Ann Marie Sayers walks by Cottonwood and Sycamore trees, stopping to examine poison oak. She gently cradles the leaves. “They don’t bother me. I have a relationship with them,” she says. And this relationship, Sayers knows, spans millennia. She is right at home in Indian Canyon, the only federally recognized Indian country for over 300 miles from Sonoma to the coast of Santa Barbara. “I was born and raised in the Indian Canyon. My umbilical chord was buried here,” she says.
As a Costanoan Ohlone, Sayers is a rare example of a Native woman who continues to live in her ancestral land. California Indians suffered a brutal history of colonization, diseases and heinous violence and servitude during the Gold Rush and California Missions era. “This is the most exciting time to be alive as a California Indian since contact,” she says. “In 1854 alone, the government spent 1.4 million – $5 a head, 50 cents a scalp for professional Indian killers.” As the population of Natives precipitously shrunk during the Gold Rush, the Canyon served as a safe haven for those who were able to find it after passing through a swamp.
The canyon is a mile long and has lush streams and a cascading waterfall when the rains are plentiful. Sayers used the Allotment Act of 1887 to reclaim land that had been in her family for centuries in the Indian Canyon. “The canyon is alive through the power of ceremonies,” Sayers says. And she has taken to heart the painful history of religious persecution Native Americans endured, when they were prohibited from practicing their traditional spirituality until 1978. “My mother believed that when ceremonies stop, so does the Earth. And I do too. We opened up my great grandfather’s trust allotment for all Indigenous Peoples who need traditional lands for ceremonies.”
The canyon has a large arbor, where storytelling gatherings, cultural dances and ancient chants bring together Indigenous Peoples from around the world. The canyon receives thousands of visitors every year – from the Maoris of New Zealand to the Gwich’in of Alaska. “I can feel my ancestors dancing when there is ceremony,” Sayers says. The canyon is also home to the Costanoan Indian Research, Inc., which has ancient tools and artifacts that were used by Ohlones and ancestors of Sayers.
“It seems the society today is absent of the sacred. Many places that should have remained have been destroyed,” she says. Sayers has devoted her time to honor the legacy of her Ohlone ancestors and their sacred connection to land. Last year, she was involved in organizing efforts, where voters in San Benito County passed a measure to ban fracking.
Sayers remains committed to educating and empowering youth to reconnect their sacred relationship to Earth. “Today, people are shortsighted. When you make a decision, think how this will affect the next seven generations. And we need our youth to start thinking this way.” Last year, Sayers was also instrumental in organizing “Ohlone Elders and Youth Speak: Restoring a California Legacy,” an exhibit that illuminated the history of Ohlones and their efforts for cultural revitalization.
As we walk around the canyon, Sayers shares intimate stories of her family, and the canyon landscape and medicinal plants and trees dotting the property. “The Earth is alive. You can feel the energy. And it’s a reason for living.”
Republished with permission from Indian Country Today Media Network, where it originally appeared on September 30.