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Amah Mutsun Exhibit
Amah Mutsun Mural.png

The Amah-Mutsun Tribal Band is a congregation of descendants of native Americans that have lived along the coast and in coastal valleys such as ours for at least 10,000 years.  This exhibit, located in the Morgan Hill Museum, tells their story from creation to present day. 

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During the Pre-Contact time period (the time before the native groups first encountered the Spanish), the Mutsun speaking people had 20-30 villages of 100-400 people across the Pajaro River Basin and surrounding area. Collectively these tribelets called themselves the Ummaaya. Each tribelet controlled one watershed with the geographical ridges between them becoming the boundaries between villages. Each tribe managed the resources in its area: fish from tribes which lived by the sea, nuts and acorns from tribes which lived where these resources grew, furs and skins from tribes which hunted animals in their natural habitat. Territorial boundaries were respected by all the bands. People were careful not to trespass on one another’s territories. Some bands granted their neighbors permission to hunt animals or gather foods and materials from their territories. At certain times of the year, some members of each band left their village and moved to different parts of their territories to find food and natural resources. They set up temporary camps in their traditional hunting, fishing, and gathering spots.

First Contact

The Spanish colonization of California was accomplished by the establishment of missions and military (presidios) outposts. The first mission was Mission San Diego de Alcala in 1769. The Spanish sent two parties to Monterey: Portola led the inland party, while Father Junipero Serra’s traveled by sea. First contact between the Spanish and the Amah Mutsun occurred in October, 1769, in the area separating the Pajaro and Salinas Rivers. It was at this location that about 500 people representing many of the tribelets had come together for the Condor Ceremony. The Ummaaya believed that when Mars, represented by the Condor, disappeared into the Sun during its two-year orbital cycle, the dead come back to life. Those who wanted to talk to the dead did so at the Condor Ceremony. 
We have scientific proof that in October 1769 Mars orbit took it behind the sun. When Portola’s party arrived at this area, they encountered “hysterical” Ummaaya women who started crying and scratching their faces upon seeing the Spanish. The women thought the Spanish were messengers of the dead, so their “hysteria” was actually a sign of respect. The Spanish, unable to communicate with the Ummaaya, shot arrows into the ground to show they were not going to fight and gave them trinkets for friendship. The women left the site, returning a short while later with tamales for the Spanish, who were hungry. Meanwhile, the rest of the Ummaaya burnt the ceremony site before fleeing, so the intruders wouldn’t contaminate the site.


Rather than friendship, the Spanish captured the Ummaaya, destroyed their villages and holy places, and forcibly converted them to Christianity. They brought in Spanish artisans to teach the Ummaaya how to build, so the latter became slave labor for the construction of the missions, ranchos, adobe houses, and other structures, including their own homes. The Ummaaya of the present day Morgan Hill and Gilroy area were taken to four different missions. The numbers of baptisms were recorded at each mission where they were given a Christian name and required to stay within control of the Spaniards at all times. Because of disease and genocide the indigenous peoples population decreased by about 40%.

Mexican Rancho Period (1834-1848)

After Mexico won independence from Spain, the Mexican population increased. The government abolished the Mission system. Most Native Americans were not allowed to leave and their ancestral territories were given away to settlers in the form of land grants. The priests sent the neophytes to the ranchos to serve as laborers. That meant that the Native Americans became slaves of a new master, the Dons of the rancheros. Native plants were removed, changing the natural landscape to increase grazing for the cattle. Disease such as smallpox and diphtheria killed half the remaining Native American population.

Early American Period (1848-1900)

Initially the soldiers of the American conquerors of 1846 treated the Amah with respect and dignity. However, the beginning of the Gold Rush caused a surge of immigration leading to the enslavement, loss of homes and land grants held by the Native peoples. The Federal government attempted to establish reservations for the Native Americans, signing treaties between their representatives and 18 different tribes. However, they were never ratified, but rather were classified secret and sealed in a vault in Washington DC. The state of California, under Governor Peter Burnett, signed an extermination order, offering bounties for Native scalps. The Amah escaped into the hills avoiding the “whites.” Their children were raised to deny their heritage and claim they were Mexican, losing their customs and suffering historic trauma. In the late 1800s there was a movement to give Indians land grants, however a dishonest agent had these lands in his control within a year of receipt.

Ascension Era

Re-emergence of the Amah Mutsun tribe was due to the tribal leadership of Ascencion Solarsano de Cervantes. She was the last keeper of the oral history, both culturally and linguistically, as she was the last fluent speaker of Mutsun. Her first language was Mutsun. Both of her parents spoke Mutsun at home. Early in her life she suffered a near death experience giving her powers to heal. Her home in Gilroy became a meeting place for news and tribal lore, sharing, job finding, and nursing of the sick and dying. She shared her knowledge with J. P. Harrington, a renowned Smithsonian ethnologist who wrote what is known as the San Juan Report. It is considered the second most extensive documentation of any one tribe’s cultural and linguistic history at the Smithsonian.

The Matsun Today

Up to the 1930s the Federal Indian Agency visited the tribe several times. The tribe was then known as the San Juan Band. The tribal members under the leadership of Ascencion’s daughter, Maria Mondragon, were enrolled as “Indian” on 1928-30 period Census Rolls. However, a report in the 1930s* by “first name” “last name” said they were well taken care of by the Catholic Church so the tribe people received no land. Thus recognition of the tribe stopped. In 1947 litigation was begun to pursue federal compensation for 1850 treaty promises as part of a Monterey Bay Indian alliance. The tribe has a constitutional government and has asked the Federal Government to restore its federal recognition. Currently, it is the second tribe on the list for consideration. Without federal recognition, tribal members can’t receive Bureau of Indian Affairs assistance, protect their ancestral burial sites, or participate in programs to help their people rise out of poverty.

Collaboration between the Amah Mutsun Tribe and various government entities centers around traditional tribal values, tribal language, land conservation, and respect for Mother Earth. The National Park Service has awarded the Amah Mutsun Tribe the Hartzog Award for two innovative habitat restoration research projects. The tribe and its leaders are actively participating in many meaningful projects within their community and reaching out to other communities.



The exhibit was developed in conjunction with the Amah Mutsun Tribe, Tribal Council Chair, Val Lopez and Tribal Historian, Ed Ketchum, and the Exhibit Committee Chais: Jennifer Tate, Margaret Rodrigues.  The following website from the National Archives provides some insight into the Indian Census Rolls and how the Indian names were recorded:

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