Mount Umunhum, the third largest peak in the Bay Area, has long been sacred to the Amah Mutsun tribe. Its peak is central to their origin story. And for many years, the tribe would form a ceremonial circle there and stomp their feet as hard as they could so that creator would hear.
In the 1950s, the US Air Force purchased the top of the mountain, terraced it, and built an early warning radar station that included some 80 structures, such as a swimming pool and bowling alley. From the late 1950s up unti 1980, when the base closed, the station was off-limits to the tribe and all other visitors. Then in 1986, the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District (Midpen) purchased the land with the goal of restoring the landscape as a spiritual home for the Amah Mutsun.
After spending millions to remove asbestos, machinery oils, and lead paint from the site — and taking down all structures save the radar tower — Midpen reached out to landscape architecture and environmental planning firm Restoration Design Group (RDG) to make this spiritual place both physically and culturally accessible. Over seven years, RDG landscape architects Bob Birkeland, ASLA, Peter Rohan, ASLA, and planner Rich Walkling collaborated with the Amah Mutsun tribe to realize their shared vision. A new Mount Umunhum opened in late 2017 after many years and a $14 million investment.
In a phone interview, Walkling said RDG organized a half-day design charrette with the tribe to plan and design the spiritual revitalization. The tribe not only guided the placement and size of the ceremonial circle, but also its connections to the greater world and its materials.
“They needed to know where the four cardinal directions were, so we put in gaps in the seat walls” to indicate north, south, east, west. The tribe needed to enter the circle from the east, so the access trail to the space was set on the east side. And because the tribe stomps on the ground with their bare feet, the base of the circle was formed of a softer natural substrate.
Beyond bringing the circle back to the peak, RDG also started the process of ecological restoration of the multi-acre peak landscape, which is found within a “coastal influence zone.” Walkling said this has been tricky because “there are not a lot of reference conditions; it’s now much different from its natural state.” RDG worked with a botanist to create multiple restoration patches to see which plants would survive in a place that “receives up to nine inches of rain in a day, 100-mile-an-hour winds, snow, fog, and pounding sun.”
Walkling said the whole process “was very rewarding for the tribe — it’s a process of healing for them.” But perhaps with one caveat: the radar tower, which some groups fought hard to preserve, remains a potent reminder of the place’s military history as well.
Still, after being scattered for so long, the tribe has now been able to “reconstitute, re-ground itself” in its restored home.
In the wonderful video at top, tribal chairman Valentin Lopez explains why it’s so important to restore the greater ecosystem of the peak landscape. “We must heal mother earth — people, plants, wildlife, rivers, fog, rocks, the shadows. They are all alive. There is a responsibility to take care of them all.”
And he has an important message for other communities seeking reconciliation with the past: “Every inch of land was once indigenous land. Get to know whose land you are on. Say a prayer for them. Get to know them.”