By Jan Siegel
This time of year is the period of celebrations: Halloween, Day of the Dead, Diwali, Veterans Day, Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, and New Year’s. The one thing that all of these holidays have in common is that they are all family celebrations.
During the Thanksgiving holiday, there is much talk about the first Thanksgiving and the role of the Indians in that event, but there is little talk about the Native Americans in our own community and how family life and celebrations are an important part of their heritage. The names below will be familiar to your children. They go to school with the families. They live in our community. They are part of our history.
In 2018, Orange County libraries put together a group of local Native Americans to talk about their family, their culture and their way of life.
Louis Valenzuela Robles spoke of what it means to be a member of the Juaneno Band of Mission Indians, Acjachemen Nation in San Juan Capistrano.
“For me to be able to sit at the beach by the village where my great, great, great, great, grandparents were born and know that this is the same beach that they sat on, the same stars that they sat under—there is a real connection to the land. When I look out and see Kalawpa, our sacred mountain, even though it has been renamed Saddleback, and the sun rises, my family, for generations, has seen this.”
Tribal Chairwoman Teeter Marie Olivares Romero was born on Los Rios Street and then moved to El Camino Real. She started making baskets in the ’70s. For more than 30 years, Romero, along with a group of Native American women, met every Tuesday to make baskets and talk about the old days. All of these women are related. They are all cousins to each other.
Adrienne “Gigi” Nieblas is the daughter of Rita Nieblas, who was co-founder of the Capistrano Indian Council. Rita was also born in the Congdon House, which is now home to The Ecology Center.
“I have three metates, stones used to grind corn or anything else that need grinding. One stone is from my great-grandmother, one from my grandmother and one from my mother,” Nieblas said.
Harley “Wick” Lobo spoke about his brother, Chief Clarence Lobo, as being the best person to represent the tribe. He was extremely well-liked by everyone, especially the Native American community. Wick’s role is to know more of the tradition and the history of tribe so that the tribal members can be made aware of their background. He stressed the importance of relearning the Acjachemen language.
Happy Hunn, San Juan Capistrano patriarch, is very proud of his Acjachemen heritage. Hunn has collected photos of veterans from the Juaneno Band of Mission Indians. All the services are represented. Hunn also remembers when steelhead spawned in the riverbed behind his home and fishing was a part of his life.
Domingo Belardes, president of the Blas Aguilar Adobe Museum Foundation, stated that Orange County is known today for being a bustling business community. But before Western civilization came onto the land, Acjachemen had commerce and money.
“Shell beads, dentalium shells and tavelia were their money. The one thing we want people to realize is that we haven’t gone anywhere. We’re still here and that we’re still doing the things that our ancestors taught us,” said Belardes, who is the son of former Chief David Belardes.
Stephen Rios stated that to be a Juaneno in the 21st century means to be bicultural—having a foot in two worlds.
“Being involved and being aware of native roots, which go back many, many, many, many, many years,” Rio said, “and also being part of the mainstream dominant society.”
Rios was the first executive secretary of the California Native American Heritage Commission that was commissioned by Governor Jerry Brown to protect Indian religion and Indian culture.
Spend a “Moment in Time” during your family celebrations and remember all of those who have gone before us.
Jan Siegel was a 33-year resident of San Juan Capistrano and now resides in the neighboring town of Rancho Mission Viejo. She served on the city’s Cultural Heritage Commission for 13 years, has been a volunteer guide for the San Juan Capistrano Friends of the Library’s architectural walking tour for 26 years and is currently the museum curator for the San Juan Capistrano Historical Society. 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.