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Amah Mutsun's Battle to Persevere

The Amah Mutsun of California, though not federally recognized, have persevered since before the time of Junípero Serra, founder of the Spanish mission system.
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In 1769, King Carlos III of Spain was intent on expanding the Spanish empire to Alta California before the British and the Russians got a foothold there.

To achieve that goal, Captain Gaspar de Portola set out from San Diego in October of 1769 with 60 men and 200 horses and mules to reach Monterey Bay. The expedition overshot its mark, though, and Portola and his men ended up being the first Europeans to discover the Bay of San Francisco. Portola relied on Indian guides, and when he arrived at what is now called Año Nuevo, he encountered the Quiroste tribe.

“From there our ancestors guided them on what is known as the first overland expedition to San Francisco Bay,” said Amah Mutsun chairman Valentin Lopez. “The history books say the Portola expedition is responsible for that so-called discovery.”


The Amah Mutsun community was originally made up of 30 to 40 villages stretched across the Pajaro River Basin and surrounding region. Members shared unique cultural and spiritual practices and tribal traditions, as well as fishing and hunting techniques.

The Mutsun carefully managed their land, using controlled burning to promote the growth of seed-baring annuals. Their diet consisted of acorns, hazelnuts, several varieties of berries, wild grapes, onions and cattail roots, as well as deer, elk, rabbit, raccoon, duck, geese and a variety of seafood.

They used tulle boats for transportation, fishing and hunting, as well as bows, arrows, spears, nets and tools made of bone, wood and rocks. Baskets were used to collect, prepare and store food.

The Missions

The Spanish began their colonization of Central California in 1770 when Fr. Junípero Serra founded Mission San Carlos Borromeo, the second of the 21 California missions. Mission Santa Cruz was founded in 1791 and Mission San Juan Bautista in 1797, both by Fr. Fermin de Laruen, Serra’s successor.

According to the Amah Mutsun website, Spanish soldiers invaded Amah Mutsun religious shrines and replaced them with Christian icons. Afterward, the soldiers removed Indians from their villages and brought them to the missions, separating children from parents.

Following baptism, the Amah were not permitted to return to their villages. If the Indians fled, the practice at all the missions was for the Spanish soldiers to round them up, return them and subject them to whippings for punishment.

Mission Records

The San Juan Bautista library contains ample documentation of life at the mission. By 1833 there were a total of 3,396 baptisms, 858 marriages and 19,421 deaths at the mission. The high mortality rate has been attributed to an abrupt change in the indigenous diet to European food, overwork, cramped living conditions and European diseases such as measles, smallpox, diphtheria and syphilis spread by the Spanish soldiers to Indian women.

In an effort to “civilize” the Amah Mutsun, the Indians were not allowed to speak their own language, conduct tribal ceremonies, or use their own names. Although Spanish law stipulated that after 10 years the missions were to be governed by the Indians and the land was to be returned to them, neither took place.

Map of Amah Mutsun tribal lands in California's Central coast.

Map of Amah Mutsun tribal lands in California's Central coast.

The Mexican Period

When Mexico won independence from Spain, the missions were secularized. The Amah Mutsun left the mission compounds, but they were denied the land that had been promised to them. Instead they were forced to work in slave-like conditions as sheep herders, farm workers and domestic servants. During this period the California Indian population fell from 200,000 to 100,000 because of measles, pneumonia, diphtheria and venereal disease.

The American Conquest

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With the arrival of the Americans after Mexico’s defeat in 1848, the condition of the Amah Mutsun worsened considerably. They were rounded up like cattle, forced to work as indentured servants, and their children were kidnapped and enslaved.


In January 1851, California Governor Peter H. Burnett , in an address to the state legislature, said, “A war of extermination will continue to be waged between the two races until the Indian race becomes extinct.”

It wasn’t long before the state of California issued a treasury bond to pay for the extermination of the Indians. The bond was used to pay bounty hunters and state militias to seek out and kill Indians.

Approximately $1.7 million was spent by the state and federal governments on this effort. By 1900 the California Indian population had been reduced by at least 96 per cent.

In 1851, the Amah Mutsun signed the California Indian Treaty, which provided 8.5 million acres spread out over 18 reservations. This treaty was opposed by the State of California. The state lobbied the U.S. President and Senate, and the California Indian treaties were never ratified.

In 1891, President Benjamin Harrison signed the Mission Indian Act to provide reservations for each Indian band residing within the state. But the act was restricted to Southern California Indians, and once again the Amah Mutsun were excluded.

Ascension Solorzano (1855–1930)

Ascension Solorzano de Cervantes was an Amah Mutsun tribal leader and healer who played a crucial role in preserving tribal memories and records, and in providing social services to fellow members of her tribe, for half a century. Shortly before her death in 1930, she made her extensive archives available to the noted linguist and ethnologist J.P. Harrington, an employee of the Smithsonian Museum. Harrington, a fanatic for detail and a tireless workaholic, lived in Solorzano’s home for six months, amassing more than 78,000 pages of data on all aspects of Amah Mutsun culture and history.

Harrington hired Martha Herrera, Solorzano’s granddaughter, as a typist and translator. Together they researched the archives of several California missions for documents on the Amah Mutsun tribe. In 1995, Solorzano was elected to the Gilroy, California, Hall of Fame, and in 2003 a middle school was named after her as part of the Gilroy Unified School District.

Ascension Solorzano de Cervantes, an Amah Mutsun tribal leader and healer who played a crucial role in preserving tribal memories and records.

Ascension Solorzano de Cervantes, an Amah Mutsun tribal leader and healer who played a crucial role in preserving tribal memories and records.

Amah Mutsun Today

Today the Amah Mutsun is a federally unrecognized tribe. They are an active community of nearly 800 members, each of whom can trace their descent directly to Mission San Juan Bautista or Mission Santa Cruz Indians.

In addition to annual gatherings, the tribe also holds regular membership meetings of the Tribal Council, which works closely with elders to resolve member concerns and carry on the business of the tribe.

The Tribal Band’s Goals

According to Tribal chairman Valentin Lopez, one of the principal goals of the tribe is to have the truth told about its history.

“The church, the state, the education system never told us the truth, so we are working to get the truth out,” said Lopez. “Secondly, it’s important that we help our members recover from their historic trauma. This has resulted in substance addition, suicide, depression, poverty, incarceration, and much more. Our members must deal with their historic trauma so they can live lives that honor our ancestors, Creator and provides purpose and understanding.”

Finally, “the tribe is working to restore the indigenous knowledge of our ancestors,” Lopez added.

“In 2006, an Amah Mutsun elder told tribal council that Creator has never rescinded our obligation to take care of Mother Earth and all living things,” he said. “That sacred covenant is our responsibility. We need to continue on the path of our ancestors until the last sunrise.”