.
He pulls out a bag of tobacco and silently prays to the four directions, changing his post from north, west, south to east. He sprinkles dried tobacco leaves, because it's illegal to burn there, and thanks the Creator for putting him on this land, for entrusting his tribe to care for it.
The clearing lies amid 100 coastal acres north of the Santa Cruz County border, the site of a conservation deal cemented last fall that allows the tribe to tend the landscape and learn about indigenous plants. Lopez hopes it's one of many agreements to come that will give the tribe a place to work with the land in the absence of having its own.
"We want to create a Peace Corps model for youth of any tribe," Lopez says. "We want them to learn things like land management, ecology and give them job skills so they can go into these fields in the future."
When John Muir set foot in California in 1869 he thought the vistas and the orange-and-purple-flowering grasslands were untouched and wild, that most of the state was pristine until European contact. It's a view widely held to this day.
"The Spanish and people like Muir came here thinking that this was the work of God," says Rick Flores, a researcher at the UC–Santa Cruz Arboretum. "But what they were really looking at were these tended landscapes, cared for by these many groups of Native Indians."
The Mutsun and other tribes of California Indians would aerate roots, clear shrubs and spark controlled burns to clear the land for wild game and promote new plant growth. Unlike farming, they weren't planting furrows of crops. They were, as Native American researcher M. Kat Anderson calls it, "tending the wild," molding the landscape through centuries of sowing, pruning, burning and harvesting.
"Coastal Indians managed the landscape to promote foods they ate and plants they used for medicine and basket weaving," Flores says. "And those practices happened to create these beautiful displays that Europeans saw when they first came here. In their records, Spanish talked about these open park-like forests full of mature trees and guarded by shrubs. Now you see tangles of thickets and blackberries and poison oak."
In 2009, Lopez struck up a partnership with Flores and UC–Santa Cruz to teach the tribe about botany to try to regain centuries of knowledge lost in the bloody fray of European conquest and western expansion. The Mutsun used thousands of native plants for food, medicine and craftwork.
By 2011, the tribe received a $245,000 grant to conduct a controlled burn with the National Park Service on the east side of Pinnacles National Monument, about 30 miles outside of Hollister. The prescribed blaze not only gave the tribe a chance to reconnect with its past, it also offered researchers a way to study the effect of fire on plant health, invasive species, soil nutrients and groundwater.
"The purpose coincides with what state parks want for the land anyway," says Flores. "They're looking for ways to restore the landscape to what it was before European contact."
The ancient custom dovetails with modern land-use practices.
"These traditions, all this botanical wisdom used to be passed down from elders to children," Lopez says.
They may have disappeared entirely had it not been for tribal matriarch Ascencion Solorsano de Cervantes. She was the last known fluent speaker of the Mutsun language and a living anthology of ethno-botanical wisdom. A year before her death in 1930, a Smithsonian linguist and ethnographer named John Peabody Harrington moved into the basement of her Monterey home to transcribe what she knew, both the language and the plant lore.
"Her teeth were still intact, which is important when you're teaching dialect," Lopez says, with a chuckle. "As you can imagine."
The resulting 70,000 pages of field notes give present-day Mutsun a textbook to study. Chamomile seeds prepared in a salve to temper infected sores. Ingested, sage to suppress coughs or, held against the ear, to quell earaches. Mint, held in the mouth to ease a toothache. Verbena to cool a fever. Manzanita for bladder ailments. A poultice of nopales for arthritis. Boiled cypress leaves for rheumatism.
"It takes a lot of work for us older folks to memorize all of this," says Lopez. "I'm still learning the language. But the kids—they're picking it up so quickly. Some are already fluent."
"Kill the Indian, save the man."
— Capt. Richard Henry Pratt, the 19th century founder of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School. His academy became a template for hundreds of boarding schools across the country that forced Indian children to assimilate into white culture.
A few days before Christmas 2012, after years of unanswered letters from Lopez asking for a formal apology, Bishop Richard Garcia of the Diocese of Monterey held a mass of reconciliation. During a 10-minute address at Mission San Juan Bautista, where Mutsun men and women endured rape, slavery and disease two centuries earlier, Garcia asked for absolution for those sins of the past.
"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," Garcia told a sanctuary full of Native Americans, some of whom burned sage and tobacco leaves to lift their prayers to heaven. Lopez exchanged gifts and embraced Garcia.
"That was important to us," says Lopez. "It puts the past to rest and lets us begin to heal."
It marked the first time the church acknowledged the abuse of the past. This year, Lopez plans a campaign to bring the darker side of California history to light. While many of the 21 Spanish missions in the state include museums and exhibits about their history, none mention the whips, shackles and enslavement suffered by the Indians who built them.
Elias Castillo, whose upcoming book Cross of Thorns tells the cruel history of the mission system, will join Lopez in the effort to make more people aware of the church's treatment of indigenous people.
"Our slogan will be, 'Tell the Truth,'" Castillo says. "Using my book as the foundation for the effort, we want to call attention to the reality of California's early history."
The absence of that truth from textbooks, museums and common knowledge is a continued affront to California Indians, Lopez says.
"The cultural extermination was very effective," he adds. "We're trying to undo it."
A universal Native American principle Lopez often ponders holds that every action in the present affects seven generations in the future and seven in the past. A person who suffers trauma conveys that hurt to the next generation, disrupting the family dynamic and perpetuating a cycle of abuse. As Lopez sees it, the church's public admission helped the tribe come to terms with the past and start to repair the damage.
"If you look at the seven generations behind us, they're full of suffering," Sonya Pineida says. "But we're embarking on a new path. With or without federal recognition, we're a nation."
When she graduates high school Sonya's oldest daughter, 17-year-old Julisa, plans to go to UC–Santa Cruz in a year to study psychology and social work. She wants to start recording the tribal elders, to memorialize their life stories. Julisa and her two sisters, aged 15 and 11, attend the tribe's annual picnics. They go to the council meetings. Julisa will start a youth council. Every month or so they open up about their lives during wellness meetings, group talks where members pray, dance, talk about their lives and share a meal together.
Sonya sees her daughters and counts herself as the first of seven generations of healing.
"My father didn't grow up with a sense of heritage," she says. "But from prison he's hearing about how we're reconnecting with our roots and how his grandchildren are being raised to know and be proud of who they are. I'm doing well and my daughters are doing better. They stand on my shoulders.