As indigenous rights get national spotlight, Acjachemen confront long-standing battles in South Orange County
By Allison Jarrell, Eric Heinz and Matt Cortina
The protests at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North and South Dakota have brought the rights of indigenous people to the national forefront. As protestors dig in for a long winter of battling the construction of an oil and gas pipeline under their main water source, American Indian tribes across the country are both sending support and people to the demonstrations, and also revisiting and reopening local battles.
There is no shortage of such issues in South Orange County alone for the Juaneño Band of Mission Indians, Acjachemen Nation, which runs from San Diego to Los Angeles. We talked to tribal leaders about current issues the tribe is facing, and also took a trip to Standing Rock to see the parallels between the rhetoric and motivation of indigenous people there and in South Orange County.
“We’ve had to sit back and watch our lands … desecrated.”
On a recent sunny November morning, Jerry Nieblas and his cousin, Gigi Nieblas, walked through San Juan Capistrano’s Northwest Open Space, tucked along the north end of town where Camino Capistrano and the railroad come together. The cousins brushed past the dry earth, speckled with citrus trees and shrubs, toward a clearing with a large oak tree at its center. With two small bundles of tobacco in hand, they made an offering to their ancestors—Jerry lifted a bundle in silence before carefully placing it inside the tree’s trunk.
Jerry and Gigi can trace their lineage back to the ancient village of Putuidem, which was home to the Acjachemen Indians who used to occupy this land. Their five-times great grandmother, Maria Bernarda Chigilia—who was just 14 years old when Mission San Juan Capistrano was established in 1776—lived in the tribe’s mother village, which was essentially the capital of 265 native villages in Orange County. A young Chigilia was taken from the land, and today, Jerry and Gigi look forward to bringing her history to life.
“She saw the coming of the Mission,” Jerry said. “She was relocated off of those lands into the new boundaries of Mission San Juan Capistrano. So she saw the best of our life, and she saw the worst of our life.
“Now her five-times great grandchildren can bring her to life again, and that’s what we intend to do,” he said.
The land not only represents the tribe’s past—it marks an important chapter in the future of the Juaneño Band of Mission Indians, Acjachemen Nation. This past summer, San Juan Capistrano’s City Council approved funding for a park on a 1.3-acre portion of the land that will pay homage to the village of Putuidem and become a place where tribal members can go to celebrate their culture, their connection to the land, and their traditions.
Building the park means protecting one of the last remaining ancestral sites in San Juan Capistrano and preserving a sacred gathering place for Juaneño/Acjachemen descendants.
Over a year and a half ago, a committee was formed to work on a “wish list” for the park, made up of Juaneño/Acjachemen members and city officials.
Jerry Nieblas describes his Acjachemen ancestors as a peaceful people, but their history in the Capistrano Valley has been turbulent at times—from being uprooted from their village home and brought to the Mission, to constructing the Mission and adopting a new faith. Recent political division within the tribe has led to several groups forming after disagreements created rifts during the process to become a federally recognized tribe. In 2007, and again in 2010, the Acjachemen failed to receive federal recognition and are still working toward that goal.
In 2003, some tribal members became politically active and filed a lawsuit, along with the California Cultural Resources Preservation Alliance, against the expansion of Junipero Serra High School onto sacred land—land that was once home to the village of Putuidem. They lost that fight, which tribal member Rebecca Robles described as a “bitter pill.” That area is now a football field.
Joyce Stanfield Perry, a tribal manager for the Juaneño Band of Mission Indians, said each loss of the tribe’s homeland has been “painful and chaotic.” She said “over the last 40 years, prominent Acjachemen leaders and activists have worked diligently in educating city officials and the public about the unique resource and the importance of protecting Putuidem.”
While Jerry Nieblas is grateful for the opportunity to honor his ancestors on the land they once walked, he also describes the return to the land as an “odd” feeling.
“Mostly, we’ve had to sit back and watch our lands … desecrated,” Nieblas said. “In the scheme of everything, we’ve lost so much. And they’ve given us a little dot in the middle of this land. And I appreciate that, because now it’s up to us.”
Matias Belardes, son of former tribal chairman and activist David Belardes, said the park will allow the story of San Juan Capistrano’s beginning chapter to be told. He called the partnership of city staff and tribal members “unprecedented.”
“The city is to be commended for doing this,” said committee member Pat Martz. “It’s going to be the only place of its kind in all of Orange County. There’s no other interpretive village for Native Americans, or even a place where they can officially come and gather and have ceremonies or educate kids. So this is a really big deal.”
“We weren’t always welcomed.”
It’s hard—if not impossible—to write about current issues facing local indigenous tribes without talking about the Mission San Juan Capistrano. It was the Mission builders who first enslaved the Acjachemen people, giving them the ultimatum to live within Mission boundaries and convert, or to live outside, while settlers sapped up all the resources on which the tribes once lived and inundated the area with diseases to which they were not immune.
Mechelle Lawrence Adams, the executive director of the Mission, respectfully declined to multiple requests to talk about the Mission’s current work with indigenous people, as well as concerns those in the community have expressed about the Mission.
Lawrence Adams did provide a pamphlet that highlights the many things the Mission does to preserve and celebrate Juaneño/Acjachemen culture. This includes the display of artifacts, ringing the Mission bells, lectures and more.
However, the fundamental issue with the Mission is that for all the good work it does to preserve Juaneño culture—in fact, it may do more than any other group in the area—it still stands as a monument to oppression. There’s no getting over that, and it’s been written about exhaustively. And so the question now is: do indigenous leaders believe the Mission is currently doing enough to overcome its past?
Within the Acjachemen community, there are opinions at both ends of the spectrum.
“We weren’t always welcomed, from the time the Mission was established, sometimes even to current days. We’re not that welcomed a lot,” said Jerry Nieblas, who worked 28 years at the Mission before being fired. Nieblas said current Acjachemen people, for all the Mission does, still aren’t integrated into the church’s ceremonies. And if they are, it’s on the Mission’s terms.
“Some of us feel really used over all these years,” Nieblas said. “We can do things before the mass, and we can do things after the mass. It’s difficult to bring other cultures into the mass.”
Gigi Nieblas said when her Acjachemen grandmother was cremated, they weren’t allowed to bring her remains into the church even though she went to school there.
Perry described the relationship with the Mission as one having peaks and valleys. Perry agreed that she hasn’t always felt welcomed at the Mission, but didn’t blame Lawrence Adams or current administration for that.
Adelia Sandoval, the Juañeno/Acjachemen cultural director, said that she thinks the Catholic church and Lawrence Adams have done a wonderful job managing the Mission. Sandoval said anyone calling for the Mission to return to Juañeno/Acjachemen control isn’t recognizing that the tribe doesn’t really have the wherewithal and resources to manage it on a daily basis.
“Never has a developer come in and wreaked this kind of havoc.”
While progress has been made on the Northwest Open Space park, some Juaneño/Acjachemen tribal members and city commissioners feel more work needs to be done in the arena of monitoring the construction sites of new developments in town for important indigenous artifacts.
The focus of these concerns is currently on the former Inn at the Mission site, which sits directly across from the Mission. After grading had already commenced, landowner and developer Bill Griffith dropped his plans for the Inn at the Mission, and has since said developing the previously approved Plaza Banderas hotel at the site is a possibility.
As grading commenced at the hotel site, several commissioners and tribal members became increasingly concerned as excavation went deeper into the earth without report of any items found. The Capistrano Historical Alliance Committee (CHAC) dropped support for the incoming hotel and the current site development and construction earlier this year.
The CHAC letter, written by Jerry Nieblas, asks why full documentation and quarterly reports haven’t been provided on what’s been found at the site.
“We feel that this project, which was once an extension of Mission San Juan Capistrano and is part of our sacred land, has been desecrated because of massive ground penetration, earth moving/shifting and disturbance/compromising possibly two historic horno ovens along with other artifacts,” the letter states.
“We look forward to the city enforcing its policies and requesting a thorough and detailed report from Bill Griffith regarding this project that is filled with many issues,” the letter concludes. “Never has a developer come in and wreaked this kind of havoc on our sacred lands. He needs to be held accountable.”
At the Sept. 27 Cultural Heritage Commission meeting, commission chairman Nathan Banda, a member of the Acjachemen Nation, had similar concerns about the lack of reporting. Citing the city’s Council Policy 601, Banda asked why the commission wasn’t receiving reports from the site’s monitors on what was being found. City staff replied that the developer’s permits did not require such reporting, but Banda countered that according to the city’s policy, reports of anything significant should come in within 24 hours to the commission.
In the past, Banda said, the city had a historic preservation manager, but when she left in 2011, her job was divvied up among existing staff, which has contributed to the lack of reporting.
In an email last week, Senior Planner David Contreras said the site’s archeological reports will be “provided after the completion of grading/trenching activities on the site,” which Contreras clarified to mean after the project is constructed.
Banda said his interpretation of Policy 601 is that reports need to be made within 24 hours of finding something, not after a project is completed.
Perry served as the Native American monitor for the Inn at the Mission site. She said all laws and permits were followed, and she doesn’t feel additional reporting is needed at this time.
In an interview last month, Griffith said all protocols were followed with the grading per CEQA law, with archeological experts and Native American monitors on site overseeing everything that was found or disturbed. Griffith said the majority of the items found were related to agricultural operations, as the site had been an ag property for over 100 years. He said information regarding the monitoring will be made “available to people when it’s appropriate.”
“That causes chaos within our community and our well-being.”
South of San Clemente is the San Mateo Campground areas, which includes the spiritual land of Panhe, an area that is sacred to the Acjachemen Nation.
Recently, activists and members of the nation protested certain procedures of the U.S. Marine Corps at Camp Pendleton, which uses San Onofre State Beach for training.
At San Mateo, west of the training zones, the U.S. Marine Corps has been grading and leveling portions of the San Mateo area in order to prepare for training operations.
“The site itself is considered to be part of the Panhe sacred site, and in addition to the archeological importance it has been designated for listing in the National Historical Protection site of Historical Listings,” said Patricia Martz, who has a Ph.D. in anthropology and archeology, and has been fighting on behalf of the Acjachemen. She recently started a petitions against the USMC actions.
Martz said there have been artifacts found in the area where USMC mitigation efforts have begun, but she claims this has not resulted in an increase of value to the land.
First Lt. Abigail Peterson, deputy director of public affairs at Camp Pendleton, said the USMC is taking the NHPA requirements seriously as well as their commitment to the communities surrounding the military base through the Cultural Resources Program.
“Technically we do have the ability to use any of the lease property for formal military training,” Peterson said, “but with Panhe, that area has not been used in formal military training to date, however, the San Onofre Campground and the San Mateo Archeological District has been used.”
Martz contends that the heavy vehicles used by the Marines in the archeological district have damaged much of the ground down there, which could be sites of archeological significance.
“Myself and the Native American tribal communities asked to be able to inspect the site when we heard about this,” Martz said. “We were horrified to see that vehicles had been had been out there and exposed some of the cultural parts of the sites. Our argument is that this is not working, and if they (continue), be down to sensitive areas of the site in no time.”
Perry, the Juaneño tribal manager, said she doesn’t think the Marines are making an active effort in avoiding culturally sensitive areas in the district.
“In today’s society, archeologists and landowners like to cut things up to make (the land) less significant, and our argument with the Marine Corps and our position as a tribe is that these traditional landscapes are markers for our memory and play a significant role in different ways,” Perry said. “When we see where we come from being altered, that causes chaos within our community and our well-being.”
Military operations aren’t the only threat to the sanctity of Panhe. Another came in the form of a highway, which was temporarily defeated on Nov. 10.
The Transportation Corridor Agencies (TCA) reached a settlement agreement with various state factions, including the Native American Heritage Commission, to not allow for toll roads to come through San Mateo Campground and San Onofre State Beach.
“The bluffs in the park, the San Mateo State beach, all of that area is very sensitive archeologically and culturally,” Martz said. “That’s why we were protesting the toll road; it would have directly affected Panhe.”
Furthermore, the agreement disallows lawsuits from the Save San Onofre Coalition, so long as the new roads comply with California Environmental Quality Act and the National Environmental Protection Act.
The TCA is planning alternative routes to the original plans that would have provided plans to build through the San Mateo areas, which could ultimately affect Panhe.
“No matter where that road goes it’s going to impact some cultural properties and sites along the way, and we’ll be in negotiations with TCA to make sure there’s minimal impact,” Perry said.
“We oppose any poison being put into our Mother Earth.”
In October, indigenous leaders held a prayer vigil against Southern California Edison’s (SCE) controversial plans to store about 1,400 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel from San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) as part of the plant’s decommissioning process.
The nuclear power plant went offline in 2012 and has been slated for destruction since 2013. SCE has argued they can’t put the nuclear waste anywhere else at this time because the Nuclear Waste Policy Act does not allow for temporary interim storage of fuel—it must have a permanent home.
“I’m just starting to educate myself on that, and they’re taking this nuclear waste and putting it into the earth in hopes to transport, and we oppose any poison being put into our Mother Earth, period,” said Perry, adding that the Acjachemen have not taken an official position on the matter in writing at this time.
SCE plans to start putting the fuel in storage containers protected by cement casings as early as 2017.
“There has been a great disrespect for many generations.”
A man who calls himself Soldierboy, inside of stove-heated tarpaulin dome at the Oceti Sakowin protest camp in North Dakota, makes one thing clear to the group: We’re at Standing Rock to build a nation.
In fact, the nation already exists. It’s a stretch of land in the Western Dakotas and Nebraska whose boundaries pre-date mid-18th-century treaties that have since been broken by the federal government. The nation has rules that, in order to stay in the camp, all must abide by, as they would in any other country. If the rules are not followed, the Sioux will boot out offenders, and they’ll do it, Soldierboy says, their way.
Soldierboy is tall with hulking shoulders that fill out a camouflage fleece. He wears a winter hat and jeans—it’s gusty and 10 degrees in North Dakota—and he addresses a group of protesters or “water protectors” in the dome for the first time because he says he has seen Sioux rules broken within the main camp of protestors in Standing Rock. Rules that prohibit photography around drum circles and horses; that protect the integrity of the fire; that require elders, women and children to eat first. There are forums for women to air women’s problems, and forums for men to air men’s problems. It’s their rules. That’s what sovereignty means. And there should be culture shock.
And yet, there are so many positions influencing what the protest camp is becoming that an announcement like that needed to be made. The movement to stop an oil and gas pipeline, the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), from being built under the Missouri River, the area’s water source, began in April, on private land owned by Lakota member LaDonna Bravebull Allard. That camp has since become the Sacred Stone prayer camp, while across the river, the main Oceti Sakowin camp has been built on Army Corps land the Sioux believes is theirs. Scores of environmentalists, civil rights activists, indigenous peoples’ advocates and more have been drawn to the area. Their numbers can surge to 4,000 people on the weekends, while representing over 300 indigenous tribes from around the world—the largest meeting of tribes in at least a century. Media, too, has been abundant at the camp—the joke is that 3,000 people are at Standing Rock and 2,000 are journalists.
And now as winter approaches, the various forces within the camp are preparing to brave the cold. Permanent structures are being erected on the camp to act as group housing. Clusters of teepees fill out the camp, housing tribal elders. There’s a red warrior camp in the corner of Oceti Sakowin, where actions are decided, which are then stealthily passed around on pieces of paper to notify protestors—actions must be shared with discretion to avoid tipping off police infiltrators within the camp.
There is a LGBT camp (“Two-Spirit Camp”), a robustly stocked donation center, four mess halls/kitchens turning donated canned goods and fresh produce into meals, medical tents to tend to the hundreds of protectors that come back injured after actions. Rumors of visits from Leonardo DiCaprio, Angelina Jolie and Mark Ruffalo are passed around the camp, and when a celebrity visit does materialize, or else when a direct action gets photogenic, the internet explodes with posts tagged #NoDAPL, and for an hour the images shock. But they’re also tagged with different backstories and histories, and framed through different lenses, and times a million, it all contributes to the perception that Standing Rock is something other than an effort to rebuild a nation for the Sioux.
What would be the biggest story of the year, if not for the election, is a national, amplified example of what smaller indigenous tribes are fighting for across the country, including the Juaneño/Acjachemen tribe in Southern California.
“The is a commitment for unprecedented unified action … that has been covered up by the news media of what we’re actually trying to do here,” said Chief Phil Lane at the SONGS prayer vigil at San Onofre State Beach last month.
Lane is an elder in the Dakota nation, whose father grew up in Standing Rock. Lane said it was his hope the battle over SONGS became another site for action like the demonstrations in Standing Rock. A sign at the vigil read, “Standing Rock, California.”
Laura Lafoia Ava-Tesimale, a first nations representative from Polynesia who offered the spiritual message at the SONGS vigil, said there is a direct tie between the treatment of Juaneño /Acjachemen tribes in South Orange County, and the Sioux at Standing Rock.
“There’s been a great disrespect for many generations,” said Lafoia Ava-Tesimale. “For 500 years, everything has been taken from them [the Acjachemen]. Stricken of their dignity, their land, their faith in human rights, their right to water, their sacred burial grounds. The disrespect has gone to new heights.
“With what is happening at Standing Rock, you can see the militarization and the hundreds of combat vehicles coming to battle against peaceful protectors that are doing prayer and taking ceremony to protect this land and the resources, the water, not just for the indigenous peoples in this land, but for all of us, even the ones who are disrespecting them.”
Flags of some of the several hundred tribes represented at Standing Rock flap in the wind and line the entry to the camp and the border it shares with the road. The Juaneño /Acjachemen flag does not yet fly, but the tribe is at least represented at the gathering.
Tribal member Rebecca Robles said her 27-year-old son has made the trip, and like many others who are setting up at Standing Rock, has put his life on hold because “he felt he had to be there.”
“Sometimes it’s shocking that the system doesn’t protect us, or there’s such little regard for history. So when there is a win, it’s very important. This is the groundwork for democracy,” Robles said of Standing Rock. “San Juan’s little park (Putuidem) is a small manifestation of that.”
It’s too soon to say what will happen at Standing Rock. Too many variables: will they reroute the pipeline; will they make it through the winter; will President-elect Trump authorize the Army Corps to grant Energy Transfer Partners, in which our new president has a financial stake, to drill under the river?
How far is everyone willing to go?
Likewise, it’s too soon to say what will happen in the myriad fronts of the battle for indigenous land rights in South Orange County. How far, in this community, is everyone willing to go?