On Wednesday, the Board of the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District voted to grant a 36 acre cultural conservation easement at the top of Mount Umunuhm to the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band. [Also San Jose Mercury News reporting.] The decision essentially confers rights to carry out tribal ceremonies and other cultural activities, including building a garden, in the area where there is also now a public park. (Mount Umunhum is a new regional park with gorgeous views of the South Bay area that just opened a few months ago. Since it is only a half an hour away from my home, a hike there has been on my to-do list.) According to the Open Space District, “Mount Umunhum is a sacred site to the Amah Mutsun people and is central to their creation story.”
While the decision has attracted some controversy, it seems to me to be a generous and worthy gesture of a public agency to help this tribe preserve its cultural heritage. It is also designed to right some of the historical injustices that Native Americans have suffered, especially displacement from their ancestral lands. For non-Native Americans, this step helps to recognize the important role that Indian Tribes have played in this country’s history and their continuing inextricable importance to our nation’s broader culture.
Given that I have never heard of a government agency doing anything like this before, this step may set an important precedent for other local and state government agencies in their interactions with Native groups.
Interestingly, public recognition of this tribe’s ancestral connection to these lands also touches my own institution, Santa Clara University. According to the Mercury News, “the Amah Mutsun is made up of about 600 descendants of Ohlones, who once inhabited the area south of San Jose, and now largely live in Central Valley towns.” The Ohlone Indians make up the Native American community that Mission Santa Clara Mission de Assis, founded by Father Junipero Serra, originally was designed to serve and to convert to Christianity. That mission still stands in the heart of the Santa Clara University campus and was the origin of the present-day university. Yet, unlike the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District, I am not aware of Santa Clara University formally recognizing the Ohlone Indians’ contributions to and past relationship with the University (beyond references in the University history). (It happens to be an issue that I am asked about surprisingly frequently by visitors.)