Protect Juristac: The movement to protect a local tribe’s most sacred site

June 15, 2022, 12:46 p.m.

Speaking on the floor of the United Nations in April 2018, Chairman of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band Valentin Lopez described how his people’s most sacred site may soon be reduced to simply an open pit in the ground. The pain that laced his voice was palpable. 

Lopez was speaking in opposition to the proposed Sargent Quarry project, which would open a 317-acre pit for sand and gravel mining on what is known to some as Sargent Ranch and to the Amah Mutsun as Juristac. Located an hour South of Stanford in Gilroy, Juristac is comprised of four sacred hills and translates to “place of the Big Head.” The Amah Mutsun’s Big Head ceremonies are their most important, Chairman Lopez mentioned.

Four years later, the Amah Mutsun’s fight to protect their sacred site continues. 

The Amah Mutsun are a landless tribe without federal recognition. Alexii Sigona, a Ph.D. Candidate in Environmental Science at the University of California, Berkeley, and a member of the Amah Mutsun, said the lack of federal recognition limits the opportunities for his people to connect to their land and culture. Sigona said that the Amah Mutsun have experienced extreme dispossession and the suppression of their cultural practices. Many of their traditional knowledge and practices have become dormant as a result, he added.

Another member of the Amah Mutsun, Carolyn Rodriguez said that this cultural erasure makes protecting Juristac all the more important.

“In order for us to keep learning and revitalizing our culture, especially for the youth and future generations, we need Juristac, so they can connect to it and have ceremonies there,” she said. “How can we do that if it’s just an open mine?”

The Big Head ceremonies serve many purposes, including healing, renewal and maintaining balance with the four seasons. Lopez explained how tribes would come from all over the area, some as far away as Yosemite, to participate in these ceremonies. This became impossible when the Debt Acquisition Company of America (DACA) submitted its Sargent Quarry project proposal to the Santa Clara County Department of Planning and Development in 2015. 

The Protect Juristac website explains that “once disturbed by mining, there will be no way to rehabilitate the cultural and spiritual aspects of [Juristac].” It also details the extensive environmental impacts of the project, which would eliminate 248 acres of grassland estivation habitat for federally-listed threatened species and destroy approximately 33 acres of California live oak woodland.

DACA did not respond to The Daily’s request for comment.

When the Amah Mutsun contacted the County to let them know of their opposition, they learned that county law allows for this destruction of Juristac.

Santa Clara County has a history of perpetuating the dispossession of indigenous peoples, Chairman Lopez told The Daily. Just north of Juristac is a place known to the Amah Mutsun as Las Ánimas, meaning the palace of the spirits. On that property reside four significant cultural sites in close proximity — within 150 to 200 yards of each other, Lopez estimated.

“There was a proposal to put a road right through the middle, and we tried to get both the county to recognize those four cultural sites as a cultural district, so they will all be protected and preserved as a single site,” Chairman Lopez said. Instead, the county recognized the sites as four individual sites. “They approved the row going right through the middle of it—right through the middle of a cultural district,” the Chairman said.

Lopez also brought up questions surrounding Santa Clara County’s compliance with state law regarding the preservation of indigenous sacred and cultural sites. In 2004, California State Senate passed SB 18, which directs cities and counties to “conduct consultations with California Native American tribes for the purpose of preserving specified places, features, and objects that are located within the city or county’s jurisdiction” prior to adopting or amending their general plan. Lopez pointed out that Santa Clara County has never revised its general plan—on the county’s Department of Planning and Development website, the most updated general plan is the one adopted in December 1994 for the years 1995 to 2010.

Had the county updated its general plan and consulted with tribes, Lopez said, the Amah Mutsun would have mentioned Sargent Ranch. Upon learning that Juristac is a cultural site, the county also could have amended its general plan, Lopez added.

“They did not do it then, and they have not done it yet,” he said.

When asked about the county’s adherence to SB 18, Leza Mikhail, Santa Clara County Planning Services Manager, said “SB 18 requires tribal consultation for general plan amendments but does not mandate amendments to the general plan to address tribal cultural resources. To the extent the County has amended the general plan since 2004, the SB 18 consultation requirements have been followed.”

Mikhail did not respond to The Daily’s questions as to why the general plan has not been amended, despite the fact that the most recent plan was only intended to last until 2010. 

“The county could have done better, but they did not,” Lopez said.

Because the county’s general plan has not been revised, Lopez explained, the current general plan allows for the proposed sand and gravel mining at Juristac.

“The only thing that will stop the development of this mine at Juristac is overwhelming public support,” Chairman Lopez stated. Since the Sargent Quarry project proposal came in, the Amah Mutsun has been working tirelessly to get others involved. “[We’re trying to] get the public to recognize the importance of Juristac to get the county planners to vote to disapprove the mining permit, and if that gets appealed, have the county Board of Supervisors oppose the permit,” the Chairman said.

Chairman Lopez hopes that his people will get to return to Juristac and resume their Big Head ceremonies one day. Until then, the Protect Juristac movement will persist.

This article is the first in a two-part series about Protect Juristac, a years-long campaign led by the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band to stop sand and gravel mining on their sacred grounds. The next article details ways to get involved with the movement.

Julia Biswas '25 is a Desk Editor for the Academics Desk. Contact The Daily’s News section at news ‘at’ stanforddaily.com.

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