Amah Mutsun Tribal Band chairman calls for update of UCSC’s land acknowledgment

Rebecca Hernandez and Amah Mutsun Tribal Band Chairman Valentin Lopez discuss the UC Santa Cruz land acknowledgement
Rebecca Hernandez and Amah Mutsun Tribal Band Chairman Valentin Lopez discuss the meaning of the UC Santa Cruz land acknowledgment on campus Wednesday.
(Via Carolyn Lagattuta / UC Santa Cruz)

The land acknowledgment recognizes that land on which UC Santa Cruz sits is Native land that was taken rather than handed over. During a campus event Wednesday, Valentin Lopez of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band said UCSC’s acknowledgment needs to include the fact that because of violent colonization, there are no surviving descendants of the Awaswas-speaking people who once lived in the region.

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Amah Mutsun Tribal Band Chairman Valentin Lopez says he wants to update UC Santa Cruz’s land acknowledgment to better reflect the history of the eight Native tribes, known as the Awaswas, who once inhabited the region.

UC Santa Cruz's current land acknowledgment

The land on which we gather is the unceded territory of the Awaswas-speaking Uypi Tribe. The Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, comprised of the descendants of indigenous people taken to missions Santa Cruz and San Juan Bautista during Spanish colonization of the Central Coast, is today working hard to restore traditional stewardship practices on these lands and heal from historical trauma.
Click here for more information.

UCSC’s land acknowledgment is a statement the tribal band helped the university write to recognize that land the university sits on is Native land that wasn’t handed over, but was taken.

Land acknowledgments have become increasingly common in Santa Cruz and across the country and are read prior to government meetings and community gatherings or are posted on websites. The land acknowledgment used at UC Santa Cruz was a collaborative effort between Lopez and the Amah Mutsun Relearning Program at the UCSC Arboretum.

Lopez has helped several local entities write land acknowledgments over the years — including UCSC — and says he knows they can be performative and cause further harm rather than raise awareness and educate people on the history of colonization and the erasure of Native people.

Lopez spoke Wednesday at a UCSC campus event organized to discuss the meaning of the university’s land acknowledgment. He said he thinks the school’s land acknowledgment needs to include the fact that there are no surviving descendants of the Awaswas-speaking people — a result of the violence of colonization.

Just as important, he added, the acknowledgment should share how the Awaswas lived, to ensure that they’re not simply made out to be historical, nonhuman figures. The Awaswas specialized in maintaining the land, had sophisticated trade routes with neighboring tribes, used plants medicinally and thrived in the area.

For Lopez, land acknowledgments should be a time for teaching, not just reading a statement. At the event, Lopez proposed that UCSC open a museum dedicated to the Awaswas.

“We’re here for the Awaswas,” he said. “That’s why we ask the university to create an Awaswas museum on this campus.”

Lopez has been chairman of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band — which has about 600 people enrolled — since 2003. The tribal band is made up of descendants of 20 to 30 villages in the Pajaro River basin. Between the late 18th and early 20th centuries, Mutsun people were taken to Mission San Juan Bautista and Awaswas were taken to Mission Santa Cruz.

Lopez also shared his thoughts on the land back movement, which calls for returning Native land to Native people. Lopez said the tribe never signed away rights to its land or water, or any rights.

“Talking about land back, that’s a big deal to us,” he said.

In response, Lopez said the most important thing for him moving forward is healing, and “finding ways to go forth in a healthy way.” He said there needs to be a way to have positive relationships with entities like the university in order to discuss what land back would mean for them.

Also during the Wednesday event, the University Library Special Collections introduced its new Community Archiving Program. Community Archivist Rebecca Hernandez was hired to the role in January 2022 to launch the program, after serving as the American Indian Resource Center director.

Rebecca Hernandez at an event discussing UC Santa Cruz's land acknowledgment.
Rebecca Hernandez at an event discussing UC Santa Cruz’s land acknowledgment.
(Via Carolyn Lagattuta / UC Santa Cruz)

“Community archives are a relatively new approach to the practice of archiving our intentional efforts to counter the marginalization in historical record, and centuries of archival erasure,” Hernandez said.

She said community archives are created by the communities themselves, and each community decides how to interpret what that looks like. She started her work by interviewing groups and individuals from all over Santa Cruz County to ask them what they want to see in a community archive.

“After just one year of working with campus and community members, it’s become clear to me that the hidden histories in this county far outnumber the ones you know,” she said. “And they tend to be much more interesting.”

Hernandez said that archiving is a commitment to the future and requires that people think about what descendants will learn about current life.

“In Indian country, broadly speaking, this way of thinking is rooted in being a good ancestor, focusing less on ourselves and more on how we ensure a good future for generations to come,” she said, adding that it made sense to launch the program with an event focusing on the stories of Native people in the area.


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