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Reflect on the history of the Juaneño Band of Mission Indians, Acjachemen Nation this Thanksgiving
By Jan Siegel
As we get ready to celebrate the first Thanksgiving with family and friends and study the lives of the Wampanoag Native People, the Pilgrims and Pocahontas, we should take a moment to appreciate the history of the Native Americans in our own area.
In 1965, 50 years ago, Bill Smith wrote in the Coastline Dispatch of the early Juaneño Indian Nation in our valley, describing in detail their culture and way of life.
“The Ahachmai Indian, independent by nature, had a great love for his family,” Smith wrote. “There were no lengths to which he would not go to provide for them or to protect them from harm. It was this love of family that led many of the Nation to labor for the white man, in order that his family might remain free to live their life as an independent group.
“Nomadic, as were the members of other Indian tribes and nations in the North America continent, the Ahachmai moved his home as needed. To higher ground in times of flood; near the ocean when he had to eat foods from the water; to the hills for berries, fruits, nuts and game; back to the lowlands or slopes for grain. He started saving seed, and by planting it in the spring or fertility season, he began to reduce the moving of his camp.
“He began to locate in areas that were fairly convenient to the supplies he needed and nearly free of damage from flood dangers. Here he built his camp or village which became the start of a more permanent type of living. It was here that he built his house of reeds from the lowlands.
“In the 1600’s the valley of San Juan creek became the locale of a more concentrated settlement of Ahachmai Indians. At the time of the coming of the Spaniards to California there was a village of approximately one hundred natives living on what is now (near) the site of the Mission San Juan Capistrano. On a mesa about three-quarters of a mile west, was located the largest of the camps, one of about five hundred population. On the side of the hills on the southeast edge of the valley was another village of over one hundred Indians. Up the meandering course of the creeks and streams into the surrounding hills and mountains, were other camps ranging from two or three families to those housing many natives.”
Visiting by native people from surrounding area camps began, which led to trading, bartering and marriage.
Smith wrote that the clothing of the Ahachmai Indian was simple, “drab and plain.” The Ahachmai believed, like most other Native Americans, that the air and other elements of nature touching the body benefited their health.
Years later, when Clarence Lobo became Chief, he dressed in Sioux Indian ceremonial regalia so that he would resemble what the Anglo community thought an Indian should look like. He said that if he had dressed as a Juaneño, “he would be arrested for indecent exposure.”
“Like all Indians, the Ahachmai believed in a Supreme Being,” Smith wrote. “They also believed in Gods of the hills, water, wind, rain, storm, fire, hunt and home. But these lesser deities were only called upon when there was a specific need.”
Travel was confined to the area that they controlled. They had little ways of going from one location to another. They only had small burros which were native to the area. And in that area, there were no navigable streams for inland travel. Rafts were used in the ocean for fishing and limited coastal travel.
As we sit around the Thanksgiving table, take a “Moment in Time” to reflect upon the Native Americans in our community and their way of life which existed for thousands of years before the Spaniards came.
Jan Siegel is a 27-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 17 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.