Through innovative partnerships with public and private landowners, the Amah Mutsun Land Trust works to conserve and restore Indigenous cultural and natural resources within the traditional territories of Indigenous Mutsun and Awaswas peoples. They steward these lands and waters by combining traditional resource and environmental management with contemporary approaches, ensuring a resilient future for all inhabitants, and fulfilling the Amah Mutsun’s sacred obligation to Creator to protect and care for Mother Earth; and they research and teach the ways of nature—returning to the path of traditional ecological knowledge that their ancestors followed for thousands of years.
Where do ecology, culture, and spirituality connect in your work?
VL: Ecology, culture, and spirituality are intrinsically connected based on relationships. Our ancestors worked to ensure that the sacred relationships between ecology, culture, and spirituality were maintained. We developed prayers and ceremonies for all things, and we frequently made offerings of medicines such as tobacco or sage. When the colonizers came, they removed culture and spirituality from our ecology. They believed domesticating and dominating plants and animals were superior practices to our spiritual and cultural ways.
Today the Amah Mutsun are putting Indigenous peoples back into the ecology and restoring culture and spirituality to our traditional tribal territory. Currently, for example, we are working to restore the coastal prairie at Quiroste Valley, which is now designated as a “cultural preserve” by California State Parks. When burning was outlawed—first by Spain, then Mexico and the United States—the grasslands were encroached upon by shrubs and forests. Coastal prairies are the most biologically diverse ecosystem in North America. This ecosystem provides for hundreds of species, including mammals, birds, insects, and reptiles. Over 340 species are found only on California’s coastal prairies.
Our Creation story tells us that Creator gave us the responsibility to take care of Mother Earth and all living things. Today our Tribe recognizes that this directive from Creator is what we must do.
What inspires you the most about this work? What frustrates you the most?
VL: What inspires me the most is to see the way our Native Stewardship Corps and Tribal youth take interest and commit themselves to returning to the path of our ancestors and fulfilling our obligation to Creator. They want to learn about our food, medicine, basketry plants, and more. They are also eager to learn how our ancestors stewarded the lands and wildlife. Recently we completed research with UC Berkeley to learn how our ancestors took care of our coastal and ocean resources as well. Beginning this year we are planning our return to stewarding seaweed; small fishes, such as sardines, herrings, and anchovies; sea mammals, shell fish, and salmon.
What frustrates me the most is that very few of our members live within our territory. When we have tribal events within our territory, many of our members have to drive two to three hours each way to participate. We look forward to having Tribal facilities within our territory so members can have a place to stay while participating with the Tribe.
What do you see happening in your field—or beyond, in the world—that you’re really excited about?
VL: Our Tribe works with a lot of different universities, and I used to refer to their work as research. Recently, I realized that to them it is research, but to us it is validation work. The study results are validating that the ways of our ancestors show us how to live in a sustainable way. Our ancestors recognized that all plants must provide for a community that includes fungi, insects, birds, four leggeds, and people. Our ancestors recognized fire as a gift from Creator. They used fire to effectively manage landscapes to prevent catastrophic fires and promote healthy ecosystems. They learned that all decisions must be good for the next seven generations. Today scientists talk about “evidence-based science”; it seems to us that their evidence must last only as long as it takes for their first check to cash.
More and more we are recognizing that the ways of our ancestors show us how to live in a sustainable way. If we are to recover from the effects of climate change, our traditional ecological knowledge must be restored. Today our Tribe is working with other tribes to help lead the way towards healing Mother Earth.