Embracing all facets of our history can lead to better understanding

Moments in Time by Jan Siegel
Moments in Time by Jan Siegel

By Jan Siegel

More and more California cities are opting to celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day rather than Columbus Day. The state is also reducing the amount of curriculum time being given to Mission history. How are we going to explain our current culture if we cannot discuss our past?

For thousands of years, before Western culture came to California, the native cultures survived. California was home to hundreds of small groups of native people. According to the Handbook of North America Indians, published by the Smithsonian Institution in 1978, “these groups spoke many different languages, perhaps as many as 90 languages with more than 300 dialects.” They did not have a written language. The history of these groups was passed down with the oral tradition of storytelling.

One group was the Juaneños, a name attributed to them by the Missionaries. Before that time they were known as the Acjachemen, or just the people. Father Geronimo Boscana was an early Franciscan missionary assigned to San Juan Capistrano. Although he had little regard for the culture of the native people, he meticulously recorded their lifestyle, customs and beliefs. It is his writing that gives us a glimpse into the life of the Juaneños before the Missionaries came. They were hunters and gatherers. They worshipped a supreme being and had rules for “governing, courtship, marriage, food distribution and warfare.”

In Pamela Gibson’s “Two Hundred Years in San Juan Capistrano,” the story of how the Capistrano Valley was settled is recalled. “In a village north of Capistrano dwelled a chief called Oyaison and his wife Sirorum. After the death of his wife, the chief and his daughter, Korone, and their people went south to Niwiti, not far from San Juan Capistrano. The settlements were established. One night Korone, who was exceedingly fat, swelled so much that she turned into a small hill which remains today, according to the legend. The place was called Putuidem.” Putuidem became the largest of the villages in the area, but there were others.

Each village was separate and each village owned a certain area, with individuals and families owning places within the village area. Village boundaries were marked and protected. Permission had to be given before people from one village could walk across the land belonging to another village. The leadership of each village was handed down from father to son.

Food was abundant in the form of deer, rabbits, quail, doves, ducks, and birds and other local wildlife. When they went down to the ocean, they caught fish, lobsters, crab and mollusks. They cooked the meat and fish over open fires or in earthen ovens. Acorns were the most important plant food, which was ground and made into a mush. Other local plants were also used.

Cone shaped structures were houses that provided a place for storing personal items, sleeping and cooking when it turned cold or rainy. Most daily life took place outdoors.

Life was hard but good. And it changed little in 10,000 years. And in all that time there had been very little if any contact with the rest of the world.

The year 1492 and Christopher Columbus had absolutely no effect on California or the Juaneños. But it did have a fantastic effect on Europe. Europe’s population was growing and food was in scarce supply especially for the peasants. When Columbus brought back to Europe produce that was new to Europe, it was able to grow and supplant the local crops and created a food source for a hungry population. The unintended consequences of the voyages of Columbus were the European diseases that they brought to this hemisphere. Middle Age Europe was not enlightened enough to foresee that the animals brought to this land would bring germs that would decimate the local population. When Cortez arrived, he was met with a fierce fighting force when he faced the Aztecs. The Aztecs had a history of ruthless warfare. There were other warring tribes all over South and Latin America.

By contrast, the California native populations were primarily peaceful. That was certainly true of the Juaneños. When St. Serra and the Portola riders founded the Mission in 1776, the welcoming of the natives was deemed a positive sign. Gibson states, “the Franciscans were charged with gathering Indians into settlements and teaching them to be self-sufficient according to European standards. Conversion to Christianity was to be voluntary, but once converted the Indian was bound to the mission and his life controlled by the padres.” And those that converted were sure of food for themselves and their families.

Serra knew that change was coming to this hemisphere. If not the Spanish, then it would be some other European government. His Mission plan was that in 10 years, the Natives would be sufficiently trained in the ways of the Europeans so that they would be able to be self-governing.

As more Missions were established, Serra became more and more annoyed with the Governor of Alta California and the military. He wanted the missionaries in charge of Indians, not the military. He went to Mexico City with 32 requests for the operation of Mission life and presented them to the Viceroy. The Viceroy agreed to the demands and this directive, entitled Reglamento of 1773, became the law which governed the treatment of laborers, soldiers and Indians. The United States Bill of Rights was 16 years away from being enacted. Serra went far beyond the teachings of an 18th century man.

On the government of the Indians, Serra declared, “in accordance with longstanding usage, the responsibility for education and directing the Indians lies with the missionaries. Save for capital crimes, neither the Commandant nor the soldiery has the right to chastise and maltreat our poor neophytes without submitting the case to their spiritual fathers.”

In order to embrace our history, we need to remember our diverse past and recognize that an array of different cultures and experiences has contributed to the San Juan Capistrano we know today.

Spend a “Moment in Time” in October and visit the Mission, the Blas Aguilar Adobe Museum and Acjachemen Center, and the San Juan Capistrano Historical Society to learn about the culture and history of San Juan Capistrano.

Jan Siegel is a 28-year resident of San Juan Capistrano. She served on the city’s Cultural Heritage Commission for 13 years and has been a volunteer guide for the San Juan Capistrano Friends of the Library’s architectural walking tour for 18 years. She was named Woman of the Year by the Chamber of Commerce in 2005, Volunteer of the Year in 2011 and was inducted into the city’s Wall of Recognition in 2007.


PLEASE NOTE: In an effort to provide our readers with a wide variety of opinions from our community, The Capistrano Dispatch provides Guest Opinion opportunities in which selected columnists’ opinions are shared. The opinions expressed in these columns are entirely those of the columnist alone and do not reflect those of The Capistrano Dispatch or Picket Fence Media. If you would like to respond to this column, please email us at editorial@thecapistranodispatch.com.

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