BY Pete McBride Photographer, Videographer, Author, and Bank of the West Brand Ambassador

Image Credit: Photography and Videos by: Pete McBride

Sep 1st 2022

Sustainable LivingArts and Culture

The Amah Mutsun are Preserving the Land Through Fire and Seed

Sep 1st 2022

On the western border of Big Basin Redwoods State Park in northern California, 50 miles south of San Francisco and just inland from the coast, lies a picturesque valley lined with towering, centuries-old redwood trees, fir forests, and a babbling creek.

In the grassy meadows are neat brush piles of Douglas fir. Members of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, stewards of the valley, have spent years tending to the land, reducing some plants, like the Douglas fir, and aiming to eliminate others, like poison hemlock. They spent three seasons carefully clearing the toxic invasive species, wearing masks and other protective gear. Nearby–but not too close—are recently planted seedlings of native plants like tarweed, a food source for the Indigenous tribe that hemlock contaminates.

This quiet oasis called Quiroste Valley looks well managed yet still wonderfully wild.

But just a quarter mile away, the landscape to the east, north, and south is charred. Blackened trees line the ridges and dot the hills like ghostly sentinels looking over the unburned neighboring valley below.

In August of 2020, the CZU Lightning Complex fire roared through this area and across Santa Cruz and San Mateo counties, scorching over 86,000 acres, including 97 percent of Big Basin State Park’s 18,000 acres. But then, the weather changed, and the flames spared the Quiroste Valley.

“Yes, the weather changed, but why did the weather change?” Valentin Lopez, Chairman of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, smiled as he asked the question two years later. The tribal leader had a twinkle in his eye as he overlooked the land his community has partnered with California State Parks to steward.

gallery video poster

“We put a lot of prayer and a lot of work into here honoring this land—the Creator was showing a lot of appreciation for all we did here,” Chairman Lopez added. “But if fire had come through—that would have been okay too.”

“We put a lot of prayer and a lot of work into here honoring this land—the Creator was showing a lot of appreciation for all we did here.”

—Valentin Lopez, Chairman of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band

It’s not just that the Quiroste Valley would’ve been okay if the fire had reached it—it was ready for it. The Amah Mutsun Tribal community had prepared the valley to burn, not by wildfire, but through prescribed and cultural burns. Fire, the tribal members understand, is one of the best tools to prevent uncontrolled blazes like the one that devastated Big Basin.

“If it had made it into here,” said California State Parks District Superintendent Chris Spohrer, “because of the work that’s been done, it would’ve been a less intense burn, and we could have seen a different fire effect.”

From left to right: Chairman Valentin Lopez, Micheal Grone – California Department of Parks and Recreation Santa Cruz District, and Chris Spohrer – California State Parks Santa Cruz District Superintendent, overlooking Quiroste Valley and the burned ridges that surround it.

The Amah Mutsun Tribal Band is working together with California officials to change views about cultural and prescribed burns as beneficial land management tools. Quiroste Valley serves as a model for literally fighting fire with fire—and the powerful ecological benefits of Indigenous stewardship practices.

The Power of Traditional Fire

As they walked the Quiroste Valley, Spohrer, Chairman Lopez, and other tribal stewards discussed fire and the value of prescribed burns, which lower the amount of highly flammable plant material, like dead leaves, grasses, and trees, that lead to uncontrolled wildfires. But they also discuss another type of fire: cultural burns, which were once common in Native Californian communities over a century ago as a way to manage plants and wildlife and facilitate ecological biodiversity.

“The prescribed fires are basically just to reduce fuel loads, but the cultural burnings, they’re important because they will help provide the food sources for many of our relatives,” Chairman Lopez said. Cultural burns also help connect the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band members to their heritage, from the careful gathering of culturally significant plants to burn, like elderberry and buckeye, to Indigenous land management practices that go back thousands of years. It’s one of several ways the Amah Mutsun are reaffirming their role as stewards of their ancestral lands.

From Left to Right: Esak Ordonez, Chairman Valentin Lopez, and Alexii Sigona describing the benefits of cultural burns and how plants are gathered in Quiroste Valley.

“The prescribed fires are basically just to reduce fuel loads, but the cultural burnings, they’re important because they will help provide the food sources for many of our relatives.”

—Valentin Lopez, Chairman of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band

Such burns were nearly forgotten in California—until now, thanks in part to the devastation of massive wildfires and a new collaborative partnership. California State Parks and the Amah Mutsun partnership is one of three Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs) between California State Parks and the region’s Native American tribes, which are designed in the hopes of creating open discussions around advancing tribal interests and more opportunities for co-stewardship of the land.

View of Año Nuevo and Big Basin State Parks from the ocean—Quiroste Valley lies in between these two parks.

Part of the MOUs plan to return Quiroste Valley to Amah Mutsun stewardship includes making the area a cultural burn site, incorporating more regular burns to bring the ecosystem back to a healthier state—like it was long before the area was a state park. Forest research supports the approach, showing how more regular fire will not only help the park’s old-growth redwoods and the germination process, but also help prevent uncontrollable blazes.

Chairman Lopez, like many among the Amah Mutsun people, finds inspiration for his work from Maria Ascención Solórsano, an early Amah Mutsun tribal woman who was noted for her caregiving, comforting the hungry, sick, homeless, and down and out.

Maria Ascención Solórsano, courtesy of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band.

In 1929, she befriended a man named J.P. Harrington, a historian for the Smithsonian, who realized the tribe needed to record its history, language, and knowledge before it vanished. Chairman Lopez says their tribal traditions continue today because of Solórsano’s work with Harrington, which preserved key aspects of their native culture and coastal plains ecosystem knowledge.

On a recent site visit to Big Basin and the Quiroste, as well as the farmlands below where native seeds are sewn for transplantation, Chairman Lopez and two stewards, Esak Ordonez and Alexii Sigona, shared their thoughts on the partnership with California State Parks and the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, their native culture, and their knowledge of the value of controlled fire.

Their stories in their words continue below.

Esak Ordonez, Steward

Esak Ordonez, Amah Mutsun Tribal Member and Land Tust Steward.

Amah Mutsun tribal member Esak Ordonez is a 22-year-old steward of Quiroste Valley. Ordonez and his tribe members have been stewarding the valley with the goal of restoring the coastal prairie to its original state with native grasses and shrubs.

We’re trying to bring back fire. It has been lost for years. One of the first laws that the Spanish passed was actually to outlaw fire in these areas because they saw wild Indians on the hill burning everything. With the reintroduction of fire, we really hope to address some of these climate change issues that we’ve been facing, especially the drought.

As a steward now, Ordonez understands the learning curve required to think about the land differently. He is also now proud to embrace his native roots.

I really had no background in plants or outdoorsy stuff. I would play a lot of video games as a teenager.

My father had a mother who was Native American. She passed when he was just 14, so unfortunately, he did not connect to his heritage. I was raised mostly Mexican American, so I didn’t have that traditional heritage connection until much later. When I was about 17, my mother reconnected with my uncle Val and got me connected into the stewardship program. Through there, I was exposed to all my cousins who were raised within this heritage. It’s really given me direction in my life.

gallery video poster

It took a lot of learning, but Ordonez is now on the front lines of reintroducing fire to the land in the name of both wildfire mitigation and biodiversity.

We’ve only been on a handful of field burns, but last year, with State Parks, the first one I was on, it was about a 220-acre burn. That was really special to see, see these huge smoke pits. You’re in full fire gear, and you have a drip torch, so you’re walking along for miles on end, just burning fields. It gets really hot. At certain points, you’re surrounded—you can’t see anything but smoke.

Controlled burns mitigate everything. It keeps the cycle nice and fresh. Out with the old, in with the new, and all of that. It’s a lost practice, so reintroducing it is really interesting because we see a lot of need for it now.

Valentin Lopez, Tribal Chairman

Valentin Lopez, Chairman of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band.

As Chairman of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, Lopez has a deep understanding of his community’s connection with the land on which they live and have stewarded for centuries. In 2013, the tribe developed the Amah Mutsun Land Trust to formalize and reaffirm the tribe’s role as protectors and stewards of the lands.

Today, we’re north of our traditional tribal territory in the lands of the Awaswas-speaking people. There are no known Awaswas surviving today. And our tribe is working with other tribes that have been invited to continue the traditional stewardship of these lands and to ensure the Awaswas are never forgotten and that they’re always remembered.

For the Amah Mutsun, fire is an intricate part of their culture, which helps explain why the tribe has historically embraced fire as a means of cultivating healthy ecosystems.

Fire to the Amah Mutsun and to most indigenous tribes is a gift to us from Creator. It was a gift that provides us light when it is dark. It provides us warmth when it’s cold. It allows us a way to cook our foods that our people need. It’s also sacred. Because it’s given to us from Creator.

Fire is an important way of managing landscapes. And our people used fire for thousands and thousands of years. The central coast of California was a coastal prairie. And our people maintained it as a prairie for thousands of years with the use of fire. That way, they would keep the shrubs and the trees from encroaching on that coastal prairie. And that provided the important bio-diverse habitat for insects and for birds and for the four-legged. And it allowed the waters to be clean and the fish to have good passage along the rivers, the creeks, and the streams.

In a very short period of time, 100 years or 150 years, those thousands of years of stewardship by our ancestors, it was wiped out. One of the first things they did was outlaw indigenous burning. And there goes the coastal prairie. The shrubs start moving in, and then the trees, and then that coastal prairie, which was recognized as one of the most bio-diverse landscapes in North America, was lost.

Speaking beneath a towering redwood tree, Chairman Lopez looks up and then goes on to explain the value of cultural burns and their relationship with wildlife, diverse plants, and timing.

The seeds of the California native plants, they’re very hard, and they can last for 150, 200 years in the soil. But whenever fire would come through, it would soften the shell so that the plant could germinate.

  • The year after a fire, you would get a huge increase of seed production. And that was a very important way of managing and taking care of the birds who depended on those seeds for their diet and other seed-eating animals, and even tribes themselves.
  • That second year of growth, you start getting these higher shoots. And those higher shoots were the preferred foods for the deer, the elk, the antelope, and other grazing animals like that.
  • That third year of growth, you start getting bushier plants. And those bushier plants were really important because they provided foods, medicines, and they also provided materials for basketry and for cordage—strings and ropes that we would use for traps, for nets, and for our houses and clothing.
  • The fourth year, you start getting heavier and heavier materials. Those were important for tools. Those were important for clothing, for housing, and other items like that.

So we would burn one segment per year, the next segment, the next year. And after we’d gone through all segments, we’d come back, and we’d start over again with that first segment.

Two years after the CZU Lightning Complex fire, plants—or higher shoots as the Chairman Lopez described—are starting to grow again in the forest.

Chairman Lopez emphasized the importance of using cultural and prescribed burns to reduce the likelihood of destructive fires like the CZU Lightning Complex fire, something tribal peoples have been accomplishing for years.

“If our people were managing and stewarding the land and using fire, those catastrophic fires would’ve never happened.”

—Valentin Lopez, Chairman of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band

We see now with these catastrophic fires that we’ve had in California for a number of years now. If our people were managing and stewarding the land and using fire, those catastrophic fires would’ve never happened.

And this is the knowledge that our ancestors learned over those thousands of years. And this is the knowledge that we’re using when we try to restore, bring back cultural burning.

Alexii Sigona, Steward

Alexii Sigona, Amah Mutsun Tribal Member and Land Trust Steward.

Twenty-four-year-old Sigona didn’t learn of his Amah Mutsun heritage until he was 18. Growing up he knew his family was Ohlone, but no one talked much about their indigenous roots. This was likely due to the historical persecution of Native communities in California that led generations of Indigenous families to fear for their lives. He connected with Chairman Lopez to get more involved with the Tribal Band.

Fire is everything. It’s at the foundation of our life.

When I think of fire, I think about sitting around a talking circle, and just chatting across generations with people, and feeling relaxed and calm. I also think about ceremony because our dancers dance around a fire pit in the middle, and that smoke is basically sending the prayers up to Creator, and the prayers are held by the dancers dancing around that fire, that circle.

Since the Amah Mutsun are not federally recognized, they don’t have any land of their own. Instead, they access land through partnerships like their collaboration with California State Parks, and they grow up native plants for that land via the Amah Mutsun Land Trust plant propagation program.

This is a program that was funded by California state bonds, a $400,000 grant to grow up plants here, native, local native plants that are meant for restoring coastal grasslands. And these are meant to be propagated into a nearby state park preserve, the Quiroste Valley Cultural Preserve.

Although we don’t have a lot of resources available to us, we’ve used our land trust to get our foot in the door to do land restoration—Indigenous stewardship—which has provided a lot of social benefits to our peoples and a lot of ecological benefits to the land.

Alexii Sigona, describing the uses and benefits of tarweed, one of the plants propagated through the Land Trust program.

The Amah Mutsun can attribute much of the preservation of their traditions to Ascención Solórsano. J.P. Harrington spent nearly a year documenting Solórsano’s memory of the Mutsun language, customs, cosmology, medicine, and more.

Amah Mutsun means “the people of Mutsun.” Amah means “the people,” and Mutsun is a language group within the broader Ohlone cultural group.

We have the Mutsun language, and people before me have worked really hard to bring it back. Our last traditional healer and fluent Mutsun speaker passed away in about 1931, her name was Ascension Solórsano. And from [J.P. Harrington’s] field notes, community members today have worked with researchers at UC Davis to restore the language. And so that’s how we’re able to have a dictionary today.

While learning from the past is an important part of their culture, the young tribal stewards are also looking toward the future and connecting with the next generation.

It’s really cool to see little cousins being super proud of their culture and their heritage, and thinking like, oh, this is cool now. You see us, you see Amah Mutsun or California native things in the news now on TV and stuff like that. So there’s more prominence. I’ve talked to younger tribal members before, and they’re like, “Yeah, I tell all my friends about it. I feel so cool when I tell them I’m on Amah Mutsun.”

Parks California seeds and supports partnerships between parks, non-profits and Indigenous communities across California to strengthen parks and inspire all to experience these extraordinary places. Bank of the West is a proud supporter of the Amah Mutsun Land Trust, which is a part of Park California’s statewide grantee network working to advance climate resilience of California’s iconic landscapes.

Arts and CultureRead Next