Arboretum celebrates partnership with Amah Mutsun tribe

Amah Mutsun Relearning Garden features native plants traditionally used by the tribe

Rick Flores, curator of the California native plant collection at the Arboretum, Valentin Lopez, Amah Mutsun Tribal Chairman, and Brett Hall, Arboretum Director. Photo by T. Stephens.

Since 2009, the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum and members of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band have been working together on a community-centered learning project that highlights native plants traditionally used by the Mutsun people. A reception to celebrate this partnership, sponsored by the Office of the Chancellor, was held at the Arboretum on Friday, October 28.

The Amah Mutsun Relearning Garden is being developed throughout a 50-acre parcel of land dedicated to the California Native Gardens, which the Arboretum began work on in the late 1970s. The Relearning Garden is envisioned as a place where traditional plant-gathering and tending can coexist with educational and interpretive programs. 

"This project grew out of a shared desire to reconnect and restore the land," said Arboretum director Brett Hall.

The Amah Mutsun are the descendants of tribal groups that lived in the Monterey Bay region and were associated with the Missions San Juan Bautista and Santa Cruz starting in the late 18th century. Spanish settlers called them "Ohlone" or "Costanoan," but tribal members have always referred to themselves as Mutsun or Amah Mutsun.

Rick Flores, curator of the California native plant collection at the Arboretum, said the tribe works closely with the Arboretum and has provided him with a list of about 100 culturally important plants for the garden. So far, the project has collected about half of the plants and has been planting them in locations that correspond to the habitats where they naturally grow.

"The Relearning Garden will actually be spread out over a large area that encompasses different habitat types so we can place the plants within the native plant communities that we're establishing there," Flores said. "We also plan to incorporate the traditional land management practices that the Mutsun people used. The end goal is for the tribe to be able to come and use the plant materials for traditional medicines, basketry, and other traditional uses."

The UCSC American Indian Resource Center, which has a longstanding relationship with the Amah Mutsun, has helped the Arboretum build its connections with the tribe. The idea for the Amah Mutsun Relearning Garden emerged from discussions with tribal representatives several years ago, under the leadership of former Arboretum director Dan Harder. Arboretum staff then began working with Amah Mutsun tribal chairman Valentin Lopez and other tribal members on plans to include the relearning theme in the California Native Gardens.

"This work is extremely important to our tribe," Lopez said. "We are working to understand the traditional practices of land management and to relearn what our ancestors knew."

The mission period created a break in the cultural history of the Amah Mutsun people. Much of the traditional knowledge that has survived was passed on by Ascencion Solorsano de Cervantes, an herbal healer and the last fluent speaker of the Mutsun language. J. P. Harrington, a linguist from the Smithsonian Institution, interviewed Solorsano for four months prior to her death in 1930 and took detailed notes. Harrington recorded not only Solorsano's language but also her cultural knowledge, including information about plants and their medicinal uses.

"The list of plants for the Relearning Garden comes from Harrington's notes from his interviews with Ascencion Solarsano," Flores said.

Artist Claudia Stevens, a graduate of the UCSC science illustration program, is creating botanical illustrations of plants in the garden with support from the Creative Work Fund. About a dozen of her meticulous paintings were on display at the reception and are reproduced in a new interpretive pamphlet about the garden written by ethnobotanist Sara Reid, a former Arboretum staff member. The pamphlet is available on the Arboretum web site (download pdf).

In addition to the Relearning Garden, the Arboretum is working with the Amah Mutsun in collaboration with the National Park Service on a habitat restoration project in an area of Pinnacles National Monument where large expanses of native grasses and sedges can still be found. These species are important sources of basket-weaving materials and were traditionally managed to improve the quality of the materials. The Pinnacles project aims to understand traditional management processes and study their use in the restoration and preservation of these botanically and culturally significant grasslands.

Initial funding for the Amah Mutsun Relearning Garden was provided by a grant from the Christensen Fund of San Francisco. In 2010, a group of UCSC students formed a student council for the garden that is helping to raise additional funds for the project.