Vimeo/Courtesy Bay Area Open Space Council
Path up sacred Mount Umunhum, traditional lands of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band and other Indigenous Peoples of California, taken from the documentary 'Here and Now.'

Amah Mutsun Band Returns to Mount Umunhum, Sacred Site of Their Creation

Nanette Deetz

The road leading to the sacred site named Mt. Umunhum (hummingbird) by the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band of Northern California is shaded by oak. Varied patterns of sunlight lead the way, as a hawk circles above and a small doe appears beside the road. Orange poppies and purple lichen line the road.

For an instant, time stands still, while decades reverse direction. From the summit, 3,486 feet above sea level, it is clear why this mountain is revered by the Amah Mutsun as well as other Ohlone nations. It is the fourth-highest peak in the San Francisco Bay area, and a sacred place of vision for the ancestors of the Amah Mutsun people.

"Mt. Umunhum is the site of the Amah Mutsun's creation story, which occurred over 15,000 years ago,” Amah Mutsun Tribal Chairman Valentin Lopez told a group of visitors recently. “Mount Umunhum is sacred ground to all Ohlone people. The Creator specifically selected our people to live on these lands and to care for all living things. For over 800 generations our ancestors cared for our four-legged, finned, winged and plant relatives.”

Thanks to a $1 million grant and a partnership between conservation agencies and the Amah Mutsun tribe of California, these trails have been restored and opened up to the public as part teaching tool, part ceremonial site. The reclamation and restoration of this sacred site was a historic event for the Mutsun, Muwekma and Essalen tribes in the area.

“Because of the tragic history of our tribe, our voice has often been forgotten, ignored or erased,” Lopez, president of the Amah Mutsun Land Trust Board of Directors, told a group of journalists recently. “It is now time to recognize Mt. Umunhum as one of the most sacred sites in the San Francisco Bay area.”

Mt. Umunhum is within the Sierra Azul Open Space Preserve and encompasses 13,442 acres. Lopez brought the media to the top of Mount Umunhum and presented them with the plans for completion of the area by staff of the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District, the conservation group that spearheaded the initiative. The visitors also were treated to a presentation given by archaeologist and anthropologist Mark Hylkema on early Ohlone tools, including churt arrowheads for hunting gathered from Mt. Umunhum, soaproot brushes and local cinnebar mined at Mt. Umunhum and highly prized and traded to tribes in the north.

The Amah Mutsun Land Trust has been working with the district since 2011, when the organization reached out to the tribal band for consultation on the project. The Amah Mutsun requested that a ceremonial place be designated that allowed for prayers to be held in the traditional manner.

In 2012 the Open Space District invited tribal members to visit Mt. Umunhum. It was the first time the Amah Mutsun had been able to access their sacred place of creation in more than 200 years. They held a ceremony that included other California tribal members who also consider Mt. Umunhum sacred, and all prayed together to the four directions.

In 2013, the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District received a $1 million Coastal Conservancy grant for Mt. Umunhum. The Regional Open Space District worked from 2014 to 2016 on completing the trail and designing the summit area. The tribe worked closely with Nicole Heller, director of conservation and a research associate for the Amah Mutsun. The main goal of the project is to restore Mt. Umunhum to its natural state, a process that involves a focus on the relationship between the cultural and natural environment, Heller noted. That meant establishing a real and vital relationship with tribal people, tribal culture and an understanding that indigenous knowledge is scientific.

“We need the spiritual and ecological balance that indigenous knowledge provides in order to guide this restoration, and allow the land to express itself,” said Heller.

Midpeninsula Regional Open Space is also working with Ken Hickman, a local naturalist and wildlife researcher who specializes in surveys and studies using high-quality camera traps. He plans on bringing back plants and animals indigenous to Mt. Umunhum, such as the bobcat, bald eagles, Cooper’s hawk, and plants such as foothill and grey pine. He also plans to expand the range of the big berry manzanita, among many other plants and animals.

"It is our prayer that this historic opening of Mt. Umunhum will allow our tribal people access to our most sacred site, and give all people who visit a new understanding about the relationship between native people and the land we traditionally occupied for centuries,” Lopez said as he began a prayer song to the four directions in the Mutsun language. “We have secured sacred Mt. Umunhum for generations to come, and can now restore balance and continue healing for our tribal people.”

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