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Educator recognized for spreading Native culture

SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO, Calif. – Students in schools throughout California have, for the past 15 years, had the pleasure of knowing Jacque Nunez. Now 56, Nunez has grown a business out of her love for her culture and a desire to help other Californians discover their heritage. In March, California’s Indian Education Department named her Educator of the Year.

Nunez is from the Acjachemen Nation, a small tribe in Orange County, Calif. that is currently seeking federal recognition. Many Acjachemen people have returned to their homeland near the Mission San Juan Capistrano, as Nunez and her husband did. Throughout the 1980s and beyond, Nunez was a school teacher in Orange County while raising a family of seven.

During the 1990s, Nunez and her family were part of the revitalization effort of the Acjachemen’s culture and her two sons grew their hair long as was tradition. Attending a predominantly Hispanic school, the boys were teased. In response, Nunez decided to go into the school and teach the students about her family’s heritage.

“I said we’re going to go and we’re going to share.”

From there on, word of her presentation spread like wildfire, and one request for her to speak at a school turned into two, then three, and shortly after the state’s education department hired her to promote Native culture.

Now, 17 years later, Nunez runs a storytelling business, Journeys to the Past, and she has made it her career to speak to students about California’s rich Native American history, reversing the untruths that have been taught.

“Not only do I try to share the significance of our lifestyle, but I try to also discount some of the erroneous historical documentation of our people,” Nunez said. “It wasn’t very long ago that Native Americans weren’t respected. I am seeing change and I’m very grateful for that, but for years it was really counterproductive and within our history books there was almost genocide.”

While Nunez is spreading knowledge of the accurate history of Natives in California and America, she said the purpose of her program is not just to make non-Natives respect Native American history.

“It’s a program that is about the Acjachemen Nation and how we lived and survived, but I think the most important message is that every culture deserves respect and dignity.”

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Nunez told the story of a sad day. After giving a presentation at a school, one of the Anglo-Saxon students approached her and said, “It’s so cool to be an Indian.”

“I thought, ‘If I leave this presentation and all I’m doing is making these Anglo kids think it’s cool to be an Indian then I’m not doing my job.” So, she began reinforcing the message of pride in one’s own history.

“I want them to go back and to learn their own stories and the significance of their grandparents’ stories and to learn who their ancestors were, because I think that’s what’s missing. They just think that they’re American and they don’t know exactly what that means. What I’m trying to do is to ask the children to respect our heritage and to also respect their own heritage.”

Nunez encourages students to embrace their history and to learn that everyone has brought something to this country.

“I tell them that when they go home, what they do at home is the heart of who they are and never be embarrassed.”

As her storytelling business has grown, Nunez has developed the program and services she provides; she offers kits designed to help students “touch and feel” Acjachemen history with authentic items like rabbit furs and Native American games.

Nunez has also developed a play that teaches the history of the Acjachemen people, starring members of her tribe. The play is performed five or six times a year; Nunez said many Natives throughout California have identified with the history of the Acjachemen Nation, as their own history is similar.

“(The play) is so beautiful and what I’ve found out is that while I did it for my people, I realized it was a lot of people’s story. We did it up north, and even though I was up there by San Francisco, it was their story too.”

Nunez receives many awards and honors for her work, like her most recent Educator of the Year award, and she said it brings pride to the Acjachemen Nation. However, her own passion is what drives her.

“I’m one of those people that when I wake up, I love going to work. I feel like I’m planting seeds and I’m making a difference.”