By Jan Siegel
This is the first of a two-part series on the life and times of our local Native Americans. We are currently going through some very difficult times in this country. In order for history to have any meaning, it has to include all history–the good, the bad and the ugly. And the great thing about history is that new information can always add to the knowledge of the past. New discoveries are happening every day by archaeologists from around the world. October 12 used to be called Columbus Day, but now it has adopted a new approach and is referred to as Indigenous Peoples Day. The word Indian has been replaced by Native American. But how much do you really know about the Native American. It is unfortunate that the peoples of North America had no written language. But fortunately for us, there has been some documentation over the years on the history of our local Native Americans.
It all started with Fr. Boscana in 1822. Prior to Fr. Boscana, the only treatises on Native Americans in California or even the Southwest were written by captains or passengers on sailing ships. There were also some church records, but there were no good descriptions of a tribe and its customs before Boscana. In 1846, Alfred Robinson wrote in his Life In California, a loose translation of Bocana’s work. In the 1930s, John Harrington, an ethnologist from the Bureau of American Ethnology, was sent to the Southwest, and particularly California, to study and record Native American culture, language and history. In Harrington’s research, he discovered the original document written by Boscana. The discrepancies in Robinson’s work were corrected. Since Boscana’s native language was Catalan, not Spanish, Robinson’s translations were either omitted or misinterpreted.
Although Boscana wrote about the local Native Americans from a Catholic priest perspective, he clearly pointed out how important religion was to the Native people. He related the life of their prophet Chinigchinix, spelled in his version with the x being pronounced as in Catalonian. According to Harrington, the original treatise by Boscana included “an introduction, written in very fervent tone, followed by 15 chapters devoted respectively to the subjects of origin, creation, tradition, history of the traditional leaders, Ouiot and Chinigehinix, instruction of children, marriage, general manner of life, chiefsmanship, description of the native temples, feasts and dances, calendar, extravagancies, burials and funerals, beliefs of immortality, origin of the inhabitants of San Juan Capistrano Mission and list with etymologies of 15 rancherias inhabited by these Indians.”
Quiot was the Chief, and Chinigehinix was God. Harrington’s version was published on June 27, 1934, by the Smithsonian Institution. Harrington also had access to Fr. St. John O’Sullivan’s notes written in San Juan Capistrano. While many of O’Sullivan’s notes have been lost, Harrington had copied many of them in his notes, and they are still available from the Smithsonian archives.
It was Chinigenhinix who created the people called Acjachemen whom the missionaries called Juaneno. Chinigchinix told his people, “I make all things, and I shall create people for your people, distinct from yourselves, whom you shall soon see.” The people believed that Chiningchinix “was everywhere present, that he saw everything, though it was a dark night, but that no one could see him; that he was a friend of the good and punished the wicked.” All of this was passed down in an oral tradition, generation after generation.
Next month, the lifestyle of the early Juanenos will be discussed. In the meantime, you can spend a “Moment in Time” enjoying learning more about our Native Americans by visiting Putuidem Village and the Blas Aguilar Adobe.
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.