Thousands of years before Europeans arrived, Native Americans who lived near San Jose would come to the summit of Mount Umunhum to pray and cultivate medicinal plants. Now, they’ll be able to do that again, thanks to a new kind of “cultural conservation easement," a deal that could become a model for other tribes looking to re-establish access to their ancestral lands.
Wednesday night, the board of the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District voted unanimously to grant local Native Americans property rights to 36 acres at Mount Umunhum, which was formerly home to the Almaden Air Force Station.
Valentin Lopez chairs the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, a group of 600 people descended from tribes who lived near the mountain. During the Spanish colonial era, more than 80 different tribes were pressed into servitude at Mission San Juan Bautista and Mission Santa Cruz, including the Mutsun and the Yokut.
“We’re not a tribe that descends from one tribe. We descend from the band of tribes that were taken to the missions," Lopez says.
Between the Spanish, and later, the Americans, this group of tribes lost legal claim to much of the land they came from. Then, in modern times, as real estate prices rose, many enrolled members were priced out of Silicon Valley. Today, many Native Americans drive from Sacramento and the Central Valley to Mount Umunhum to conduct spiritual ceremonies.
Lopez, who lives in Galt (Sacramento County), says this kind of partnership with a parks agency is unprecedented. There is a cultural preserve with Año Nuevo State Park that allows for co-management, but he says that agreement doesn’t give the tribe those rights in perpetuity.
"This offers hope to our tribe. But it also offers hope to a lot of other tribes. It provides a mechanism that other tribes can use," Lopez says. "This is the first real recognition of our tribes by a public agency that recognizes that we should have a voice, and an equal voice, on how a particular location of our traditional land is managed and protected and preserved."
Steve Abbors, general manager of the open space district, says, "I think the idea of being able to reconnect the indigenous people with this land they lived on for centuries is long overdue."
Abbors says the agency began reaching out to Native Americans in the area when it realized the mountain had a sacred meaning for them historically.
"We view it as a responsibility," Abbors says. "We are really reconnecting a culture that was severed from the land centuries ago. This (easement) allows us to help manage the land with the people who were the original stewards. We’re trying to help make a culture that was invisible to the public for many years visible."
Working in tandem with Midpen, the tribe is planing a 1.5-acre garden for food, medicinal and basketry plants of the kind that were there "pre-contact," before Europeans showed up in California.
“We see this as a partnership. We want to restore the mountain, as much as possible, to its pre-contact condition,” Lopez says.
There are also plans to hold a joint prayer ceremony in January with the Indian Health Center of Santa Clara Valley. Another ceremony in April will focus on veterans, “for the healing of all veterans, not just Native Americans, but all veterans,” Lopez says. The easement allows for six such ceremonies annually on the summit. The tribe may also eventually propose a traditional roundhouse, for educational and ceremonial purposes.
The open space district became the owner of the property in 1986 when it bought the parcel from the federal government. It took years before the district raised enough money to restore the area and demolish its military buildings, with the exception of the five-story concrete radar tower many call “the cube,” a historic site in Santa Clara County.
Midpen's board also voted to retain and seal the radar tower on Mount Umunhum, long considered a local landmark because of its visibility for miles and because of its ties to the region's Cold War history. Abbors says the agency has been in conversation with veterans' groups about a possible museum to honor Cold War contributions, and those talks led to the determination they would prefer a location that would be easier for older and disabled veterans to reach than the summit at Mount Umunhum.