Valentin Lopez talks about the Cabrillo College name change.
(Via Amah Mutsun; Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Civic Life

‘We hope people will listen’: Tribal leader talks Cabrillo, mission bells and a culture ‘brutally destroyed’

With the annual celebration of Indigenous Peoples Day, it’s a good time to recall and reflect upon why Native Americans feel so strongly about changing the celebrations of colonial history. Amah Mutsun Tribal Band leader Valentin Lopez talked to Lookout about his thoughts on mission bells, Cabrillo College and more.

Indigenous Peoples Day is being celebrated this week, and continues to take the place of Columbus Day for some cities, counties, states and school districts across the United States as falsehoods about colonial history are debunked and Indigenous people demand the record be set straight.

Rather than celebrating Christopher Columbus — an Italian who anchored in the Bahamas and not the North American mainland — with a national holiday and statues, Indigenous peoples have long been calling for the removal of colonial images and for recognition of the contributions of the diverse peoples native to the continent, rather than recognition for those who caused their decimation over hundreds of years through exposure to disease and enslavement. Federal policies continued to displace populations and force their assimilation into Western life.

Columbus Day was first established as a national holiday in 1934, but since 1992, when Berkeley became the first city to recognize Indigenous Peoples Day, a movement to recognize the day has gained momentum.

The Amah Mutsun Tribal Band lived in a region spanning all of San Benito County and parts of Santa Clara, Santa Cruz and Monterey counties for thousands of years before the Spanish arrived. So Lookout reached out to Valentin Lopez, chair of the Amah Mutsun, for his perspective about the changes he’s seen in Santa Cruz over the years, including the efforts to change the name of Cabrillo College, removal of the Santa Cruz mission bells and what Indigenous Peoples Day means to him. The interview was edited for clarity and brevity.

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Q: What does Indigenous Peoples Day mean to you?

We would like Indigenous Peoples Day to be a day where people reflect on the history of Native American people in the United States. Take a look at how the cultures, the Native American spirituality, the Indigenous knowledge, none of that was valued or considered important and it was destroyed. It was just brutally, brutally destroyed. It’s not recognized. Why isn’t the true history of the Indigenous peoples told? Why isn’t that history told truthfully anywhere?

Why isn’t any of that thought of as a sin or a crime? It was a crime against humanity, it included genocide.

The other thing is, why isn’t the killing of thousands and millions of Indigenous people, why isn’t any of that thought of as a sin or a crime? It was a crime against humanity, it included genocide. We would like people to take a look at that, and to recognize how much they have benefited from the destruction of Indigenous peoples and the stealing of their land. ... And how can they work with tribes to help them restore to some degree what was lost?

Q: On Indigenous Peoples Day, you met with a Santa Clara Human Rights Commission member to discuss the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band’s efforts to protect a sacred site. Can you tell us about that initiative?

We’re working to protect our most sacred site, which is in the south end of Gilroy. It’s a location now known as Sargent Ranch. To us, it was known as Juristac. It was a place where we held our most serious ceremonies, our most important ceremonies, for thousands of years. And today there is a proposal to do sand and gravel mining. We’re working now to try and get that mining permit denied.

What’s happening here, though, is that the (Santa Clara) county general plan allows for the approval of this mining permit. And because we are a federally unrecognized tribe, we don’t have anything to protect us from having that site destroyed. We were told that the only thing that we can have that would work would be overwhelming public support, so we’ve spent a lot of time building public support to protect Juristac. ... We’re talking with the Santa Clara Human Rights Commission to help them recognize our fight to save Juristac as a human rights issue.

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Q: With almost 20 years as chair, how have you seen the discussion around the history and rights of Indigenous peoples change?

What has happened, there are certain people in the community who are beginning to think about the things I just talked about, and what other Indigenous people are talking about: To have that history truthfully told. To recognize the way that people have benefited so greatly from the destruction of Indigenous people and what they can do. When you take a look at how people benefited from it, they’re living on land that was stolen, that was Indigenous peoples’ lands. They just came in and in many ways they destroyed the land, they exploited it for mining, exploited by taking oil and minerals and destroyed mountains for gold and silver — they just monetized it.

Q: You mention the value and meaning of land; what do you think about the increasing use of land acknowledgments by schools and different institutions?

What we worry about is those will just be words that people say before they get to business and it doesn’t mean anything and nobody pays attention to it. If people listen to those words and try to understand them, and recognize the people that were there beforehand and see what they can do to help those tribes restore their culture.

If people listen to those words and try to understand them, and recognize the people that were there beforehand and see what they can do to help those tribes restore their culture.

It should be looked at as an opportunity, and to many it might be seen as an obligation, something that must be read before the meeting can start. We hope that some people will listen to those words and recognize the intent of those words, to honor those people and be thankful to those people. And then to do that little bit to ensure they’re never forgotten and their descendants can find a way to go forward while living with their culture.

Q: After successfully pushing for the removal of a Santa Cruz mission bell at UC Santa Cruz, you are still working with stakeholders to decide what will happen to it.

We haven’t decided anything definitive yet. But we do anticipate that bell going to a museum and there will be an interpretation there that explains how that bell was used during mission times, how the bell was used to control and dominate Indigenous peoples. It would ring when it was time to get up, time to eat, time for prayer, time to go to bed — it just controlled every part of their life. That’s what the bell was for. And now whenever they put the bell along the highway, they try to get it to represent some fictionalized history of how loving and peaceful and wonderful the missions were. Nothing can be further from the truth.

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At Mission Santa Cruz, for example, life expectancy for Indigenous people was less than two years. But how can cities and counties in California honor and glorify that history and then turn the missions into destinations and make money for a lot of people and make it a tourist site and not tell the true history about what happened to Indigenous people at the missions? They tell lies about the missions, that they treated Indigenous peoples with love and kindness. They did not.

Q: What do you think about efforts to rename Cabrillo College?

The name of Cabrillo College must be changed. Cabrillo was one of the perpetrators that were responsible for destroying Indigenous peoples’ cultures, spiritualities and their ways. He should not be honored by having a college named after him. Our belief is that Cabrillo College is on the lands of the Awaswas people, and there are no survivors today. They all died as a result of the brutal history I just mentioned. There are no speakers today. What our tribe asks is that the Awaswas never be forgotten. So I would like the college to be named to help and serve that the Indigenous people of those lands never be forgotten.

Q: What do you recommend people do to recognize Indigenous Peoples Day and Indigenous cultures?

I hope people give thoughts to the ancestors who were here before. Say a prayer for them and thank them for what they did. They showed us how to take care of Mother Earth. And say a prayer that the tribes that are here today can successfully restore their culture and restore their traditional knowledge so the tribe can go forward so they can fulfill their obligation to create and honor their ancestors.