By Valentin Lopez
For our tribe, the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, Betabel is much, much more than a vacant lot conveniently located by a Highway 101 offramp. Positioned at the confluence of the San Benito and Pajaro Rivers, where earthquake faults also meet, the Betabel area is a place of power where, for countless generations, our people came together for healing and renewal.
Betabel is a cornerstone of the complex of interconnected sacred sites that we know as Juristac. It is no coincidence that our tribe’s most revered spiritual doctors chose to live in the Betabel area, including the historic village of Isleta. On these river benches surrounding the confluence, our ancestors held healing dances and ceremonies. Many of our tribe’s stories and legends tie back to the Betabel area.
The current Betabel property owners are proposing to develop tourist-oriented commercial facilities including a gas station, restaurant, convenience store and visitor center. The owners have never reached out to our tribe in any way. They have, however, made numerous false public statements that the land at Betabel is not sacred, even going so far as to publicly misrepresent an anthropology professor to reinforce these claims. This is offensive to our tribe.
Betabel is not an appropriate location for a gas station or convenience store. It is a sacred site, rich in Mutsun history. It is a place our members go to pray and remember their ancestors. It is a beautiful place that our youth need to be able to come to, to learn what it is to be Amah Mutsun.
In 2013, Amah Mutsun Tribal Band representatives met with the San Benito County Planning Department as they began work on updating the General Plan. At that time, we submitted information identifying Betabel and Isleta as culturally sensitive areas of great significance to the tribe. The county is responsible for communicating this information to developers early on in their application process.
We appreciate that the current property owner cleaned up a section of the property that contained junk cars and derelict buildings. However, that does not give them license to further impact the land with new development. Dumping on our sacred lands was wrong, and new commercial development at the site would be equally wrong. The deep soil excavation required for fuel storage tanks and building foundations would disrupt the integrity of the land and risk disturbing subsurface cultural resources.
Our tribe respects the McDowell family’s intention to help fund cancer research, and we are very sympathetic to the desire of the family to honor the late Errol McDowell and create a legacy in his name. However, we cannot agree to the desecration of another one of our sacred sites. Our tribe has suffered greatly through three brutal periods of colonization and the vast majority of our cultural and spiritual sites have been desecrated. The proposed development would come at too great a cost to our tribe.
Although we have been on these lands for thousands of years, our tribe owns no land today within our territory. Existing state and federal laws don’t begin to do enough to protect our cultural heritage or provide for the practice of our traditional spirituality, which requires access to our sacred sites.
We are asking the people of San Benito County to recognize the significance of Betabel and Juristac to our tribe. Our vision is to restore prayer, ceremony, native plants and traditional stewardship to these lands, working with the local community to share our culture and history.
Valentin Lopez is Chairman of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band.