Moments In Time: The new Native American room is a tribute to Acjachemen Nation

By Jan Siegel

The new Native American Museum and Interpretive Room at Mission San Juan Capistrano. Photo by Brian Park
The new Native American Museum and Interpretive Room at Mission San Juan Capistrano. Photo by Brian Park

If you have not been to the Mission lately, you should put it on your to-do list for the holidays. Although the Mission is going through a construction phase, it has opened a new Native American room, which is a tribute to the Acjachemen Nation. This extremely well documented exhibit shows and explains how the Juaneños lived and survived thousands of years ago.

Because of our location, the native peoples had access to numerous plants, animals and fish for an extremely varied diet. Our area was nature’s super market. It is interesting to think that thousands of years ago, native people went into the fields or the ocean to obtain their foodstuff much as we go to Ralphs or Marbella Market. The question that is asked in the exhibit is how many of the products the Acjachemen used are available today? The list includes acorns, deer, blackberries, gophers, rabbits, grasshoppers, cactus fruits, locusts, insect larva, blackbirds, crows, wild plums, hawks, clover, sunflower seeds, tuna, seals, antelope, sea otters, shell fish, coyotes and whales.

The Acjachemen may not have had Mission Hospital to go to for ailments, but they knew that many local herbs and plants had healing properties. Bay Laurel was used to cure headaches and colds. California sagebrush was used as an insect repellant. The flower stalks of white sage were used to cure a sore throat. The soap plant was used as soap. Of course, the acorns of the coastal live oak were ground and used for cereal or bread.

The Acjachemen and neighboring tribes exchanged abalone shells, dried fish and salt for obsidian to use as arrowheads. Abalone shells could be used to make jewelry, fishhooks, scrapers and bowls.

We recently returned from a trip to Austin, Texas, and in the State Historical Museum, in the Native Culture section, there is an abalone shell that came from Southern California in the trade that local Texas tribes had with west coast tribes. There was no abalone in Texas.

The men hunted with bows and arrows, hunting sticks and they set traps. A skilled hunter could throw a hunting stick 100 feet to kill a rabbit. Boys were taught from a very young age to acquire this skill. Boys were also taught how to make the tools needed for survival. Women worked together gathering plants and firewood, making food and weaving baskets. Girls were taught how to make baskets and to gather and prepare food.

Many of the plants were also used to make musical instruments. In this exhibit, one has the opportunity to make music using the gourds, stalks and branches that were used by those early inhabitants.

As we celebrate the holidays, spend a Moment in Time with your family by going to the Mission and enjoying the way people have lived in this area for thousands of years. Happy New Year to all!

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