Proposed plan for a sand quarry on sacred Native American land in Gilroy sparks a culture clash

GILROY (KPIX) — The battle is heating up over a controversial plan to locate a sand quarry on sacred Native American tribal land in Santa Clara County.

All sides will get a chance to speak out on Thursday. It’s shaping up as a clash between cultures that spans hundreds, if not thousands of years.

Some hills, just off Highway  101 south of Gilroy, contain a large deposit of high-quality sand from a prehistoric lakebed. A company called Sargent Ranch bought the land to extract the material for construction projects in the South Bay.

“A unique sand source to supply a critical need that was identified, that would cause the minimal amount of disruption as possible,” said the company’s managing member, Howard Justus.

Justus said it would benefit the area, both economically and environmentally, to have a local quarry, rather than shipping sand 1,200 miles from Vancouver, Canada, as is the case now. But local conservationists object to the location, saying it is right next to a key migration corridor that wildlife use to safely cross Highway 101. 

The loudest objections are coming from a native tribe that considers the area to be sacred ground.

“This site right here, this is where the principal ceremonies were held at,” said Valentin Lopez, Tribal Chairman of the Amah Mutsun Band. The tribe refers to the area by its historic name, Juristac.  His people were forced from the area 230 years ago to help build the California missions, but they still consider Juristac to be their spiritual home.

“Native Americans have sacrificed and given enough,” said Lopez, “and it’s time to start to protect their culture and their sacred sites.”

Others are stepping up to help. Just last week, neighboring Gilroy became the fourth Bay Area city to come out against the project. The firestorm of protest has prompted Sargent Ranch to alter its plans, proposing relocating some operations farther away to address environmental and tribal concerns.

“We very much want to be part of the process to get some of these issues corrected,” said Justus. “Whether it’s a cultural center on the land, whether it’s some of the land gets set aside for them, we’re open for discussion. We don’t know what the solution is. We’re looking for input from the tribe.”

But there is a huge cultural divide here. Historically, native tribes haven’t considered land as something to be owned.

“We recognize that we have a responsibility to steward and manage these lands, but we do not have ownership,” said Lopez. “But the perspective the owners come in with is, they bought it, they own it, and they can do what they want, including destroying it, exploiting it–just monetizing it and selling it. There’s no sacredness and there’s no culture in what they’re trying to do.”

The tribe is in no mood to compromise, and when the county’s Planning Commission opens it up for public comment Thursday, they are likely to get an earful. No decisions will be made at the public hearing. Those are expected sometime at the end of the year.

The public hearing will be held virtually, beginning at 1:30pm. To join, visit sccgov-org.zoom.us/j/94979514788

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