The fight for Juristac is shaping up to be Silicon Valley’s own Standing Rock.
IT IS JUST past noon on Sunday, Sep. 8, and hundreds of people are gathered together in prayer at a place of religious worship. But this isn’t your typical Sunday church service. This particular congregation has just arrived at the end of a 5 mile march — a kind of pilgrimage which began at Mission San Juan Bautista in San Benito County and ended at a place now called Sargent Ranch, located just a few miles south of Gilroy in Santa Clara County.
Here, at the foot of the lowland slopes and iconic golden hills that roll through this part of California, with Prairie Falcons circling above and American Badgers burrowing below, they begin to pray.
Ceremonies such as these were once common here, on the eastern edge of the privately owned Sargent Ranch property. Thousands of years ago, long before European settlers arrived in California, the Amah Mutsun — a regional band of California Indians — held sacred gatherings on this site, which they know as “Juristac,” meaning “place of the big head.”
At their peak, the Amah Mutsun lived in small villages from the San Francisco Bay Area down to Monterey. Juristac is considered a particularly special place — home of their spiritual leader, Kuksui, and a place where the tribal band has hosted prayer ceremonies and healing rituals for more than 10,000 years. And, as of Nov. 16, 2015, it’s also the site of a proposed 320-acre open-pit sand and gravel mine.
For the past 150 years or so, Juristac has changed hands several times. During California’s Mexican period, the land was granted to two German brothers by the Governor of Alta California, José Castro. Later, it was purchased by a man named J.P. Sargent, who turned it into a 1,200-head cattle ranch. The land remained in the Sargent family until the 1950s, when a series of unsuccessful development projects — from casinos to golf courses — landed the property in bankruptcy court. It was then that the current owner, the Debt Acquisition Company of America (an investor group that specializes in purchasing and profiting off of foreclosed properties), bought the land at auction and. It wasn’t long after that they announced their plans to extract gravel and sand from mountains on the property, essentially turning them into giant pits in the ground.
It was this proposed development that compelled more than a hundred tribal members, along with hundreds of others from community and environmental organizations, to attend the Sep. 8 prayer walk.
“This is a major issue for our tribe because this right here is a sacred site,” says Valentino Lopez, chairman of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band. “These developers plan on tearing down and monetizing our most sacred site, and so we’re fighting to stop that,”
Approval of the “Sargent Quarry Project” is contingent on a number of different factors that are still pending. There’s currently an ethnographic study taking place, along with a draft environmental impact report being compiled by the County of Santa Clara’s Department of Planning and Development. Environmental groups have come out against the proposed development because of the adverse impact it would likely have on iconic species such as the American badger, puma, and California red-legged frog. Conservation ecologist Dr. Stuart Weiss has identified Jurastic as a critical part of the landscape that links the Santa Cruz Mountains to other parts of California, and has warned the Sargent Quarry project could disrupt the genetic diversity of numerous species.
The Department of Planning and Development hopes to release the draft environmental impact report sometime around mid-November, after which opposition groups will likely have somewhere between 45 to 75 days to submit any questions or objections to the Santa Clara County Planning Commission, who will then vote on whether to give the mine the go-ahead.
It’s likely that their decision will be appealed either way, leaving the final decision with the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors. There is still a long fight ahead. However, if the project is approved, it wouldn’t be the first time that an Amah Mutsun sacred site was destroyed.
A Monumental View
It’s April 28, 2016, and I’m walking along the higher elevations of a ridge that hangs above the headwaters of the Guadalupe River. Just a few hundred feet above me stands the peak of Mount Umunhum, one of the tallest points in the Santa Cruz Mountains, with a large, white structure atop it. About 3,500 feet below lie the old mines in Quicksilver Park and the town of New Almaden, founded during the California Gold Rush and rich with cinnabar and mercury.
I haven’t been this high up for many years, and as I scan the horizon, I have trouble reconciling the backdrop of the Sierra Nevada with the foreground of Silicon Valley stretching out below me and fading into an off-white haze. My eyes adjust to the vast distances much more quickly than my mind is able to. Here is the land of both John Muir and Bill Gates — two very different adventurers with two very different stories. I try to take it all in.
I’ve been invited to this vista by the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District — a special district that manages 26 open space preserves around the Bay Area — to join a private tour of Mount Umunhum’s summit, which has yet to re-open to the public.
It is a typically hot and dry California spring day and I am one of a group of about 10 people, including some district staff, a naturalist, an archaeologist, and Amah Mutsun Tribal Band Chair Valentin Lopez.
After introductions led by Steve Abbors, general manager of the Midpeninsula Open Space Preserve from 2008 to 2017, we climb aboard a comfortable, air-conditioned shuttle and slowly crawl up the side of the mountain, passing chert outcrops, big berry manzanita, knobcone pine, endangered species of fountain thistle and leather root, and a wide variety of not-so-endangered road construction equipment.
Mount Umunhum’s presence is felt everywhere in this range — named the Sierra Azul — as well as in the valley below, where one can see the remnants of the Almaden Air Force Station that operated there from 1958 until 1980. The most obvious vestige of the Air Force Station is the five-story concrete radar tower, colloquially referred to as either “the box” or “the cube,” which once supported an eighty ton radar antenna originally built to detect incoming Russian Bear Bombers during the Cold War.
The station was manned by the 682nd Radar Squadron and, at its peak, was almost like a little town of its own, housing 120 airmen and their families in a community that included a fallout shelter, a cafeteria, a commissary, a bowling alley and a basketball court. In 1980, the station was abandoned by the military and closed to the public because of the asbestos, black mold, fuel-storage containers, PCB transformers, lead-based paint and other hazardous materials on site. Anyone who grew up in the area knew, however, that you could reach the summit of Mount Umunhum and explore the ruins as long as you were OK with dodging poison oak and comfortable enough venturing beyond the “Trespassers will be shot” signs, which were rumored to have been placed there by a community of albino mountain folk.
The summit of Mount Umunhum was cordoned off for decades, but in 2009, thanks to the efforts of California Representatives Mike Honda and Zoe Lofgren, as well as California Senators Barbara Boxer and Diane Feinstein, Midpen — as the special district is known — received $3.2 million to clean up the area. They removed 3,000 cubic yards of hazardous material (mostly asbestos and lead-based paint), recontoured the the site, and constructed a trail between Mount Umunhum and its neighbor, Bald Mountain. After almost 60 years, the summit of one of the most prominent peaks in the Santa Cruz Mountains would again be open to visitors.
As our tour bus reached the summit, crews of construction workers and heavy equipment took over the landscape. The summit itself is a very strange place. Just below it is where the Loma Prieta and the San Andreas faults meet, slowly churning up the land and pushing it north. This geological composition, in combination with the 140 mph winds and the recontouring work being done by Midpen, left the top of Mount Umunhum looking like a scree slope, with mounds of small rocks and talus-like heaps piled up all over. The epicenter of the magnitude 6.9 Loma Prieta Earthquake, which shook the entire Bay Area in 1989, lay just below us. The earthquake left visible cracks on the face of the radar tower, which stands over eighty feet high and monopolizes one’s perceptual field.
On the summit we heard from a number of speakers, including Lopez. He explained how the word umunhum contains the root word for hummingbird in five different native languages, including in his own Mutsun language. Umunhum can be loosely translated as the place where hummingbird rests. Growing up in the shadow of this mountain, most residents have some vague understanding of this — or at least a version of it. I grew up hearing that Umunhum meant the place where the hummingbird feeds, for example. What many locals may not know, however, is that Mount Umunhum is not just named after an Amah Mutsun word — it’s actually the center of the Amah Mutsun’s creation mythology — literally the center of their universe.
“Mount Umunhum is a place of our creation,” Lopez says. “Our creation story tells us that it was there that Creator made all lifeforms that we see today: the four legged, the birds, the fish, the plants, etc. It’s a sacred place to us, a place where our people would go to pray. And it was desecrated to bring in a military installation.”
But this is not a new story. Since the earliest days of colonization, the history of the Amah Mutsun Indians has been one marked by violence, destruction and genocide. It began during the Mission period in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when the native populations were moved to compounds and forced to live under extremely harsh conditions. It’s estimated that over half of the children born on a mission died before reaching age four, and less than 80 percent of them made it to their teens. Indians were coerced into abandoning their traditional lands, as well as their culture and spiritual beliefs, and were brutally punished if they refused to do so. During the Mission period, over 19,421 Indians died at Mission San Juan Bautista alone, and it’s estimated that the population of Californian Indians as a whole was reduced from 350,000 to 200,000 during this time.
The Mission period was followed by the Mexican period, where huge tracts of land were granted to non-Indian settlers. The Indian population, in contrast, were never given back access to their traditional lands, and were instead often forced into debt-peonage, working under slave-like conditions on the lands that were taken from them. Measles, pneumonia, diphtheria, and sexually transmitted diseases ravaged the Indian population during this period, from 1834–1848, and it’s estimated that the population of California Indians was reduced by 100,000.
The American period, which began after 1948 was perhaps the worst of all. During this time, the already-devastated population of native Californians experienced what might have been the worst slaughter of Indians in U.S. history.
In his PBS documentary series,“The West,” documentarian Ken Burns goes into graphic detail explaining just how extreme the violence wrought upon the Californian Indians was during the American period. He describes how men, women, and children were often hacked to death with hatchets, or how bounties were often paid for Indian scalps, sometimes even for entire heads.
Vagrancy laws were passed during this period which allowed the services of unemployed Indians to be auctioned off to white settlers. Children were often kidnapped and sold as apprentices, a practice that was abetted by laws which permitted settlers to force young Indian children to work for them until the age of 18. And through all of this, Indians were not allowed to complain in court because of a California statute that forbid them to give evidence in favor of or against any white person. Not surprisingly, it’s estimated that the Indian population of California went from 150,000 before 1849 to fewer than 30,000 in 1870 — an 80 percent loss in just 21 years.
“Who we are today, how we think, how we love, how we hate, how we fear, what scares us, what makes us brave — all those qualities are given to us by the seven generations before us,” Lopez says to our little group standing 3,486 feet over the valley where much of this took place. “And when you look at the last seven generations of Native Americans, that includes enslavement, torture and rape. There’s a lot of recovery and healing that’s needed for our people when we look at that history.”
After recounting his people’s history among the scree piles and swarms of Pale Swallowtails atop Mount Umunhum, Lopez performs a ceremony. In the eerie shadow of the radar tower, we form a prayer circle around him as he shares the creation story of his people — a story named, “How the Hummingbird Got Fire.” Lopez then launches into a traditional Amah Mutsun rabbit dance while singing a gathering song that his ancestors might have sung in this very spot many thousands of years ago.
The Midpeninsula Open Space Preserve has been working closely with the Amah Mutsun throughout the entire Mount Umunhum restoration process. Abbors, the former general manager of Midpen, wanted to make sure that the tribe had a voice in deciding what happened at the summit as it was being prepared for public access for the first time in half a century.
“A big part of the vision we had was working with the Native American peoples who had originally lived on the mountain or visited it,” Abbors says. “The future vision was, ‘How do we, as the new stewards of the land, work with the original stewards so that we’re all working together?’”
It was this cultural awareness and sensitivity that led Abbors to contact the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band and request their participation in the Mount Umunhum restoration process.
“When we got the call from Midpen, we talked to our tribal council about what our vision was and what we would like to see here on Mount Umunhum,” Lopez says. “We all agreed almost immediately that we would like to see the opportunity for us to return here as a place for prayer and ceremony.”
Over a year later, on Sep. 14, 2017, that vision finally materialized. Around a circle set by traditionally cut stones, Amah Mutsun tribal members held the first ceremony on Mount Umunhum in perhaps 200 years, an event which probably never would have happened without their partnership with Midpen. Midpen has also approved a cultural conservation easement that grants the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band permanent rights to help steward Mount Umunhum’s summit. In addition to this, the easement also prohibits the development of commercial buildings on the mountain’s summit, including any expansions of the radar tower.
Midpen’s partnership with the Amah Mutsun is an important break in the long history of marginalization and oppression that this population has experienced for centuries — but the restoration process did not occur without some controversy. Although Midpen’s efforts to acknowledge the Amah Mutsun’s historical rights to the land have been warmly received, the decision to keep the Cold War-era radar tower standing atop the summit has been a point of contention.
Because the cost of sealing the toxic tower and keeping it maintained was an excessive burden, Midpen seemed intent on demolishing it at first. However, there were certain groups that felt the radar tower should be preserved and kept intact atop the summit. There was a concerted effort led by entities like the Umunhum Conservancy and Santa Clara County Historical Heritage Commission to lobby the San Jose Board of Supervisors to make sure the tower remained in place.
These groups wanted the concrete structure preserved for its historic significance and what they believe to be its iconic role in the Silicon Valley skyline. They argued that the radar tower should be honored because it symbolizes a slice of history that is meaningful and significant to the region. But to others, the radar tower represents an exceptionally dark and repugnant slice of history — one marked by colonialism and militarism. The same tower, two very different perspectives.
The efforts of the Umunhum Conservancy ultimately proved successful when the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors (the same entity that has the final say on the Juristac development), voted unanimously to list the massive concrete radar tower on the County Heritage Resource Inventory, giving it official historic status and protecting it from demolition.
It was a big win for those at the Umunhum Conservancy and others who felt it was important to monumentalize the United States’ military history — a history which is arguably entangled with the colonial violence wrought upon native populations and which resulted in what the Amah Mutsun believe to be the desecration of their sacred lands. It’s a story that shares many parallels with the recent push to remove Confederate statues from public spaces all throughout the United States, and it raises an important question: when many different histories intersect in a single community, whose do we choose to prioritize?
“That radar tower operated for something like 20 years,” Lopez says. “Our history there goes back over 10,000 years. And yet, the county of Santa Clara recognized Mount Umunhum as an important county heritage site for the military. They totally ignored our history — they completely ignored it, it wasn’t important, it wasn’t valued. Twenty years of military presence is more important than thousands of years of Native American presence.”
For nearly 20 years, Irenne Zwierlein — considered an outsider by the tribal majority — has nonetheless played an outsized role in the Amah Mutsun’s ongoing campaign for federal recognition and in the tribe’s claim to the Sargent Ranch property (Juristac).
The 74-year-old Woodside resident, who didn’t respond to requests for comment, has made no public effort to take part in any of the tribe’s events and activities and has yet to conclusively prove her Indian heritage. Even after the Bureau of Indian Affairs affirmed in 2007 that Zwierlein forged documents in an attempt to position herself as the Amah Mutsun’s rightful leader, she managed to convince the agency to prioritize her petition over that of popularly recognized tribal Chairman Lopez, a fellow septuagenarian who for the past 16 years has served as the face of the tribe.
Under Lopez’s leadership, the tribe has emphasized restoring a sense of community among the 500-plus Amah Mutsun members after generations of forced assimilation and trauma. For his part, Lopez says he hopes to see Sargent Ranch returned to the Amah Mutsun, or placed in the stewardship of an organization that shares his vision of maintaining a green, open space and wild space on this tract of land. “We want to return to the path of our ancestors and to fulfill our obligation to the creator,” he says. “And we don’t need the BIA’s permission to do that.”
Without a legal right to their ancestral turf, Lopez says the Amah Mutsun won’t be able to unilaterally say what can be done here. However, in the course of his time fighting for Juristac and other significant Amah Mutsun sites, Lopez has forged partnerships with open space districts, conservationists and private property owners who have helped him and his tribe to uphold its mission of protecting land it holds sacred.
Zwierlein’s priorities, by contrast, seemingly depend almost entirely on the federal government’s affirmation of the tribe’s sovereignty to secure the rights to Sargent Ranch.
Fifteen years ago, La Jolla developer Wayne Pierce inked a development contract with Zwierlein, who promised to allow development on the land in exchange for a $21 million cultural center and homes for tribal members. The pact gave Pierce a way to bypass state and county anti-sprawl zoning and brought Zwierlein some powerful allies.
Though Pierce’s blueprints for a “luxury gaming resort” surfaced online years after signing his covenant with Zwierlein, she has consistently denied advocating for a casino. But the potential profit windfall from Indian gaming cast doubt on Zwierlein’s motives as well as those of investors, labor groups and political office holders aligned with her.
When he authored a bill in 2005 to expedite federal recognition, Congressman Mike Honda (D-San Jose) swore he wasn’t taking sides in the tribe’s internal conflict. But the language appeared to favor Zwierlein by citing the title of her BIA petition, raising questions about the lawmaker’s intentions. The bill never passed. A few years later, the economy took a nosedive and set Pierce on a course that ended in bankruptcy and foreclosure on the La Jollan’s 85 percent stake in Sargent Ranch.
The proposed quarry has now overtaken the sidelined casino plans as the immediate threat to Juristac.
Three bookmarks prevent suburban sprawl from spilling seamlessly from San Jose to Salinas: the Coyote Valley, undeveloped land stretching from Hollister to Prunedale and Sargent Ranch.
Earlier this month, San Jose snatched up 937 acres of Coyote Valley from Brandenburg Properties and the Sobrato Organization in a $93 million deal aimed at creating a permanent greenbelt between the city proper and the rural South Valley.
Further south, San Benito County supervisors on Sept. 24 greenlighted “nodes” off four Highway 101 off-ramps for tax revenue-generating commercial development. A petition by environmentalists to bring the rezoning decision to voters was certified last week, in hopes of reversing the decision that will transform the corridor’s rural landscape.
Sargent Ranch would extend Santa Clara County’s developed footprint by converting the pristine lands to industrial use. The proposed quarry seeks to unearth about 40 million tons of sand and gravel estimated to lie beneath the surface of the bucolic property.
As the project nears a vote, the applicant has hired controversial lobbyist Ed McGovern to sway the Board of Supervisors. McGovern previously served as campaign manager to county supervisor Cindy Chavez and political consultant to disgraced former Santa Clara councilman and county supervisor candidate Dominic Caserta. For the past several months, lobbying records show that McGovern, Sargent Ranch representative Verne Freeman and officials from the South Bay Labor Council have held meetings and led site tours with county supervisors — namely Cortese, Chavez, Joe Simitian and Susan Ellenberg — to sell the mine’s value as a job creator and tax revenue-booster.
County Supervisor Mike Wasserman, whose district includes Sargent Ranch, has expressed strong support for the mining project as a local source of aggregate for concrete to fuel the region’s surging construction. As developers tout the economic benefits of carving gravel out of ranchland, the stakes are high for the broader public as well. If Sargent Ranch is developed, it may catalyze further sprawl.
Cortese, who hails from a family with a multi-generational agricultural background, says he’s more inclined to protect the ranchland as open space. “Every time we make a decision there’s consequences,” he tells San Jose Inside. “My default is to keep it pristine, to keep it as unimproved as possible.”
This certainly aligns with Lopez’s hopes, as the mine would desecrate a site that’s inextricably intertwined with the 3,000-year history and cultural identity of the Amah Mutsun people.
The Fight for Juristac
It’s out of this long and tumultuous history of fighting for the rights and their land that the Amah Mutsun found themselves walking in prayer to their most sacred site, Juristac, on Sep. 8.
“What I have been saying for a period of time now, a number of years actually, is that the destruction and domination of Native Americans never ended, it just evolved,” Lopez says. “It evolved to what we see today — our important, sensitive cultural sites are being destroyed. And that’s what’s happening at Juristac.”
The fight for Juristac is just getting started, and it’s likely to be a long and contentious one. Although there was a strong showing of solidarity among environmental and advocacy groups on Sep. 8, there was almost no media coverage of the event.
Another major challenge for the Amah Mutsun is the fact that the United States government hasn’t officially recognized them as a tribe. This leaves them unprotected by the rights, benefits, and legal status that come with federal recognition, protections which could have played a significant role in determining Juristac’s fate.
“I tell you, if we were Catholic or Muslim or Jewish or a Buddhist — if we were any other religion, and this was known as a sacred site, they wouldn’t dare think of proposing a sand and gravel mine,” Lopez says. “But because we’re Native American, because we’re not federally recognized, it doesn’t matter.”
Yet, despite everything, Lopez remains hopeful. “We’ve been told that the most effective way to stop this mine is by public opinion,” he says. “Because if the county supervisors want to get re-elected, they have to do what the people want. And so we’re hoping we can get the people to stand with us and tell the supervisors that they must not approve that mine.”
Knowing the importance of public opinion, the Amah Mutsun, in solidarity with environmental groups and organizations like the Silicon Valley Democratic Socialists of America, have begun a campaign to organize and build a broad, intersectional movement. Just last week they held an event at the First Unitarian Church of San Jose where over 50 people gathered together to hear presentations from a variety of speakers, including Lopez. Attendees were told how they could support the cause, and there were even free bumper stickers available that read, “NO SARGENT QUARRY ON AMAH MUTSUN SACRED GROUNDS.”
Of course, there are many recent precedents to these kinds of struggles. It was during events at Standing Rock in 2016, when members of the Standing Rock Sioux fought to stop an oil pipeline development near their reservation in North Dakota, where the native community discovered that it is possible to mobilize a massive grassroots movement in solidarity with indigenous communities. But it also taught them that this solidarity is not always enough to challenge the interests of those with money and power. The Dakota Access Pipeline project was ultimately approved by the Trump administration after months of fierce opposition, and it has already sprung several leaks.
The battle over Juristac is very much part of this same story — a struggle spread across time and throughout the nation. And it is precisely at this moment in time when the public must decide what matters most to them. Is it the profits of an investment group that buys up foreclosed properties? The promise of economic growth and development fueled by concrete? Or perhaps it will be the preservation of a sacred place that means everything to one of the most marginalized populations in this country’s history.
A version of this piece was published in the San Jose Metro. Jennifer Wadsworth, Grace Hase and Nick Veronin contributed to this report.