Just past noon on Sep. 8, hundreds of people gather in prayer. This isn’t a typical Sunday church service, though. The congregation has come to the end of a 5-mile march, a pilgrimage that began at Mission San Juan Bautista in San Benito County and ended at a place now known as Sargent Ranch at Santa Clara County’s southernmost edge, half an hour south of central San Jose.
Here, at the foot of the lowland slopes and iconic golden hills a few miles from urbanizing Gilroy, they begin to pray.
Ceremonies such as these were once common here. Thousands of years ago, long before European settlers arrived in California, the Amah Mutsun—a local indigenous tribe—held sacred gatherings on the site they call “Juristac,” meaning “place of the big head.”
At their peak, the Amah Mutsun lived in small villages from the San Francisco Bay Area down to Monterey. Juristac is considered a particularly special place—home of their spiritual leader, Kuksui, and a place where the tribal band hosted prayer ceremonies and healing rituals for more than 10,000 years. It is also currently the proposed site of a 320-acre open-pit sand and gravel mine, a potentially new and local source for the grit coveted by the stakeholders in Silicon Valley’s construction boom.
It was this prospect that compelled more than a hundred tribal members—along with hundreds of their supporters from community and environmental organizations—to attend the early September prayer walk.
“This is a major issue for our tribe,” says Valentin Lopez, chairman of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band. “These developers plan on tearing down and monetizing our most sacred site, and so we’re fighting to stop that.”
Approval of the Sargent Quarry Project is contingent on a number of pending factors. There’s an ethnographic study taking place, along with a draft environmental impact report being undertaken by the county Department of Planning and Development. The EIR was expected in November, but county planner Rob Eastwood said this week, “We found a few things that are going to take a little more time to look at” and that the report’s new expected release date is early next year.
Environmental groups have come out against the proposed mine because of the adverse impact it would likely have on iconic species such as the American badger, puma and California red-legged frog.
After the draft environmental review is issued, opposition groups will likely have somewhere between 45 to 75 days to submit questions or objections to the county Planning Commission, which will then vote on the mine.
It’s likely that their findings will be appealed either way, leaving the final decision to the county Board of Supervisors.
Lopez knows that there is still a long fight ahead. It is merely the latest skirmish in a battle that he and his contemporaries have fought for decades—and the latest chapter in a war that his ancestors waged for centuries.
For nearly 20 years, Irenne Zwierlein—considered an outsider by the tribal majority—has nonetheless played an outsized role in the Amah Mutsun’s ongoing campaign for federal recognition and in the tribe’s claim to the Sargent Ranch property.
The 74-year-old Woodside resident, who didn’t respond to requests for comment, has made no public effort to take part in any of the tribe’s events and activities and has yet to conclusively prove her Indian heritage. Even after the Bureau of Indian Affairs affirmed in 2007 that Zwierlein forged documents in an attempt to position herself as the Amah Mutsun’s rightful leader, she managed to convince the agency to prioritize her petition over that of popularly recognized tribal Chairman Lopez, a fellow septuagenarian who for the past 16 years has served as the face of the tribe.
Under Lopez’s leadership, the tribe has emphasized restoring a sense of community among the 500-plus Amah Mutsun members after generations of forced assimilation and trauma. For his part, Lopez says he hopes to see Sargent Ranch returned to the Amah Mutsun, or placed in the stewardship of an organization that shares his vision of maintaining a green, open space and wild space on this tract of land. “We want to return to the path of our ancestors and to fulfill our obligation to the creator,” he says. “And we don’t need the BIA’s permission to do that.”
Without a legal right to their ancestral turf, Lopez says the Amah Mutsun won’t be able to unilaterally say what can be done here. However, in the course of his time fighting for Juristac and other significant Amah Mutsun sites, Lopez has forged partnerships with open space districts, conservationists and private property owners who have helped him and his tribe to uphold its mission of protecting land it holds sacred.
Zwierlein’s priorities, by contrast, seemingly depend almost entirely on the federal government’s affirmation of the tribe’s sovereignty to secure the rights to Sargent Ranch.
Fifteen years ago, La Jolla developer Wayne Pierce inked a development contract with Zwierlein, who promised to allow development on the land in exchange for a $21 million cultural center and homes for tribal members. The pact gave Pierce a way to bypass state and county anti-sprawl zoning and brought Zwierlein some powerful allies.
Though Pierce’s blueprints for a “luxury gaming resort” surfaced online years after signing his covenant with Zwierlein, she has consistently denied advocating for a casino. But the potential profit windfall from Indian gaming cast doubt on Zwierlein’s motives as well as those of investors, labor groups and political office holders aligned with her.
When he authored a bill in 2005 to expedite federal recognition, Congressman Mike Honda (D-San Jose) swore he wasn’t taking sides in the tribe’s internal conflict. But the language appeared to favor Zwierlein by citing the title of her BIA petition, raising questions about the lawmaker’s intentions. The bill never passed. A few years later, the economy took a nosedive and set Pierce on a course that ended in bankruptcy and foreclosure on the La Jollan’s 85 percent stake in Sargent Ranch.
The proposed quarry has now overtaken the sidelined casino plans as the immediate threat to Juristac.
Three bookmarks prevent suburban sprawl from spilling seamlessly from San Jose to Salinas: the Coyote Valley, undeveloped land stretching from Hollister to Prunedale and Sargent Ranch.
Earlier this month, San Jose snatched up 937 acres of Coyote Valley from Brandenburg Properties and the Sobrato Organization in a $93 million deal aimed at creating a permanent greenbelt between the city proper and the rural South Valley.
Further south, San Benito County supervisors on Sept. 24 greenlighted “nodes” off four Highway 101 off-ramps for tax revenue-generating commercial development. A petition by environmentalists to bring the rezoning decision to voters was certified last week, in hopes of reversing the decision that will transform the corridor’s rural landscape.
Sargent Ranch would extend Santa Clara County’s developed footprint by converting the pristine lands to industrial use. The proposed quarry seeks to unearth about 40 million tons of sand and gravel estimated to lie beneath the surface of the bucolic property.
As the project nears a vote, the applicant has hired controversial lobbyist Ed McGovern to sway the Board of Supervisors. McGovern previously served as campaign manager to county supervisor Cindy Chavez and political consultant to disgraced former Santa Clara councilman and county supervisor candidate Dominic Caserta. For the past several months, lobbying records show that McGovern, Sargent Ranch representative Verne Freeman and officials from the South Bay Labor Council have held meetings and led site tours with county supervisors—namely Cortese, Chavez, Joe Simitian and Susan Ellenberg—to sell the mine’s value as a job creator and tax revenue-booster.
County Supervisor Mike Wasserman, whose district includes Sargent Ranch, has expressed strong support for the mining project as a local source of aggregate for concrete to fuel the region’s surging construction. As developers tout the economic benefits of carving gravel out of ranchland, the stakes are high for the broader public as well. If Sargent Ranch is developed, it may catalyze further sprawl.
Cortese, who hails from a family with a multi-generational agricultural background, says he’s more inclined to protect the ranchland as open space. “Every time we make a decision there’s consequences,” he tells San Jose Inside. “My default is to keep it pristine, to keep it as unimproved as possible.”
This certainly aligns with Lopez’s hopes, as the mine would desecrate a site that’s inextricably intertwined with the 3,000-year history and cultural identity of the Amah Mutsun people.
While Lopez has been dealt many defeats and setbacks in his decades-long fight, he comes into the battle for Juristac on the heels of a partial win.
With the help of the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District—a special district that manages 26 open space preserves around the Bay Area—Lopez recently managed to reclaim a small piece of one of his people’s most sacred sites, the summit of Mount Umunhum. The 3,489-foot peak, one of the highest that surrounds the valley, is now the home of a permanent Amah Mutsun prayer circle, which was completed two years ago.
Silicon Valley denizens may recognize Mount Um by the large, white rectangular structure standing atop its peak. The most obvious vestige of the Almaden Air Force Station, which operated there from 1958 to 1980, the structure is a five-story concrete radar tower, which once supported an 80-ton radar antenna built to detect incoming Russian Bear Bombers during the Cold War.
The station was manned by the 682nd Radar Squadron and, at its peak, was almost like a little town of its own, housing 120 airmen and their families in a community that included a fallout shelter, a cafeteria, a commissary, a bowling alley and a basketball court. In 1980, the station was abandoned by the military and closed to the public because of the asbestos, black mold, fuel-storage containers, PCB transformers, lead-based paint and other hazardous materials on site.
The summit of Mount Umunhum was cordoned off for decades. But in 2009, with the help of Honda, fellow House Democrat Zoe Lofgren, California senators Barbara Boxer and Diane Feinstein and Midpen—as the special district is known—received $3.2 million to clean it up. They removed 3,000 cubic yards of hazardous material, re-contoured the the site and constructed a trail between Mount Umunhum and its neighbor, Bald Mountain. After almost 60 years, the summit would again open to visitors.
“When we got the call from Midpen, we talked to our tribal council about what our vision was and what we would like to see here on Mount Umunhum,” Lopez says. “We all agreed almost immediately that we would like to see the opportunity for us to return here as a place for prayer and ceremony.”
On Sep. 14, 2017, around a circle set by traditionally cut stones, Amah Mutsun tribal members held the first ceremony on Mount Umunhum in perhaps 200 years. The circle overlooks Silicon Valley and is marked with an informational plaque, which explains the historical significance of Mount Umunhum for the Amah Mutsun tribe.
Umunhum can be loosely translated as “the place where hummingbird rests.” Growing up in the shadow of this mountain, most residents have some vague understanding of this—or at least a version of it. What many locals may not know, however, is that Mount Umunhum is not just named after an Amah Mutsun word — it’s actually the center of the Amah Mutsun’s creation mythology—literally the center of their universe.
“Mount Umunhum is a place of our creation,” Lopez says. “Our creation story tells us that it was there that Creator made all lifeforms that we see today: the four-legged, the birds, the fish, the plants, etc. It's a sacred place to us, a place where our people would go to pray. And it was desecrated to bring in a military installation.”
This is not a new story.
History of Violence
Since colonization’s earliest days, Amah Mutsun history has been one marked by violence, destruction and genocide. It began during the Mission period in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when native populations were moved to compounds and lived in harsh conditions. During this time, 19,421 Indians died at Mission San Juan Bautista alone, and it’s estimated that the population of Californian Indians as a whole was reduced from 350,000 to 200,000.
The mission period was followed by the Mexican period, from 1822 to 1846. During this time, huge tracts of land were granted to non-Indian settlers and the native population was maneuvered into debt-peonage, working lands that were taken from them. European diseases and poor living conditions contributed to the death of another 100,000 California Indians.
The American period, which began after 1848 was perhaps the worst. During this time, the already devastated population of native Californians experienced what might have been the worst slaughter of Indians in US history. It’s estimated that the Indian population of California went from 150,000 before 1849 to fewer than 30,000 in 1870—an 80 percent loss in just 21 years.
“Who we are today, how we think, how we love, how we hate, how we fear, what scares us, what makes us brave—all those qualities are given to us by the seven generations before us,” Lopez says, standing atop Mount Umunhum. “There’s a lot of recovery and healing that’s needed for our people when we look at that history.”
Although Midpen’s efforts to acknowledge the Amah Mutsun’s historical claim to the land have been warmly received, the decision to keep the Cold War-era radar tower standing atop the summit has been a point of contention.
Despite the conclusion that it would be more expensive to maintain and seal the tower, which was full of toxic materials and is still chipping lead paint, radar tower champions prevailed. The county Board of Supervisors (the same entity that has the final say on the Juristac development), voted unanimously to list the massive concrete radar tower on the County Heritage Resource Inventory, giving it official historic status and protecting it from demolition.
It was a big win for those at the Umunhum Conservancy and others who felt it was important to monumentalize the United States’ military history. But to Lopez’s mind, the decision was disgraceful.
“That radar tower operated for something like 20 years,” Lopez says. “Our history there goes back over 10,000 years. And yet, the county of Santa Clara recognized Mount Umunhum as an important county heritage site for the military. They totally ignored our history—20 years of military presence is more important than thousands of years of Native American presence.”
One of the most intractable challenges facing the Amah Mutsun is the reality that the United States government hasn’t officially recognized them as a tribe. This leaves them without the rights, benefits and legal status that come with federal recognition, protections which could have played a significant role in determining Juristac’s fate.
Recognition gives a tribe and its members special rights, including sovereignty over their lands, a right to self-governance and federal benefits, services and protections.
Through Zwierlein’s efforts to control the Sargent Ranch property, she has played a role in thwarting official federal recognition.
“I tell you, if we were Catholic or Muslim or Jewish or a Buddhist—if we were any other religion, and this was known as a sacred site, they wouldn't dare think of proposing a sand and gravel mine,” Lopez says. “But because we’re Native American, because we’re not federally recognized, it doesn't matter.”
Lopez has successfully advocated for the Catholic Diocese of Monterey to issue a formal apology, which it gave in a 2013 ceremony of mass reconciliation for enslaving and killing the Amah Mutsun hundreds of years prior. He helped forge a tribal land trust partnership with the Sempervirens Fund and a program through UC Santa Cruz for the Amah Mutsun to reclaim ancient knowledge of environmental stewardship and native plants. He spearheaded an agreement with Pinnacles National Park to hold rites-of-passage ceremonies, spring and fall dances, talking circles with elders and other events that aim to restore indigenous knowledge.
For the past decade, the tribe has held bimonthly meetings led by a psychiatrist and two psychologists, in which members delve into the trauma from a history of dislocation. All the while, he has consistently convened members for holiday gatherings, basket-weaving seminars and other events to preserve a cultural identity and meet one of the tests for tribal recognition.
Though Zwierlein has all but disappeared from public life in recent years, her contested claim remains the BIA’s primary reason for declining to grant Amah Mutsun federal tribal status. On Sept. 3, the BIA gave both factions a chance to submit more paperwork to prove who has the rightful claim to leadership. Lopez says he’ll go through the motions by giving the feds what they ask for, but that he long ago lost faith in the process.
“To be honest, we’re not even sure we want that,” Lopez says. “Even though you do get certain benefits and sovereignty, when you’re federally recognized you also become a ward of the government—and the government has never had our best interests at heart.”
If it ultimately falls to the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band to protect its heritage on its own—without help from the federal government—Lopez is fine with that.
“The BIA is evil,” Lopez says. “They’re just waiting for us to assimilate or die.” Lopez does not plan to do either.
The Battle Continues
The fight for Juristac is just getting started, and it’s likely to be a long and contentious one. Although there was a strong showing of solidarity among environmental and advocacy groups on Sep. 8, there was almost no media coverage of the event.
“What I have been saying for a period of time now, a number of years actually, is that the destruction and domination of Native Americans never ended, it just evolved,” Lopez says. “It evolved to what we see today—our important, sensitive cultural sites are being destroyed. And that's what's happening at Juristac.”
Despite everything, Lopez remains hopeful.
“We’ve been told that the most effective way to stop this mine is by public opinion,” he says. “Because if the county supervisors want to get re-elected, they have to do what the people want. And so we're hoping we can get the people to stand with us and tell the supervisors that they must not approve that mine.”
Knowing the importance of public opinion, the Amah Mutsun, in tandem with environmental groups and organizations like the Silicon Valley Democratic Socialists of America, have begun a campaign to organize and press their case. Last week they held an event at the First Unitarian Church of San Jose, where speakers, including Lopez, encouraged attendees to support the cause. Bumper stickers were on hand with the message, “No Sargent Quarry on Amah Mutsun sacred grounds.”
Of course, there are many recent precedents to these kinds of battles. It was during events at Standing Rock in 2016, when members of the Standing Rock Sioux fought to block an oil pipeline development near their reservation in North Dakota, where the native community honed their organizing skills. Despite the fact that the Standing Rock Sioux are a federally recognized tribe, the Dakota Access Pipeline project was ultimately approved by the Trump administration after months of fierce opposition.
Jennifer Wadsworth, Grace Hase and Nick Veronin contributed to this report.