Bay Area residents outraged by controversial, ‘ugly’ development that would disturb Native American burial sites

Gilroy, Calif., the town just four miles away from the proposed project site. 

Gilroy, Calif., the town just four miles away from the proposed project site. 

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A proposed sand and gravel mine at Sargent Ranch, a sprawling 6,200-acre plot of land in Santa Clara County, is causing a firestorm in the South Bay after the release of the project’s draft Environmental Impact Report revealed it could significantly damage sacred Native American burial sites and historic artifacts. In a contentious public meeting on Aug. 25, nearly 100 people protested the mine — which would extract mineral for 30 years on a 300-acre site — saying it would “erase” and “destroy” indigenous history.

The project site, which has been dubbed a “magnet for real estate developers, a Holy Grail to nature conservationists and ‘most sacred grounds’ to a local Native American tribe’” by the Morgan Hill Times, has been mired in controversy for years. In 2016, it was reported that developer Wayne Pierce once envisioned building casinos, golf courses and thousands of suburban homes on the massive swath of land. The Silicon Valley Business Journal said Pierce was met with intense pushback and his audacious plans never materialized. Now, stakeholders are returning with yet another development that’s outraged local communities.

According to the EIR, driving trucks in the area during construction and building the project’s proposed bridges would erode the soil, “significantly” disturbing burial sites and artifacts. “The project would cause a substantial adverse change in the significance of known historical or archaeological resources,” it says, plus could rob Amah Mutsun – or Ohlone tribes – of land, damage archeological sites, and reduce habitat, further putting indigenous tradition in jeopardy.

“Our tribe went through three periods of brutal colonization,” Valentin Lopez, Amah Mutsun tribal chairman, said during the Aug. 25 public meeting.  

“To mine the site would be to permanently destroy it and continue the long and ugly history of the nation and the state of California – a history of attempted genocide,” said Tedde Simon, an advocate for the Racial & Economic Justice Program at the ACLU of Northern California.

“Proposing to destroy it is much like proposing to destroy Jerusalem or Mecca,” added Pria Graves. “No amount of restoration can rehabilitate the cultural and spiritual aspects of this landscape.”  

Kim Guptill continued, “It's completely ridiculous that we're even talking about it … we live here because of genocide of indigenous people.”  

Toward the end of the 18th century, Spanish colonizers traveling through Santa Clara County encountered flourishing Native communities near the Sargent Ranch area, according to an ethnographic study in the project’s EIR. Subsequently, the Uñijaimas, the Ausaimas and Mutsun tribes were forced into missions where they endured death, disease and dangerously unsanitary conditions. By 1800, 275 Mutsun had been enslaved and baptized at these missions. Thirty-two years later, the population dwindled from 10,000 to less than 2,000, and Ohlone traditions were nearly erased by their European oppressors.  

Today, the document says that Ohlone tribes continue to practice ancient traditions that are relevant to the quarry project area. And there’s still historic remnants of pre-Mission life: At the northern end of the site, there are at least six human burials and evidence of tools and ornament production – indicating that it was once a sacred, ceremonial site for the Ohlone. Near the project entrance, animal remains and stone tools were also discovered. 

If approved, the project could damage ancestral trails associated with tribal leaders, deities and spirits, ceremonial areas used for healing and harvesting, and sacred live oak trees, among many other features of historic, cultural and spiritual value, the document says. Further, the site could also contain ceremonial plants and artifacts that would provide more data on the Ohlone tribe’s legacy.

“We have taken this land by force from the indigenous people, and we owe them profound reparations,” said Aleksandra Wolska.

Roma Dawson agreed. “When are we going to show respect to Native American tribal culture?” 

Sargent Ranch representatives did not respond to SFGATE’s request for comment before publication.