IRVINE, Calif. - A faction of a southern California Indian tribe has agreed to drop its support of a lawsuit that is trying to halt the construction of a highway that could disturb Indian historical and sacred sites in return for $350,000.
A group of the Juaneno Band of Mission Indians signed a letter of intent with Irvine-based Transportation Corridor Agencies, which wants to build the six-lane toll highway in Orange County and would abut an Indian village and cemetery.
David Belardes, the chairman of the group, said his rationale for making the deal was based on prior experience.
''It's the writing on the wall. It's going to happen in some way, shape or form,'' he said. ''This way, it keeps us in the process. We are trying to protect as much as we can.''
Belardes also said the funds will go toward ethnography studies, a museum facility and cultural programming. The studies will help his group of about 300 members gain federal recognition and record the group's history and culture, he said.
Larry Myers, executive secretary for the California Native American Heritage Commission, which is the complainant on the lawsuit against TCA, said commissioners reviewed the deal and didn't take any action on it.
''There was no concern. Just because he pulls out doesn't mean all Indians will,'' he said.
The commission's lawsuit claims the 16-mile highway will adversely impact the village of Panhe', considered the mother village of the Juaneno Band of Mission Indians Acjachemen Nation. The highway would be constructed within feet of a cemetery still used by Indians, according to a press release by the California attorney general who is also suing the TCA over the proposed highway.
The TCA said population and growth projections for the next 25 years have shown that construction of the road is a necessity.
There are four Juaneno factions that are seeking federal recognition, which has so far been elusive. The BIA decided last year the tribe did not meet four of the seven criteria required for recognition. An internal schism over its leadership has also complicated those efforts.
Anthony Rivera, tribal chair of one of the other three Juaneno groups that is opposing the toll road, said the Belardes deal was troublesome and could lead to further agreements with what he says are illegitimate groups.
''I think it's a dangerous trend to make an agreement with individuals that aren't enrolled in the tribe,'' he said.
The Belardes faction received $25,000 of the funds upon signing the letter of intent April 21, according to a copy of it. Upon TCA board of directors' authorization to engage in an agreement with the faction, an additional $50,000 will be provided.
TCA spokesman Jennifer Seaton said the TCA's board of directors is expected to approve the letter of intent Aug. 14.