Striking a traditional wooden percussion instrument with his palm, Valentin Lopez sings his Native American tribe’s prayer during a ceremony at the Coast Dairies property as people gathered around. He sings alone, in a voice strong and forlorn, using the ancient words of the Amah Mutsun.
The Amah Mutsun dwelled in the expansive stretch of land nestled by the ocean and the grass-covered western slope of the Santa Cruz Mountains, with Año Nuevo State Park bordering to the north and the Salinas River to the south.
Lopez is president of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, made up of the descendants of the ancient tribes that once roamed over the area. The Amah Mutsun use prayers, song and ceremonies to call back the salmon and migratory birds or to sing for the balance of the four seasons.
Joining Lopez and his fellow tribe members at the late-May ceremony officials from the federal government, the University of California at Santa Cruz, Santa Cruz County and the Sempervirens Fund. At the ceremony, the descendents of the area’s indigenous people signed an agreement with managers of the Coastal Dairies property.
With the new pact, the tribe enters into an agreement with the Bureau of Land Management, the federal agency in charge of managing most of the Cotoni-Coast Dairies property. The tribe now has equal authority over the property to manage native plants, preserve wildlife and undertake a more culturally sensitive approach to archaeology.
“It is not only the prayers and ceremonies of Native people that are needed to save Mother Earth,” Lopez says. “It is the prayers and ceremonies of all people.”
Under its deed, the feds must drum up a plan that protects vegetation and opportunities for recreation, says Rick Cooper, a field manager for the federal land management bureau.
Now that they signed the agreement, Amah Mutsun tribe members are waiting for either Congress or President Obama to issue a declaration that would turn the 5,741-acre federal property into the Cotoni-Coast Dairies National Monument—a nod to the former ranching area’s 20th-century landlords and livestock, as well as its original inhabitants.
The process began in 1998, when the Trust for Public Land bought nearly 7,000 acres of property from the Coast Dairies and Land Company. The swath of rolling hills, rocky coastal bluffs and rugged beaches located just outside the small town of Davenport represented the third-largest privately held coastal property from San Francisco to Mexico. When the Spanish arrived in Amah Mutsun territory in 1797, they found a network of villages up and down the Monterey Bay.
The Cotoni people were a tribe with their own language that settled the area that is modern-day Davenport, as well as the ridgelines, swells and redwood-dotted hills that comprise its surroundings. The Spanish, who scorned Amah Mutsun culture, persecuted the natives, forcibly converting them to Christianity, while enslaving them to help build the California missions.
The scorn and forced religious indoctrination intensified with the arrival of white American settlers from the east in the 1840s and 1850s. Fresh off of battles with the Native Americans of the Great Plains, the settlers violently fought the coastal tribes and exploited the forests for timber, the rivers for power and the wildlife for food.
A century and a half later, large-scale environmental disasters loom, Lopez says, with climate change and ocean acidification on the rise, the coast rapidly eroding, and air quality declining. The human family, he says, is harking back to the Native perspective of harmony within nature rather than dominion over it.
“It’s about restoring relationships,” Lopez says. “A big part of this [agreement] is restoring the spiritual connection to Mother Earth and returning people to an understanding of the connections we have with all things.”
Unlike tribes in the Midwest such as the Lakota and Navajo, the Amah Mutsun lacks federal recognition and therefore has no claim on their ancestral land. Recently, however, they created a land trust that would allow the tribe to buy property or enter into management agreements.
“We plan on incorporating indigenous management techniques into the practices here,” says Rick Flores, a traditional resource management specialist with UC Santa Cruz. “Hopefully, we will try to restore some of these landscapes back to what they may have looked like prior to contact.”
Federal authorities say the tribe’s presence will extend beyond incorporating traditional techniques into management of flora and fauna. Cooper has talked with tribal leaders about creating an educational program for kids about the traditional uses of land on the property. “They can come out and look at [the land] and do traditional practices that their ancestors did,” he says.
Lopez says the descendants of the Cotoni are scattered, with many living in Fresno, unable to afford the Central Coast’s high cost of living. But he says practicing the rites of the tribe on ancestral lands will help members heal from the depredations of European settlers.
“Our history is tragic,” he says. “The Mission period, the Mexican period and the early American periods were devastating to our peoples. The Indian population of California was reduced by over 96 percent. The ancestors said our peoples will suffer for seven generations and then things will get better.”
Federal authorities have yet to say when the public can access the land. Some local residents are apprehensive about what the designation could mean for their tiny beach town. In the meantime, California State Parks manages about 400 acres of the Coast Dairies property, which includes seven beaches just south of Davenport.
The Trust for Public Land has also retained a few parcels by farmland in the interest of keeping agricultural uses open, Cooper says. Federal land management officials say they will work with locals to figure out what recreational activities they would like to see—such as mountain biking, equestrian uses and hiking.
Lopez says it’s important that the Amah Mutsun receive a portion of redress for historic crimes and that they are allowed to walk the hollows and hills where they believe the spirits of their ancestors dwell.
“We believe the Creator very specifically picked our people to live on these lands and to care for all living things,” Lopez says. “After we were ripped from our lands we were unable to fulfill our sacred covenant, but the directive from the Creator was never rescinded.”