Ohlone descendent Ann Marie Sayers opens up about ‘The Knoll’
A winding road meanders through dust-covered vineyards just before it rises into Indian Canyon, an oak-covered ravine tucked quietly into the Gavilan Mountains south of Hollister. It was here that many Ohlone resisters once ran to hide from the Spanish colonizers of San Juan Bautista and Mission San Jose.
Today, the mile-long stretch of this majestic ravine, the center of which is a trickling creek, an ancient Ohlone village and numerous ceremonial sites, is the place Ann Marie Sayers calls home.
Sayers is an Ohlone descendant who has been designated as the cultural advisor of the current housing development being constructed on “The Knoll,” a sacred Ohlone ceremonial site near Branciforte Creek in Santa Cruz, where the remains of a young native women were recently discovered. I visit Sayers at her home to learn her perspective on the debate concerning the knoll and, more specifically, about the Ohlone concept of sacredness.
As I approach her home, I think of the 200-year-old words of Spanish missionary Father Felipe Arroyo de la Cuesta when he spoke of the Ohlone people as “neophytes … scarcely [aware of] any idea of the soul. … astray in the mountains … [possessing] a history of ridiculous fables … and foolish customs,” and about his pride in the missions having “collected them together” and of having taught them all about “hell, purgatory, heaven, and all the fundamentals of the holy Faith and Christian religion.”
Despite the fact that the Spanish colonists, the mission system, the Europeans, and the diseases that accompanied them reduced the Ohlone people to a micro-fraction of their former numbers—there are no known full-blooded Ohlone people left but an estimated 5,000 remaining descedants-—the totem pole, sweat lodges, nature, and ceremonial spaces surrounding me make it evident that this canyon is still an Ohlone stronghold.
Sayers, her brother Christopher Sayers, and her daughter, Kanyon Sayers-Roods, are the last remaining decedents of the Indian Canyon Ohlone Tribe. Sayers, who is the fourth generation of her family to be born and raised in Indian Canyon, has spent the majority of her life transforming it into a protected indigenous sanctuary. She spent eight years alone fighting with the federal government to secure the land, which she now holds in trust, and another two years fighting a corporation that attempted to dam the creek that runs through it.
Today, Indian Canyon is the only federally recognized “Indian Country” in the Ohlone territory that stretches along the California coast from San Francisco to Big Sur. It is home to nearly 40 different ceremonial sites, a round house and sweat lodges that are available for use by Native Americans in need of traditional lands for their ceremonies—which is significant, Sayers says, because 50 percent of California Natives are not federally recognized as indigenous and have no land rights.
What has brought me to Sayers today, however, is her role as a leading figure in the fight to save The Knoll in Santa Cruz, and, more pointedly, my interest in the less discussed fact that the debate over developing or protecting The Knoll is really part of a centuries-old battle between two fundamentally different ways of understanding and comprehending the meaning and purpose of life. It is a battle currently taking place in multiple locations across the United States.
The motive that drives the development of The Knoll (to build residential units and profit from them) can be traced to the primitive accumulation of capital, of which Spanish colonization of the Americas and the dogmatic words and actions of individuals such as Arroyo de la Cuesta were a part. The current superstructure of society—the political and legal systems that maintain such an ideology—are built upon the economic base of capitalism and its particular way of viewing land, people and resources only as commodities and components of the market. Its function, then, in cases such as The Knoll, is to mitigate opposing views only so far as it can quell them, and then continue to reproduce itself.
Such small victories, however, Sayers says are a part of the process. “There are always obstacles, people that cannot understand how another culture thinks, but just to have someone have an open mind and begin to look at a situation through a different lens is a start,” she says, adding that KB Homes, the development company building on The Knoll, could set a precedent in this situation as to how to respect sacred sites.
But what is ultimately necessary, she later argues under the shade of an old-growth tree, is a comprehension of being. “Our society is absent of the sacred,” she tells me. “People really do not know what that means. And until they do, things will be very difficult.”
Pointing toward the water, trees, birds, sounds and light that surround us, Sayers continues: “Sacredness is being in a place and a space in which you are a part of, you are one and inseparable. It is ceremonies through which you become one with your ancestors and the world around you. When you are singing and dancing and praying there is no division, you are a part of.
“We have a word in Mutsun, the native language of the Indian Canyon Ohlone Tribe; ramm-e, it means water. Not just H20, but the riversides, the sound, the movement and the surrounding light. Ramm-e is the blood of the Earth.” Sayers says The Knoll was chosen as a ceremonial site and burial ground because of the nearby convergence of a tributary and Branciforte Creek. “It is the most beautiful place in the area, it was chosen because of ramm-e,” she says.
What she wants, for now, is for the site to be left alone and respected. But ultimately, she says, “I would love to have the dominant society truly understand the presence of the sacred and respect that. There are so many sacred sites on a global basis that are being destroyed, for money. If you have the clarity of sacredness and you have balance, both can work together in a manner that does honor to one another. The way our society is structured there is a great need to respect and honor our mother.”
I part ways with Sayers and leave Indian Canyon and I find myself reflecting on the events that marked the modern epoch of capitalism and, again, on the words of Arroyo de la Cuesta. I also think of the mounting evidence signifying another coming epochal change, most having to do with the finite resources of the earth.
These words, from famed anarchist Emma Goldman—once considered the most dangerous woman in America—then enter my mind: “The ultimate success of a truth depends not on the many, but on the perseverance and earnestness of the few.”
Photo caption: The guardian Ann Marie Sayers is one of three remaining descendants of the Indian Canyon Ohlone Tribe, and the appointed cultural advisor for the building project near Branciforte Creek in Santa Cruz. Photo credit: Kena Parker