Relearning, Restorying and Planting Seeds: A Conversation with Carolyn Rodriguez

Roots & Routes IC
6 min readSep 27, 2021

As the Youth Visionary Collective (YVC) 2021 Summer season comes to an end, we gathered to (re)learn from one last informative Roots & Routes guest speaker. On Sept 12th, 2021, Carolyn Rodriguez, an Amah Mutsun Tribal Band member and PhD student at the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, joined our call.

The YVC members met with Carolyn Rodriguez to wrap up the summer 2021 season.

Carolyn shared with us her experiences as an Amah Mutsun Tribal Band Member and of her work and research within education. She briefly covered the history of the Amah Mutsun tribe and how they were forced out of their traditional territory that stretches between Santa Cruz and San Mateo counties in California. She also explained how their cultural knowledges and practices were taken away and how, as they reclaim their identities and lands today, they are having to relearn them, which has consequences not just for the Amah Mutsun people, but for everyone. Carolyn’s talk was inspirational, eye-opening, and important for us all.

Carolyn began by explaining to us how the Amah Mutsun tribal history can be understood as having four historical periods. The first was before the Spanish arrived in California. She explained that there were many different villages of people that spoke Mutsun. Mutsun is the language, and Amah means people, so Amah Mutsun means the people who speak Mutsun, Carolyn clarified. In these villages people traded, lived together and helped each other to survive. Back then the Amah Mutsun lived on their ancestral lands and were able to uphold traditional practices of taking care of the land that include culturally prescribed burning in places like the Quiroste valley, north of Santa Cruz, California.

Juristac, at the heart of Amah Mutsun land and subject to an extractive sand and gravel mining project. Support the petition against it here: Source: Amah Mutsun Land Trust

The second period, when the Spanish made contact with the Amah Mutsun, they were enslaved within the missions. Instead of stewarding the land, water, and caring for all living beings, those who survived were forced into catholicism, and put into forced labour. They worked for the economic benefits of the colonizers in ways that went against their original teachings. This was a part of a genocidal and ethnocidal process as the Amah Mutsun people were tortured, unable to speak their language, and prohibited from practicing their cultural and spiritual ways.

Then began what Carolyn calls the Mexican era. During this time the missions were sacralised and the California Natives were allowed to leave. With lands now under the control of the Mexican state, many had nowhere to go with no government support. Subsequently, they stayed on the ranches where they worked in a form of indentured servitude.

The fourth period began with the Gold Rush. In 1850 California became a state and California law enforced extermination, waging war on all Indigenous peoples. Some Amah Mutsun survived by pretending to be Mexican and assimilating into their society.

Watch Reel with Carolyn here

Carolyn draws parallels between these historical events and the natural disasters we see today, such as the forest fires in California. California Natives stewarded their landscapes with fire but over one hundred years ago Native peoples across California were prohibited to use fire. As they were pulled away from their lands and put into the missions, the land management including cultural burnings stopped and their knowledge was suppressed. Undergrowth accumulated, as did the landscapes’ need for regeneration. There was no longer anyone to regularly manage the land to make sure the fires were not spiralling out of control. This has resulted in today’s tragedy sweeping across the state — the California wildfires.

Now, the Amah Mutsun are relearning and reclaiming their traditions, connecting with others to fight climate change, and supporting the lands and waters. Carolyn explains that Indigenous peoples have held onto these cultural burnings throughout history. For them, it is a ceremony, it is a time for gathering and blessings when they give thanks to all the plants, animals, and to Mother Earth and Creator. She believes that they will get back to their cultural burnings but for Carolyn the challenge is to be included in the state-level conversations about how to mitigate California wildfires, and that Indigenous science be taken seriously as a way to do so.

Watch Reel with Carolyn here

The Amah Mutsun Tribal Band is not federally recognised. Thus, they do not receive any land or funding from the U.S. government so they established a 501c3 non-profit organization called the Amah Mutsun Land Trust (AMLT). However, the state of California does recognize the tribe and efforts of the AMLT, so they have started to establish partnerships within the state, and especially with State Parks and other conservation organizations. These partnerships allow for their tribal members relearning about the importance of places like Quiroste Valley and traditional methods of stewardship through collaborations with archeologists at University of California, Berkeley.

AMLT now has ten full-time land stewards which work on the land by cutting down dead trees and clearing out invasive plants allowing native plants to flourish. Not only are the stewards learning about Indigenous traditions and practices, they also incorporate contemporary practices such as firefighting, and setting new paths forward by collaborative Indigenous and occidental scientific methodologies (ways of knowing and doing).

Traditional Amah Mutsun territory in the spring time. Image source: Amah Mutsun Land Trust. Design by R&R.

Carolyn chose to pursue her doctorate to take part in such collaborative research. Her goal within the academy is to make sure Indigenous knowledges and histories are taken seriously. Early in her career, Rodriguez noticed how enrollment in higher education for Indigenous students was less than 1%, and there were also very few Indigenous faculty members. She wanted to change this trajectory in institutions of higher education and for the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band.

Therefore, Carolyn decided to get more youth involved in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) and marine science. These fields are predominantly white, and by enrolling more Indigenous youth into these programs they can navigate these spaces, whilst also bringing in Indigenous cultural and land-based sciences.

For example, Carolyn is involved in research about watersheds. The scientific investigation examines the stream and the living world around it and in it, like the salmon who are kin and culturally significant to the Amah Mutsun people. This research combines conventional natural science research with Indigenous practices and goals, thus enacting Indigenous sovereignty for revitalizing and validating their knowledges and traditions.

Publishing in academic journals too has its benefits. It helps to make official Indigenous knowledges and practices. Their work, now included in the scientific realm, can then be read and cited by other Indigenous scientists, as well as by non-native scientists and policy-makers. With everyone having a greater understanding of why Indigenous sovereignty matters, the probability of collectively taking care of all living beings grows.

A watershed in Juristac, sacred Amah Mutsun lands, which they are actively defending from sand and gravel mining interests. Image source: Amah Mutsun Land Trust. Design by R&R.

Carolyn concluded by sharing with us that the Amah Mutsun are the seed-bearers of intergenerational knowledge passed down from the elders. As she grew up and began to fully learn about her Amah Mutsun culture during her junior year in highschool, she wants the Amah Mutsun youth to be able to experience the culture and to learn more about their identity from a young age. Carolyn said that her work is just planting seeds, and hoping that things will grow in the future.



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