.How the Amah Mutsun Tribe is Reclaiming its Heritage

After two centuries, the Amah Mutsun are no longer a landless tribe

Mary “Sis” Carrier tells me that while growing up, the little she was told about her Native American heritage seemed to revolve around reparations from the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

“All my grandmother said was just to sign up for the BIA,” says Carrier, as we stand beneath a flowering pomegranate tree in the Santa Cruz Mountains community of Bonny Doon. “They didn’t want to talk about our history. The settlers took our land, our livelihood, and we got $600.”

Carrier’s native identity was lost—or, more accurately, suppressed—in favor of security and safety, she says. Her indigenous traditions and culture were sacrificed in the name of survival.

It would take Carrier and daughter Lisa Carrier decades to uncover their ancestral roots. They paid for online ancestral trees, sought out birth certificates—the originals of which were often lost due to name changes made to assimilate their family—and used other government documents to lead them back in time throughout their family’s history.

This intensive process cost them thousands of dollars and hours, and eventually led them to the realization that they descended from tribes that were held at two missions: San Juan Bautista and Santa Cruz. Descendants of these tribes now constitute the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band.

Despite officially joining the Amah Mutsun tribe in the ’90s, the two Carrier women will tell you they were born into their tribe. Everyone in the tribe that I speak with repeats this idea to me, when I ask how and when they joined the Amah Mutsun tribe.

I was born into my tribe, they correct me.

Suppressing culture and heritage was a common refrain among the tribal members I spoke with. But they all also expressed an innate familiarity with their tribe’s indigenous culture, a familiarity that transcended the physical distance separating members.

The Amah Mutsun tribe has not claimed its own land since the 1790s, when the Spanish started the missions of San Juan Bautista and Santa Cruz. During this time, the Spanish forcibly removed the Indians from their villages and brought them to mission compounds.

After the Mission period, robbed of their ancestral land, tribal members dispersed throughout California. Now, Amah Mutsun tribal members are located around the state, and likely throughout the country.

Throughout the tribe’s history, members have attempted to have it federally recognized, but never succeeded—which has made land ownership for the Amah Mutsun impossible.

“We do not have any of the benefits that federally recognized tribes have,” says Carrier. “We have no federal income coming in, we do not have our own land. We have to be completely self-sufficient.”

Finally, that has changed. On a cold but sunny November day, Carrier leads me around 1.5 acres in the hills of Bonny Doon that is the first piece of land the tribe has been able to call its own since the 1790s.

The property is stunning, and as we walk past gardens and play structures, Carrier and Ally Arganbright, who is one of the tribe’s native stewards, explain plans for the future of the property.

Soon, it will be filled with herbs and produce that constituted the diets of their indigenous ancestors, and there will be spaces for the dances and ceremonies that the tribe plans on holding for members across the state. The house on the property has 10 rooms, two kitchens and a large open living room space, and will accommodate tribal members who are traveling from other cities, and children who will participate in educational programs.

It was with the help of the Community Foundation Santa Cruz County as well as furious fundraising efforts—$3 million needed to be raised in the space of a week—that the tribe was able to purchase this property.

“The tribe was so dispersed, and this purchase is a way to have a home on their land,” says Susan True, the CEO of the Community Foundation. “You can’t heal, you can’t create cultural identity, you can’t create spiritual connections across generations or teach language without having a place, without a home.”

A Brief History 

Before the Spanish missions, the indigenous peoples of south San Francisco and north-Monterey Bay area were collectively referred to as “Ohlone.” There were more than 20 different bands, villages and communities, who spoke similar languages, traded and intermarried.

The arrival of the Spanish colonists marked the start of a dark and deadly time for tribes. During the Mission period, 19,421 Indians died at Mission San Juan Bautista.

Later in the 19th century, Indians around the country continued to face the threat of danger based on their heritage.

“When I started school, the grandmothers or aunties said, ‘Always say you’re Mexican, never say you’re Indian,’” says Valentin Lopez, the chairman and president of the Amah Mutsun tribe. “My grandparents were alive when they would scalp you for being Indian. So, they gave us Christian, Hispanic names. That’s how they survived, by denying they were Indians.”

The tribe’s re-emergence in the early 1900s can be attributed to one woman: Ascencion Solorsano de Cervantes. Cervantes’ house became a gathering space, and it was largely due to her that the Amah Mutsun history and traditions were preserved.

Although her leadership coincided with a time when members were able to practice their culture publicly, the tribe remained landless.

Lopez, born in 1952, recalls moving from ranch to ranch alongside other tribal members, spending the first five years of his life picking prunes, grapes, string beans, packing his belongings alongside the changing seasons, just to reassemble them on a different farm.

As these ranches transformed into ranchettes and later orchards, the tribal members separated. Still, the tribe tried to maintain some semblance of community.

In 1991, after decades of unofficial gatherings, the tribe formally coalesced. But even after it created its constitution and formed its government, it remained out of the public eye. That changed in the early 2000s, when the tribe was at the center of a forgery scandal. At that time, the tribe’s then-chairman, Irenrie Zwierlein, was at the heart of repeated controversies, including one that called into question her management of more than $130,000 in federal grant monies intended to advance the tribe’s recognition efforts. After resigning from her position, Zwierlein went on to create her own tribe.

The Amah Mutsun elders called on Lopez to replace Zwierlein and take the role of chairman, the tribe’s leader. Lopez says he had to rise to the occasion: In Mutsun culture, saying no to the elders is not an option.

The scandal threatened to derail the group’s fight for federal recognition, and damaged the tribe’s reputation.

Zwierlein’s actions “were embarrassing to our ancestors,” says Lopez. “And it created a lot of confusion with the public. They didn’t know who the legitimate tribe was. And we can’t afford attorneys. We can’t afford public relations firms. We have to do everything ourselves.”

In the years following the scandal, Lopez was tasked with reinforcing the tribe’s credibility, and raising public awareness of the tribe and its history. He brought the tribe’s families together for reunions. He petitioned the Catholic Church to apologize for atrocities committed against his people. His grandmother was the last known person to speak the Mutsun language, and he endeavored to learn and help the tribe revitalize the language.

As Lopez and the tribe delved deeper into the ancient practices of their ancestors, it became more apparent that they first needed the thing that was taken from them: land.

“Our creation story tells us that we have a responsibility to take care of mother earth and all living things,” says Lopez. “But our tribe owns no land and does not have rights to any of the lands in the territory, since the time of the missions.”

So in 2012, the tribe created the Amah Mutsun Land Trust, as a way to preserve cultural sites and the territory that belonged to the tribe’s ancestors, despite the tribe not owning any land.   

Shortly after it was created, the AMLT partnered with UC Berkeley and California State Parks to  explore how Native groups lived on the coast of northern Santa Cruz County. It was this partnership that started to bring respect and recognition to the tribe, Lopez says.

“In most of the public’s eye, the indigenous people were simply hunters and gatherers,” says Lopez. “This research was showing that our ancestors were very deliberate and effective stewards of the land.”

It was frustrating, Lopez says, that it took the credibility of other institutions for people to acknowledge the wisdom of Native practices. Lopez points to the use of controlled burnings, which indigenous tribes have historically used to prevent wildfires.

“We have said all along that the use of fire is a really important way to manage landscapes,” says Lopez. “But whenever we were talking about fire before the research, and before the CZU fires to be honest, people just did not believe us.”

Ironically, it was in part the CZU Lightning Complex fires that led the tribe to purchase the property in Bonny Doon. The fires displaced AMLT’s land stewards, who were living on the state park Cascade Ranch in San Mateo County, caring for the property using Native traditions.

After the fires forced the stewards to move, the stewards were living in tents, and it was around this time that the tribe reached the Community Foundation’s radar.

Together, the foundation and AMLT worked to finally find a property that the tribe could own.

“We didn’t know anything about fundraising, or writing grants,” says Lopez. “Asking for help from the outside world, we surely didn’t know how to do that. That was difficult for us.”

But with the foundation’s help, AMLT was able to use donor funds to purchase its own land.

“They care for this land, and they need a place to build cultural identity as they heal from all the historic trauma, and that place can’t just be temporary,” True says. “It needs to be a foothold for the tribe to heal and for the tribe to build relations through the generations.”

Tribal Stewardship as the Future 

Around the state and country, tribes have been reclaiming their land through what’s known as the “land back” movement. Just in California, land in Big Sur was returned to the Esselen people, a redwood forest in the northern part of the state was returned to a consortium of local tribes and a small community garden in Berkeley was returned to the Lisjan Ohlone.

In recent years, acknowledgment of historical wrongs against Native Americans have also become more common in the political sphere. Just three years ago, California Gov. Gavin Newsom formally apologized for California’s history of violence, mistreatment and neglect of Native Americans, saying it amounted to genocide.

UCSC Assistant Professor Dr. Caitlin Keliiaa, a historian in Native American studies and a member of the Washoe tribe, says these actions mark a turning point in how society acknowledges indigenous history.

“When we talk about land back, I think some of your average people will be concerned that, well, ‘Wait a minute, what are you going to do—give up my house, or kick me out?’” Keliiaa says. “But they’re interested in having a relationship with the land that was actually taken from them. When we return land back to Native people, they steward and take care of that land in a way that hasn’t happened for some time.”

Keliiaa explains that indigenous people aren’t only receiving reparations; they are also at the forefront of the fight against climate change.

This past October the state announced that five California tribes—AMLT among them—will manage coastal land significant to their history, with a first-of-its-kind program backed by $3.6 million in state money. The tribes will use traditional practices to protect more than 200 miles of coastline in the state.

While land stewardship is an important part of many tribal missions, land ownership offers a central location that facilitates celebration of indigenous culture.

“People think once a tribe has access to land, they’re going to build a casino,” Keliiaa says. “I would never challenge that decision; they have their sovereign right to do what is in the best interest of their people. That being said, a lot of tribes actually get the chance to create wonderful cultural resources. Look at the Amah Mutsun—they are building gardens, they’re making medicine there, having workshops on language and culture, and dance and song. On land that their ancestors had been doing that on for thousands of years. I get chills when I think about that.”

Clarissa Luna, who is in charge of AMLT’s food sovereignty program, explains that the land in Bonny Doon will also allow the tribe to reclaim their culture and heal tribal trauma through another important channel: food.

“Food sovereignty means to cultivate a healthier relationship with food and what you consume,” Luna says. “But it also surpasses that. When these traditional foods are made available to you, and your body receives proper nourishment, you’re also healed from many of the nutrient-deficient illnesses that the tribal community suffers from.”

Part of the property’s mission will be to grow indigenous plants and focus on ancestral diets as another avenue to help tribal members reconnect with their culture.

“We had so many kids early on in the Land Trust history, who had never even been to the beach, been to the coast,” says Lisa Carrier. “So to bring back the palette of fish into our diets is extremely important.”

Looking Ahead

When Lisa Carrier was in the third grade, her teacher tasked the class with an assignment that was meant to be fun, easy and celebratory: bring to school an item from your culture.

For Carrier, the assignment left her feeling isolated from her classmates and her history.

“I couldn’t point to anything, I didn’t have a necklace, anything dance related, or my language or anything, so I couldn’t share,” says Carrier. “And that was very hurtful.”

Carrier hopes that the children in her tribe will never feel uncertain about their culture or their history in that way, and she sees the property in Bonny Doon as critical in making sure every Amah Mutsun child has knowledge of where they come from and who their ancestors are.

That’s why the house will serve in part as a learning center, with many child-oriented programs. Already, one tribal youth group has visited.

“One of the kids from the youth group said, ‘Oh, the house is really elegant,’” says Carrier. “I want it to be nice, because I want them to understand that while we don’t value material things, it’s okay for things to look nice to be decorative to appreciate our flowers and bouquets. And we’ve been poor for so long, we don’t have to constantly think that the only way we live is in  poverty.”

More than anything, having a central property will make all other events so much easier, Carrier says.

“It’s that sense of place. We have power now,” says Carrier.

While the tribe will continue to fight for federal recognition, it’s no longer a priority. Chairman Lopez says he does not expect to see the tribe recognized federally during his lifetime. While that’s disappointing, he says he doesn’t need federal recognition to know who he is. He points to how much the tribe has already been able to accomplish.

Keliiaa concurs. “They’re not sitting around having to wait for the government or any federal institution. They’re just making it happen.”


  1. Hello Aiyana – Thank you for the excellent article. The only disagreement I have is with the number of Native peoples who died at Mission San Juan Bautista between 1797-1823. The number is more likely to be around 5,000. The historian, Alexander Taylor, wrote incorrectly in December 1862 that an extreme number of deaths occurred a Mission SJB. From my research, it seems that he misinterpreted, or transcribed the number in error, during his review of the Mission records.

    • Please sign me up for the newsletter - Yes


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

Latest Giveaways

Win a $50 gift certificate to District San Jose in Downtown San Jose. Drawing August 9, 2023.
Win a $25 gift certificate to Academic Coffee in Downtown San Jose. Drawing August 23, 2023.
Metro Silicon Valley E-edition Metro Silicon Valley E-edition