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Meet Three of the Women Behind an Indigenous Land Back Effort to Reclaim an SF Peninsula Farm

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A group of people dig and turn over a large compost pile.
Frontline health care workers gather at Te Kwe A'naa Warep farm on Jan. 30, 2022, to help remove invasive ivy from the riparian corridor. 'It helps compost our grief, to doctor each other around what we've seen and witnessed during the pandemic, and to reconnect to land as a source of healing,' said Rupa Marya, a project organizer. (Courtesy of Rupa Marya)

The California Report Magazine’s Sasha Khokha and Izzy Bloom visited a 38-acre farm in San Gregorio, 40 miles west of San José, to follow a new project aimed at returning land to the Ramaytush, the Indigenous people of the San Francisco Peninsula. The project is spearheaded by Deep Medicine Circle, a nonprofit group led by women of color, whose goal, according to its founder Rupa Marya, is to “heal the wounds of colonialism through food, medicine, story, learning and restoration.”

We spoke with three of the women leading this land back effort.

A woman holding a flat stick standing in field, behind the skull of an elk.
Ramaytush elder Cata Gomes on the Te Kwe A’naa Warep farm in San Gregorio on Feb. 13, 2022. (Sasha Khokha/KQED)

Catalina Gomes: Ramaytush Indigenous elder

When Catalina Gomes was growing up in San José, she knew very little about her Indigenous roots. Gomes said her mother and grandmother wanted to protect her from the “trauma that we’ve suffered in the last 400 years,” so they didn’t speak about their heritage. The only thing they told her when she was a child was that she was a 12th-generation Californian. But Gomes said she always had a strong intuition that this wasn’t the full story.

As a young adult, Gomes learned she was descended from the Salinan Tribe, from the Salinas Valley and the Santa Lucia coastal range. Then, four years ago, Gomes’s cousin unearthed records from the Spanish missions that revealed their family also has Ramaytush ancestry. In those records, they discovered an ancestor named Muchia Te’. The Spanish recorded her baptismal date as Oct. 2, 1782, when she was about 50 years old.

Gomes said she feels lucky to know Muchia Te’s Indigenous name, because it was common for the Spanish to record only the baptismal names of Indigenous people. Gomes is now creating a land trust, called the “Muchia Te’ Indigenous Land Trust,” named after her ancestors. The 38 acres of farmland, which are currently being held by Peninsula Open Space Trust, will soon be returned to Gomes and the Ramaytush.

People gather in a farm structure, next to boxes of potatoes.
UCSF pediatricians-in-training learn about Indigenous foods from farm director Jibril Kyser at the Ramaytush Te Kwe A’naa Warep farm, on Jan. 30, 2022. (Courtesy of Rupa Marya)

On May 1, Deep Medicine Circle will officially rename the farm Te Kwe A’naa Warep, which means “honoring Mother Earth” in the Ramaytush language.

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Plans for the farm include harvesting traditional indigenous herbs and medicines, setting up an herbal apothecary, and farming nutritious, organic food that will be available, for free, to communities in need.

What she hopes this project will achieve:
“We’re here to heal the land, and the land is here to heal us. So it’s a copacetic relationship that we have with the land and the creatures here, the creek, the plants. We’re all here working together, struggling to bring forward a better future than what we’ve been exposed to. … We’re hoping to grow this project and expand and get other land to hopefully get another property that we could open a health center and have an alternative approach to healing our bodies that have been so traumatized after the last 400 years.”

What brings her joy:
“It is bringing me great joy to have a positive goal to look forward to. … It’s been a complete change of my mindset to go from COVID being the focus, to focusing on this land, healing the land and having the land heal us.”

A woman with long hair in what looks like a wooden barn playing guitar.
Musician, physician and farmer Rupa Marya sowing seeds and songs in the barn at Te Kwe A’naa Warep farm. (Bija Milagro)

Rupa Marya: executive instigator and founder of Deep Medicine Circle

When Rupa Marya was 5 years old, she told her kindergarten teacher that she wanted to be “a ballerina and a surgeon.” Even then, she had a strong desire to heal. Art, she said, was a way for her to process and digest her experiences. Through art, everything made sense to her.

Marya’s career path didn’t veer too far from the one she imagined for herself as a child: She’s now an activist, physician and musician — the lead singer of Rupa and the April Fishes. The polyglot band performs original songs in French, Spanish, English and Hindi, ranging in genre from jazz to punk to reggae. Their music also highlights Indigenous rights and social justice issues, like police violence and racism in the medical system.

About 15 years ago, Marya, who also is an associate professor of medicine at UCSF, noticed many young people coming to see her with stomach problems, and she became fascinated with stool cultures. She made the connection between inflammation of the human gut and the way the soil and earth’s systems are “inflamed.” Marya sought to reject capitalist food systems by growing nutritious food to give away to oppressed groups, an effort that led her to create the nonprofit Deep Medicine Circle, which is managing the farm and oversees the Land Back Solidarity Project.

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The group is focused on growing organic, nutritious food using a blend of agroecology and Indigenous traditional ecological knowledge. It’s also decommodifying food by giving away what it grows to marginalized communities, partnering with organizations like the American Indian Cultural District and Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation in San Francisco. The group also invites health care workers to visit the farm and heal from the trauma of the pandemic.

Marya also co-authored the book “Inflamed: Deep Medicine and the Anatomy of Injustice” with economist Raj Patel, exploring how the earth’s gut — our soil — is causing diseases in the human gut and affecting community health.

What she hopes this project will achieve:
“I would like to turn around and look at these hills and see tule elk grazing. I would love to see beaver back on the land, and the creek full of salmon, and the creek healthy. I would love to know that that whole valley and watershed has eliminated all the synthetic pesticides and fertilizers that are harmful to the soil. I would love to see young people learning this work, and people from many different cultures coming together to learn about Ramaytush heritage and culture and land stewardship and this model of farming. I would love to see people coming there to participate in growing food for our communities.”

What brings her joy:
“Knowing that I’m participating with my family in a great awakening and a great healing. My children aren’t waiting until they’re 20 to learn the truth about what happened to these lands, and they’re actively engaged in participating in that healing work. … Being together in this work in community is probably one of the best feelings I’ve had in a long time.”

A women with a cap standing outside next to a barn, and wearing a t-shirt that says 'Phenomenally Indigenous.'
Sage La Pena, Deep Medicine Circle’s director of traditional ecological knowledge and an Indigenous plant medicine doctor, at the Te Kwe A’naa Warep farm on Feb. 13, 2022. (Sasha Khokha/KQED)

Sage La Pena: Nomtipom Wintu ethnobotanist and certified medicinal herbalist

When she was a child, Sage La Pena began working with and learning from Mabel McKay, a globally respected doctor and basket weaver from the Pomo and Wintun tribes of Northern California. La Pena later discovered that what McKay had taught her also is considered “ethnobotany,” the study of traditional customs, and the medicinal, religious and other uses of plants, and went on to teach at the California School of Herbal Studies, founded by herbalist Rosemary Gladstar.

“They told me I was an herbalist, and I didn’t know what an herbalist was,” La Pena said. “I thought the knowledge that was given and passes through me now was the norm.”

La Pena now works with Deep Medicine Circle to preserve and pass on traditional ecological knowledge. She’s an expert in the medicinal uses of native plants, like elderberry and stinging nettle, which are grown and harvested on the farm.

What she hopes this project will achieve:
“I feel a very close affinity to the plant life and the people, in turn. … We want beaver here and elk to participate in these landscapes. That is their birthright. And they’ve been kept from these places. So if there’s something that as a two-legged I can do to help that process, that is as it should be with balance, then that’s why I’m here. To do that.”

What brings her joy:
“My daughter Roxy, who’s my youngest birth child of five, and my grandchildren. I see within these generations, open minds that are often clouded in adults. … Just seeing how they’re so open and willing to learn. The vitality that they share with us, it’s very joyful.”

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