The Amah Mutsun are a congregation of the descendants of the Native American
Indians taken primarily to Mission San Juan Bautista during the Spanish
colonization of California. This exhibit shows their story from creation to present
“Indigenous”, or Native, people have lived along the coast and in coastal
valleys such as ours, for at least 10,000 years. Native groups with traditional
territories include what were called “Ohlone” (or the Spanish name “Costanoan”).
These were the white man’s names for all of the people who lived in the Central
Coastal area of California from Monterey County to the San Francisco Bay Area.
When Spanish explorers and Roman Catholic missionaries arrived to settle in
California during the 1700’s, they organized several bands into larger groups
known by the mission where they were assembled. For example, the natives taken
to Mission San Carlos were known as Carmelenos, San Juan Bautista-Juanenos
and Santa Cruz- Cruzenos. Most present day people refer to these native peoples
now as Ohlone. However, there were really many more tribelets, which were called
by their chosen name. The indigenous people of Morgan Hill and Gilroy were
During the Pre-Contact time period (the time before the native groups first
encountered the Spanish), the Mutsun speaking people had 20-30 villages of 100-
400 people across the Pajaro River Basin and surrounding area. Collectively these
tribelets called themselves the Ummaaya. Each tribelet controlled one watershed
with the geographical ridges between them becoming the boundaries between
Each tribe managed the resources in its area: fish from tribes which lived by the
sea, nuts and acorns from tribes which lived where these resources grew, furs and
skins from tribes which hunted animals in their natural habitat. Territorial
boundaries were respected by all the bands. People were careful not to trespass on
one another’s territories. Some bands granted their neighbors permission to hunt
animals or gather foods and materials from their territories.
At certain times of the year, some members of each band left their village and
moved to different parts of their territories to find food and natural resources. They
set up temporary camps in their traditional hunting, fishing, and gathering spots.
The Spanish colonization of California was accomplished by the establishment of
missions and military (presidios) outposts. The first mission was Mission San
Diego de Alcala in 1769. The Spanish sent two parties to Monterey: Portola led the
inland party, while Father Junipero Serra’s traveled by sea.
First contact between the Spanish and the Amah Mutsun occurred in October,
1769, in the area separating the Pajaro and Salinas Rivers. It was at this location
that about 500 people representing many of the tribelets had come together for the
Condor Ceremony. The Ummaaya believed that when Mars, represented by the
Condor, disappeared into the Sun during its two-year orbital cycle, the dead come
back to life. Those who wanted to talk to the dead did so at the Condor Ceremony.
We have scientific proof that in October 1769 Mars orbit took it behind the sun.
When Portola’s party arrived at this area, they encountered “hysterical” Ummaaya
women who started crying and scratching their faces upon seeing the Spanish. The
women thought the Spanish were messengers of the dead, so their “hysteria” was
actually a sign of respect. The Spanish, unable to communicate with the Ummaaya,
shot arrows into the ground to show they were not going to fight and gave them
trinkets for friendship. The women left the site, returning a short while later with
tamales for the Spanish, who were hungry. Meanwhile, the rest of the Ummaaya
burnt the ceremony site before fleeing, so the intruders wouldn’t contaminate the
Rather than friendship, the Spanish captured the Ummaaya, destroyed their
villages and holy places, and forcibly converted them to Christianity. They brought
in Spanish artisans to teach the Ummaaya how to build, so the latter became slave
labor for the construction of the missions, ranchos, adobe houses, and other
structures, including their own homes. The Ummaaya of the present day Morgan
Hill and Gilroy area were taken to four different missions. The numbers of
baptisms were recorded at each mission where they were given a Christian name
and required to stay within control of the Spaniards at all times. Because of disease
and genocide the indigenous peoples population decreased by about 40%.
After Mexico won independence from Spain, the Mexican population increased.
The government abolished the Mission system. Most Native Americans were not
allowed to leave and their ancestral territories were given away to settlers in the
form of land grants. The priests sent the neophytes to the ranchos to serve as
laborers. That meant that the Native Americans became slaves of a new master, the
Dons of the rancheros. Native plants were removed, changing the natural landscape
to increase grazing for the cattle. Disease such as smallpox and diphtheria killed
half the remaining Native American population.
Initially the soldiers of the American conquerors of 1846 treated the Amah with
respect and dignity. However, the beginning of the Gold Rush caused a surge of
immigration leading to the enslavement, loss of homes and land grants held by the
Native peoples. The Federal government attempted to establish reservations for the
Native Americans, signing treaties between their representatives and 18 different
tribes. However, they were never ratified, but rather were classified secret and
sealed in a vault in Washington DC. The state of California, under Governor Peter
Burnett, signed an extermination order, offering bounties for Native scalps. The
Amah escaped into the hills avoiding the “whites.” Their children were raised to
deny their heritage and claim they were Mexican, losing their customs and
suffering historic trauma. In the late1800s there was a movement to give Indians
land grants, however a dishonest agent had these lands in his control within a year
Re-emergence of the Amah Mutsun tribe was due to the tribal leadership of
Ascencion Solarsano de Cervantes. She was the last keeper of the oral history, both
culturally and linguistically, as she was the last fluent speaker of Mutsun. Her first
language was Mutsun. Both of her parents spoke Mutsun at home. Early in her life
she suffered a near death experience giving her powers to heal. Her home in Gilroy
became a meeting place for news and tribal lore, sharing, job finding, and nursing
of the sick and dying. She shared her knowledge with J. P. Harrington, a renowned
Smithsonian ethnologist who wrote what is known as the San Juan Report. It is
considered the second most extensive documentation of any one tribe’s cultural
and linguistic history at the Smithsonian.
Up to the 1930s the Federal Indian Agency visited the tribe several times. The tribe
was then known as the San Juan Band. The tribal members under the leadership of
Ascencion’s daughter, Maria Mondragon, were enrolled as “Indian” on 1928-30
period Census Rolls. However, a report in the 1930s* by “first name” “last name”
said they were well taken care of by the Catholic Church so the tribe people
received no land. Thus recognition of the tribe stopped. In 1947 litigation was
begun to pursue federal compensation for 1850 treaty promises as part of a
Monterey Bay Indian alliance.
The tribe has a constitutional government and has asked the Federal Government
to restore its federal recognition. Currently, it is the second tribe on the list for
consideration. Without federal recognition, tribal members can’t receive Bureau of
Indian Affairs assistance, protect their ancestral burial sites, or participate in
programs to help their people rise out of poverty.
Collaboration between the Amah Mutsun Tribe and various government entities
centers around traditional tribal values, tribal language, land conservation, and
respect for Mother Earth. The National Park Service has awarded the Amah
Mutsun Tribe the Hartzog Award for two innovative habitat restoration research
projects. The tribe and its leaders are actively participating in many meaningful
projects within their community and reaching out to other communities.
The exhibit was developed in conjunction with the Amah
Mutsun Tribe, Tribal Council Chair, Val Lopez and Tribal Historian, Ed Ketchum,
and the Exhibit Committee Chais: Jennifer Tate, Margaret Rodrigues.
The following website from the National Archives provides some insight into the
Indian Census Rolls and how the Indian names were recorded.
The Amah Mutsun
Mexican Rancho Period (1834-1848
Early American Period (1848-1900)
The Matsun Today