A Tribe on a Quest

The Amah Mutsun return spirituality and native restoration to Cotoni-Coast Dairies National Monument

 By Linda Koffman

Sometimes the path to go deep within takes you outside—the Native Americans who lived in these parts knew it thousands of years ago, and their descendants are reminding us of it now as Cotoni-Coast Dairies assumes its role as a national monument.


A Bureau of Land Management ranger watches the monument’s signing ceremony. Photo: Chip Scheuer

Imagine pressing your feet in the exact spot where Cotoni Indian footprints once dressed the naked earth. You look out and breathe in the same dramatic vista witnessed by those who supported the North Coast land long before colonization; no hint of Highway 1, no telephone pole, no building to intrude on the untarnished view.

Such is the offering of Cotoni-Coast Dairies, which stretches from the shores of Davenport up into Bonny Doon. It’s like a 5,800-acre time capsule whose natural brilliance has yet to be muted by modernity, and, after nearly a century behind closed doors, its protection and impending public unveiling under the decree of former President Barack Obama coincides with its return to Native American hands. And those prayerful hands plan to reconnect the sublime scene with the unseen.

“The most important thing we look to restore to the Cotoni-Coast land is the spirituality and the sacred,” says Valentin Lopez, chairman of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, whose Cotoni ancestors originally occupied the area that includes six watersheds.

While the tribal band’s traditional territory spans from San Benito to San Mateo counties, most of its 800 members today live in the Central Valley because, Lopez explains, they can’t afford to live in those places of origin. That economic divide adds weight to the Amah Mutsun presence in the oversight of this coastal plot. He sees the reunion as answering a higher calling.

“Whenever we look at the land, we’re in awe to see all that Creator made and allowed us the privilege of having [this] to care for,” he adds. “Creator had a lot of confidence in our ancestors and in our people today so that we can take care of those lands the way they are meant to be cared for, and I recognize they’re a gift.”

Public access to the new piece of the California Coastal National Monument network is still a year or more away, as conservation efforts and infrastructure to accommodate visitors are being planned. Meantime, tribal members have access for spiritual practice, research, education and restoration of the land through the Memorandum of Understanding agreement with the Bureau of Land Management.


Amah Mutsun Tribal Band Chairman Valentin Lopez at the signing ceremony. Photo: Chip Scheuer

The Cotoni had specific prayers seeking guidance on how to provide for all living things, and now ceremonies to call animals to the land and encourage balance to the plants and the four seasons are being returned to the site. “Most important were our ceremonies for the bear, ceremonies for the elk, the deer, the fish and for the birds,” Lopez says.

There is little documentation of the Cotoni people, so research done at Cotoni-Coast Dairies may be the missing link to give insight into that past stewardship and struggle during the Spanish colonization that led to the decimation of the indigenous population. It’s all in poignant timing as climate change deniers have climbed the political ranks and Native Americans have helped buoy environmental activism across the country.

“When we look at Standing Rock, with the conquering of Mother Earth, the excavating of important spiritual resources for money, the violation of Native American culture and people, we worry tremendously because that is the same attitude that the people who first came to California looking to conquer Mother Earth and the indigenous people here had—and that historic trauma continues to this day around the world,” Lopez says. “That’s why we’re so thankful to the people of Santa Cruz for understanding that the destruction of Amah Mutsun people must stop. We feel the people of our community have an appreciation for the environment and our history.”

 To the Amah Mutsun, “cultural resources” aren’t strictly manmade artifacts and burial sites, but also the landscape itself. Cotoni-Coast Dairies waterways are seen as cultural resources for wildlife, and marine terraces overlooking the redwood forest, the coastal prairie and the ocean are considered sacred sites. Reinvigorating native plants that sustain the property’s biodiversity and have medicinal or crafting purposes is a primary objective.

While nurturing Cotoni-Coast Dairies and honoring local Native American history is viewed by Lopez as a privilege inherited by his tribal band, he recognizes it’s now a responsibility it must share. “There’s not enough Amah Mutsun to save the native land, so we really need people to work with our tribe,” he says.


Photo: Levy Media Works

Lopez hopes locals will learn about and support the Amah Mutsun stewardship, eventually assist with native plant restoration, and partake in educational opportunities offered by the nine tribal members assigned to the site when the monument opens.

“We want the public to know the Cotoni people were of the past but also of the present, and they will always be here,” he says. “We are thankful to our ancestors for taking care of the land for 900 generations, and now it’s time for our tribe to return to reclaim and fulfill our obligation to Creator.”


Flight and Fight

The campaign to make Cotoni-Coast Dairies a national monument was spearheaded by Sempervirens Fund and spanned three years, but the outcome became uncertain with the 2016 Presidential election results. With time running out, Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), representative of the 18th District, in which Cotoni-Coast Dairies lies, took a notable flight to command the ear of the commander-in-chief. “It wasn’t a done deal,” recalls Fred Keeley, co-chair of the Sempervirens Fund National Monument Task Force, “then Anna Eshoo personally hitched a ride on Air Force One within the month preceding Obama’s decision and bulldogged him on this deal. It was amazing! Diane Feinstein and Anna Eshoo were all over this campaign and they were not going to let him leave office without this.


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