UC Berkeley researchers team up with Amah Mutsun Tribal Band to uncover ancient tribal practices

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UC Berkeley archaeologists and anthropologists, in conjunction with California State Parks and the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, are conducting a project in the Quiroste Valley in the Santa Cruz Mountains to uncover ancient tribal practices and create better land management techniques.

For 30 years, Mark Hylkema, California State Parks associate state archaeologist, had been aware of the historical significance of the Quiroste Valley land for Native Americans. When Hylkema met UC Berkeley doctoral candidate Chuck Striplen, a member of the Amah Mutsun tribe who brought the interest of reconnecting with the land to his tribe, Hylkema said it was fate.

“We’re looking to restore a lot of the knowledge that has been lost as a result of our history, our tragic history, so we can restore the land practices of our ancestors,” said Valentin Lopez, chair of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band and president of the Amah Mutsun Land Trust Board of Directors.

According to EkOngKar Singh Khalsa, executive director of the Amah Mutsun Land Trust, the use of fire by ancient tribes as a way of managing landscapes is one of the discoveries that the researchers are focusing on.

The researchers, including campus anthropology professor Kent Lightfoot and campus postdoctoral fellow in anthropology Rob Cuthrell, found that ancient tribes would manage overgrown plants and shrubbery through prescribed fires.

“What we’re trying to do is to see how we can implement some of these practices from the past and using some new methods to open up these areas and make them less prone to major fires,” Lightfoot said.

Cattle grazing and housing development have changed the landscape that the tribes once managed, Hylkema said.

To preserve the culture of the tribes, Lopez said the research teams take extreme precaution in selecting digging sites, using technology such as underground radar testing to identify objects beneath the surface.

“The biggest violation of our spirituality is disturbing the remains of our ancestors, so we take extra precautions to never disturb the remains,” Lopez said.

The research is conducted within the Quiroste Valley Cultural Preserve — a specially protected area with specific conditions as to what can occur in it, in order to protect the land.

According to Lightfoot, the research teams are also working on uncovering some ancient tribal practices regarding plants and animals. Lopez said that through the research, hazelnuts have been discovered to have been a crucial part of ancient tribal life.

“No one knows the true history of Californian tribes, and our tribe is working hard to have the truth told of our history, and to restore … the lost indigenous knowledge and have it recognized as an important way to study the sustainability of our environment,” Lopez said.

Contact Phil Zhang and Alyssa Bernardino at [email protected].