SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO, Calif. - In the early 1800s, during the building of
the mission in this southern Orange County town, Father Geronimo Boscona
recorded the oral history of the founding of the Acjachemem tribal village
of Putiidhem, a village still in existence in Boscona's day.
According to Acjachemem tribal history, or Juaneno as they are better known
today, an ancient chief named Oyaison noticed that the village he lived in,
named Sejat located near modern day Corona, had become overpopulated.
Oyaison led a group of his people over the hills into the Capistrano Valley
where they began a new settlement called Putiidhem.
The village was so named because Oyaison had left his daughter there to
serve as a chief in the village. She was named Coronne, but was given the
nickname Putiidhem, a word in the Juaneno language that roughly means
someone with a distended navel. The name was given a double association
because of a spring that was found at the site, which was said by the
ancient Acjachemem to resemble a belly button.
Father Boscona's written history represents one of the few times that a
Spanish missionary priest had written something that resembles an
ethnography of tribal people in California. Father Boscona had lived
shortly after the time of California mission founder Father Junipero Serra,
and his interest in the Native peoples of the area stood in stark contrast
to Serra who remains a controversial figure to this very day because of his
treatment of Indians.
Now, two centuries after Father Boscona recorded the oral history of the
Acjachemem people, their descendants are fighting a proposed school
expansion named after Boscona's predecessor.
JSerra High School began construction on an expansion that will include
athletic fields, a swimming pool and a performing arts center. At $8,000
per semester, the school ranks among the most expensive in California for
Pro-expansion sources say the school has suffered from not having athletic
fields and that many of the top athletes have chosen to go to other Orange
County Catholic and public schools.
The Juanenos are claiming that the expansion onto 29 acres adjacent to the
school will destroy the remains of Putiidhem, which some estimate to have
been inhabited over a period of 1,000 years. The village was still in
existence as a settlement during Boscona's time.
The 29-acre site is located about a mile from the Mission at San Juan
Capistrano that the villagers had helped to construct. A few years ago,
members of a non-profit organization called the California Cultural
Resource Preservation Alliance decided to pursue a cultural resource site
at Putiidhem as a complement to the nearby mission. The group had
commissioned a list a few years ago of the remaining cultural Indian sites
in Orange County after they had concluded that 95 percent of the original
tribal sites throughout Orange County had already gone under the bulldozer.
For Putiidhem, they had planned for an interpretive center as well as uses
for scientific study and Juaneno cultural events.
Dr. Pat Martz, who serves as president of the alliance, was one of the
people who went to the San Juan Capistrano city council and asked to have
the city help fund the site, which would have been the first such site in
"What we didn't know is that the city council had already decided to
approve the school expansion onto the site," said Martz.
In fact, neighboring Los Angeles County and nearby Ventura County have
several such sites within their borders, so the designation of one such
site in Orange County seemed possible.
Since the Catholic Church did not have the monetary resources that they
once did, the church had taken a policy of encouraging lay people to build
new Catholic schools, which the church could later decided whether to
accredit. Martz said that she even appealed to the Bishop who oversees
Orange County about the project but he said that nothing could be done
since the project was not yet church sanctioned.
The main funders of the JSerra expansion project turned out to be two
wealthy Orange County residents, Tim Busch, who is a tax attorney in Irvine
and Marc Spizziri, a car salesman who owns a Toyota dealership.
Spizziri and Busch spearheaded a drive to change the zoning on the area
from "commercial" to be able to support school expansion plans and were
behind an initiative to rezone the area.
Tribal member Rebecca Robles said that the initiative was deceptive because
it asked people whether they wanted a commercial business there or a school
and never mentioned the site's cultural importance.
"The site holds tremendous value to our people," said tribal member Rudy
This is an assessment in which the California Native American Heritage
Commission agrees and has designated Putiidhem as a sacred site.
However, the problem is that California laws protecting sacred sites are
largely symbolic. Former Gov. Gray Davis vetoed a bill two years ago that
sought to put some teeth behind state protection of sacred sites. Though
Davis eventually signed a watered-down version of sacred site protection,
it still did not provide protection for a place like Putiidhem.
Compounding the problem was that the Acjachemem Juanenos were now split
into three factions, and according to various laws, a most-likely
descendant has to sign off on the project. Though another faction of the
tribe has state recognition, for the purposes of the project one faction
led by David Belardes was named for this project, though he is one of many
that are listed by the state as most-likely descendants.
Rob Wood, who works at the California Native American Heritage Commission,
said that because of Davis' veto of the bill, the laws governing its
protection fall to California environmental laws and that the developers of
the site, which he said the developers have been following.
"I personally don't like the idea that people will be running around on a
ball field on top of people's ancestors, but there's not much we can do
because the developer is following existing laws," said Wood.
Though Belardes did not return phone calls by press time, Wood's
interpretation of the Belardes faction's position is that because of
existing laws the project will proceed anyway, though they do not like it,
so the best thing to do is mitigate.
What Belardes agreed to was a compromise measure in which the school would
erect a monument to Putiidhem and include information about California
Indians in the school curriculum.
However, the other two groups of Acjachemem Juanenos opposed the compromise
and sought to block the project with their own initiative. Robles claimed
that Busch and Spizziri launched a well-funded counter measure that
included deception and intimidation.
Busch dismisses these claims and said that there was no deception. In turn
Busch said it was he who faced intimidation in the form of protesters who
went after him personally.
"It's been some of the Native Americans that have been protesting and
chastising us, not the other way around," said Busch.
Busch said that careful care went into the planning of the markers for the
school and would include a six-foot tall statue of Coronne.
However, Robles provided Indian Country Today with literature used by
pro-expansion forces who went door to door asking people who had signed the
pro-preservation initiative petition to change their vote. The
informational literature even included a passage that claimed the tribe
would try to build a casino on the site, something that Robles vehemently
Robles claims that her group and the other opposition faction are allied
with Martz' Alliance and agree with the goal of creating an interpretive,
cultural and scientific center.
In the end the signatures came up short and construction was allowed to
proceed. Though no ground has officially been broken, Robles reports that
some preliminary work has already been done.
Martz contends that the studies done so far on the site as per federal and
state environmental laws have not been nearly comprehensive enough. She
said that previous activities in the area, such as the laying of a fiber
optic cable have revealed burial sites and that the Army Corps of Engineers
have cordoned off a 50-foot area along the road by the site.
However, Martz said that only about 5 percent of the area has actually been
studied. And though there is a monitor at the site, much of the work thus
far has been done at night in conditions that she said are almost
impossible to tell whether remains are being dug up or not.
Martz points out the obvious irony of a school named after the founding
missionary in California building over the bones of Indians that were often
enslaved at the missions.
"It's almost like he (Father Junipero Serra) has come back from the grave
to crush the bones," said Martz.
Ironic is not quite the term that Robles would label the project.
"It's not just ironic, it's a bitter reminder," Robles said.