While one band of the Amah Mutsun tribe might usher in the
development of Sargent Ranch, the other band is holding firm that
the land should not be touched.
While one band of the Amah Mutsun tribe might usher in the development of Sargent Ranch, the other band is holding firm that the land should not be touched.

News broke about a month ago of a development agreement between one part of the tribe, chaired by Irene Zwierlein, and developer and Sargent Ranch owner Wayne Pierce.

In the agreement, the tribal band would receive 3,500 acres of the 6,500-acre ranch. Of that, 500 acres would be reserved by tribal band members for their homes and businesses, as well as open space and a cultural center.

The remaining 3,000 acres would be leased back to Pierce, who has tried unsuccessfully three times to develop the ranch but never got his plans past Santa Clara County supervisors.

Quirina Luna-Costillas, a member of the part of the tribe headed by Valentin Lopez, said the land in and around Sargent Ranch is her tribe’s ancestral grounds, and it holds invaluable cultural meaning.

“That land is precious to us; it’s sacred. There are so many cultural resources there, and anyone with any cultural knowledge would know that,” Luna-Costillas said. “You’re talking 3,500 acres. I mean, that’s really tearing into that land … I would be one of the people standing in front of the bulldozer.”

Luna-Costillas said the tribe has tried unsuccessfully to contact Pierce, partly to tell him Zwierlein does not represent what Luna-Costillas said is the authentic Amah Mutsun tribe.

Internal squabbling has plagued the tribe since 2000, when Zwierlein resigned as tribal council chair and started her own tribal band that applied for federal recognition through the Bureau of Indian Affairs that same year.

The other Amah Mutsun tribe, chaired by Lopez, applied for federal recognition more than a decade ago.

No member of Congress has introduced legislation to grant either part of the tribe federal recognition, which would expedite the process considerably.

The offices of both U.S. Reps. Sam Farr and Zoe Lofgren, whose districts border the ranch, have said the representatives are not commenting on whether they would support legislation for the tribe in the future and will address the issue as it develops.

Rep. Mike Honda has said he supports the tribe’s right to receive federal recognition, but he has no plans to introduce legislation.

Honda’s spokesman Jay Staunton said the congressman could not comment at this point on the implications of only Zwierlein’s band receiving federal recognition.

“We haven’t examined the specific politics of the tribe,” Staunton said.

If Congress members are considering introducing or supporting such legislation, Luna-Costillas said, they should do so responsibly.

“(Members of Congress) have a duty to make sure the tribe they’re supporting is really who they say they are, and that the tribe is united,” she said.

Luna-Costillas also said she supports the idea of an Oct. 27 forum initiated by Gilroy city officials, who are inviting regional leaders to discuss concerns regarding the Sargent Ranch development as well as another Indian project, a casino in the northern tip of San Benito County proposed by the California Valley Miwoks.

“It’s not just a federal matter,” Luna-Costillas said. “Local people can make a difference. They have a right to be heard, and they will be heard if they voice their concerns.”

Luna-Costillas said she has “no idea” who exactly comprises Zwierlein’s tribal band, but should Sargent Ranch be developed, the majority of the true Amah Mutsun people would not benefit from it, Luna-Costillas said.

“Going into anyone’s land is not culturally right. It’s almost insulting,” she said. “And it’s sad that Indians would do that to other Indians. But it all goes back to the same thing: money.”

The part of the tribe headed by Lopez has about 600 official members and 400 “unofficial” members who haven’t filled out their paperwork, Luna-Costillas said. There are about 450 members in Zwierlein’s tribe.

Lisa Carrier, tribal secretary for Lopez’s band, said the tribe’s paramount goal is to be united.

“What’s happening is a disgrace,” Carrier said. “It’s a sensitive issue, because Irene (Zwierlein’s) tribe has some family members of ours in it, and we want them to come home. That land has a lot of spiritual meaning to us.”

Zwierlein disputed claims that she turned her back on the other branch of the Amah Mutsun tribe, and she said her part of the tribe would welcome any Indians who could trace their lineage to San Juan Bautista to live on the tribe’s development on Sargent Ranch.

“When they left the tribe, they were bitter because they told us they were San Juan Bautista Indians, but they could not prove it,” Zwierlein said, referring to Lopez’s tribe. “If they could prove they were San Juan Indians, we’d take them in in a heartbeat. We’d welcome them with open arms.”

Zwierlein said her tribe in no way means to desecrate the pristine open space that environmentalists also have fervently protected. Rather, the tribe would respect the land as much as possible, she said. The parts that would be developed would provide a place for the tribe to live together and also a way to teach and preserve tribal culture – something Zwierlein said she has wanted to do for years.

“It is our homeland,” she said. “That’s why I have been chasing this property for better than 15 years. I found Mr. Pierce. He didn’t even want to meet with me at first. It took a lot of talking and convincing for him to even talk to our tribal council.”

The development plans call for 75 acres of land “dedicated to the environment, with 50 acres reserved to support vegetation and wildlife indigenous to the area.”

Twenty-five more acres will go to paths and campgrounds, and residential units will be surrounded by 75 acres of open space and natural landscaping, the development plans state.

“If you’re a California Indian, all of California is sacred,” Zwierlein said. “The California people who buy the land have a right to develop it … Parts of Sargent Ranch are sacred, and there are environmental issues there. But Indians were the first environmentalists, and we will work the federal laws closely to make sure we pay attention to our environment and the cultural areas of sacredness. We know where they are.”

But Luna-Costillas said such a piecemeal approach to conserving the land is a facade.

“There are sacred spirits living in every part of that land,” she said. “Preserving a tree here or there and cutting everything else down – that’s not preserving the land.”

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A staff member wrote, edited or posted this article, which may include information provided by one or more third parties.


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