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Amah Mutsun Tribal Chairman: ‘Assimilation Is Surrender’

Amah Mutsun Chairman Valentin Lopez works to gain federal recognition and otherwise serve his tribe, declaring, "Assimilation is surrender."
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Valentin Lopez, chairman of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, is driving his pickup from Santa Cruz to Sacramento. It is 113 degrees on a June day, the air conditioner is on the fritz, and he is sweating.

He has just coordinated a religious ceremony at Holy Cross Cemetery in Santa Cruz to commemorate nearly 2,000 members of his tribe who’d been dumped in a shallow grave in 1885 to make room for a church. Local volunteers had researched the site and found the remains of 2,583 bodies, most of them members of the Amah Mutsun tribe. With Lopez’s help, the volunteers erected a monument listing the “slave” names of the Indians—those given to them by the colonizing forces.

The Amah Mutsun trace their ancestry to the Mutsun-speaking peoples of Mission San Juan Bautista and the Awaswas-speaking peoples of Mission Santa Cruz. At the cemetery, tribal members performed a ceremony with songs, dances and prayers, although there were constraints that touched a nerve.


“The church refused to let us set up a port a potty in the cemetery, forbade the use of fire, and cut the time of the ceremony to two hours,” said Lopez. “This was undoubtedly nothing more than an attempt to control and dominate our people, culture and spirituality.”

But the Church said the restrictions were due to local regulations and safety issues.

“The Diocese of Monterey respects all cultural and religious ceremonies,” said Monterey Diocese spokesperson Erica Yanez. “The diocese does not allow port-a-potties to be set up where loved ones are buried, so arrangements were made to set them up outside the cemetery grounds.”

Yanez also said that since Holy Cross is no longer an active cemetery, it is not fully staffed. Moreover, she added, regulations banning fire on cemetery grounds had been lifted specifically to allow for the ceremony, noting that Lopez had expressed gratitude for the gesture.

Lopez was raised a devout Catholic, served as an altar boy and a candidate to enter a local seminary. But he said he grew apart from the church when he saw how well priests treated the wealthy parishioners as opposed to the poor, and how the church refused to tell the truth about what had really happened during the mission period.

Valentin Lopez, Chairman of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, addresses an environmental conference at UC Santa Cruz.

Valentin Lopez, Chairman of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, addresses an environmental conference at UC Santa Cruz.

Balding and stocky, Lopez, 65, retired at age 53 from his job as a civil service tester with the State of California. He is married and has two grown children. He now works full time without pay for his tribe.

At age 18 Lopez received a full scholarship to Sacramento State University, where he majored in English literature and applied himself in order to improve his writing skills.

“I read a lot of African American, Chicano and Native American literature and took a course in women’s studies,” he said. “I wanted to learn how other people dealt with their issues.”

Lopez knows California highways well. He puts 50,000 miles per year on his black 2003 Toyota Tundra. He commutes from his home in Sacramento to Santa Cruz, Gilroy and surrounding towns, meeting with tribal members, university personnel, health professionals, horticulturalists and public officials.

Healing the ‘Soul Wound’

His consuming passion is preserving his tribe’s traditions, stories, language, customs and wellbeing. Because of his interest in wellness, he was appointed as a Native American adviser to the National Alliance for Mental Illness.

“In one week I had four calls,” he said. “Three of them were young mothers, each with three children. They were addicted to meth and about to lose their kids to adoption.”

“It’s called the ‘soul wound,’ ” said Dr. Donna Schindler, a psychiatrist who advises Lopez in his work as a healer at wellness meetings. “One of Chairman Lopez’s major concerns is to heal the historical trauma and wounds of his people.”

Bishop Francis Quinn

Lopez advises Donna Schindler, M.D., by cell phone that he will be a little late for a meeting with her and Bishop Francis Quinn at his retirement center in Sacramento.

Schindler and Lopez have a warm friendship with Quinn, 94, who retired as bishop of Sacramento in 1993, then spent 13 years as a priest volunteer at Arizona Indian reservations. When he returned to California he made news when he offered an unsolicited apology to the Indians at Mission San Rafael for the mistreatment they had received from the Franciscan missionaries.

Quinn also expressed strong opposition to the canonization of Junipero Serra, the Spanish friar who founded nine of California’s 21 Spanish missions. Serra had the reputation as a strict authoritarian who authorized physical punishment of Indians allegedly guilty of laziness, theft or escaping from the missions.

Quinn wrote to Pope Francis urging him to call off the canonization, but never received a direct answer from the Vatican. When the Pope declared Serra a saint in Washington D.C. on September 23, 2015, Schindler, Lopez and other activists held a press conference at a nearby Protestant church to denounce the ceremony.


At today’s meeting, the bishop agreed to write another letter to Pope Francis, requesting that he abrogate the medieval papal bulls (decrees) that justified the Spanish conquest and the subjugation of the Indians and their lands to the Spanish crown. Quinn assumed, though, that he would simply receive another pro forma response from the Vatican, acknowledging the receipt of his letter and offering him prayers and good wishes.

With Serra’s sainthood, Lopez believes the prospect of the Catholic church ever taking responsibility for the atrocities of the mission period are remote.

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“The fact is, we don’t expect or even want an apology,” said Lopez. “It would be hollow and insincere without true feelings and deeds. The fact is, they don’t do anything. They need to acknowledge the atrocities against our people, to give the land back, to work on healing.”

Cover-ups, insisted Lopez, are not going to work for the Amah Mutsun people.

Federal Recognition

The Amah Mutsun are not a federally recognized tribe, due to the vagaries of history. They have no land, no sovereignty and no access to funds, health care and education that other tribes receive.

“In 1929 the federal government sent out Indian agents to take a census of California Indians,” Lopez explained. “A guy named Lafayette Dorrington got federal recognition for tribes in northern, eastern and southern California, but ignored all the tribes from San Francisco to San Luis Obispo.”

Dorrington reported that the Amah Mutson were well taken care of by Catholic priests at Mission San Juan Bautista, that no land was required for them. Lopez searched for any evidence of this at the mission archives, but found none.

UC Santa Cruz

Since being appointed tribal chairperson by the elders, Lopez has encouraged his tribe to learn the Mutsun language, to study the effects of historical trauma, and to reclaim and relearn native plants and habitats. In 2009, UC Santa Cruz Arboretum began partnering with Lopez and the Amah Mutsun to pursue those goals through the Amah Mutsun Relearning Program.

“We have work-and-learn gatherings here where tribal members come to work on 40 acres, weeding and planting and learning about the various uses of plants,” said Rick Flores, curator of the California Plant Collection at the arboretum. “What is happening is not just relearning the past, but ensuring the future. This helps the tribe move forward and become land stewards again in their traditional territory.”

Back on the road again, Lopez gives a talk in Berkeley, California to a gathering of 150 young Native American environmentalists from throughout the U.S., most of them scientists.

“I urged them to address their work from a spiritual perspective, to develop a close relationship to plants, water and the environment,” Lopez said. “I told them that working the land can be healing, and at the same time the land is being healed. They responded well.”

‘Assimilation Is Surrender’

Driving long distances gives Lopez a chance to reflect on his work and to think about his autobiography, Assimilation is Surrender. He is planning chapters and themes that have influenced him on the psychological, emotional and even physical effects of resisting assimilation into white society.

“All my life I’ve experienced forces on our people to accept false histories, the destruction of our environment, our culture, and our spirituality,” Lopez said in a telephone interview. “I couldn’t verbalize it, but I couldn’t accept it.”

Life, he said, would have been a lot easier if he had stopped resisting, questioning and denying.

“But all this has been healing for me,” he said.


“It’s also important to get the perpetrators to acknowledge that they, too, need healing,” Lopez added. “They say, ‘We didn’t kill.’ But the institutions did, and they have to heal. The government needs to heal. The church needs to heal. But they want us to feel shame for our protests and for not accepting the lies they tell us.”

His outspoken style has earned him praise from friends who see him as a tireless advocate. But he also faces opposition, especially within the Catholic Church.

“The bishops prefer a small circle of Native American Catholics who promote their agenda,” said Lopez. “That’s why we never get invited to their meetings. It’s all about ‘toxic shame.’ ”

Lopez added that growing up as a Catholic he learned that for sins to be forgiven, Catholics must confess their sins, offer penance and make atonement.

“But now it’s time for the bishops to confess their own sins and to atone for them,” he said. “Only then can we move to a place where we can have healthy relationships.”

California bishops said they have worked to make amends, and have indeed acknowledged those wrongs.

“I respect Valentin Lopez’s energy, determination and his accomplishments, but he’s not always willing to give the church credit for its efforts on behalf of Native Californians,” said Bishop Edward Clark, a spokesperson for the California bishops.

Clark said that the Serra canonization served as a wakeup call for the bishops. Since then they have conducted outreach meetings with several tribes and are revising the mission curriculum at Catholic schools to reflect a better understanding of what happened during the mission period.

“The present curriculum is biased and sugar coated,” Clark said. “We need to revise and reevaluate all the displays at our missions, museums and cemeteries, not just from the viewpoint of historians, but also from the Native American perspective.”

Some research for this article was supplied by Jennifer Wadsworth of Metro Silicon Valley.