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A Juaneño memorial and mystery in Los Rios Park

The makeshift memorial in San Juan Capistrano has been tended for five years, unlike those casually erected, though heartfelt, street-side tributes that emerge and are usually dismantled not long after the terrible tragedy they are meant to mark.

This tragedy, if that is what it was, happened five years ago. And it is not immediately clear from the site or from talking with neighbors exactly why it was erected.

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"Medicine Man" and "Love" painted on rocks. A burned incensed stick. An image of a dreamcatcher. Fake flowers, photographs and feathers. This is what the site gives up, these clues.

Then a picture with a name: Bobby Banda, shaman.

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Who is he and what happened to him? And why do people continue to mourn the apparent loss and maintain this heart-shaped marker, which is no larger than a small garden plot — maybe 2 yards from top to bottom?

The answers aren't immediate, but when they come they shed light on the Juaneño Band of Mission Indians, who reside throughout Orange County but have a notable presence in San Juan Capistrano.

The Juaneños are the original inhabitants of the land that became Orange County, and they also dwelled in what is now San Diego, Los Angeles and Riverside counties. The tribe provided the manpower for construction of original landmarks in Orange County, including Mission San Juan Capistrano.

Sometimes little changes at the memorial, which is in the city's Los Rios Historic District, and then something happens to freshen it up, the addition of a fresh bouquet of flowers tied to a red bandana, for instance.

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"I've lived here all my life, but it's a mystery to me because we don't know who he is," said Ester Ocampo, 19, who recently was walking by the memorial with her friend Stephanie Mora.

Thom Coughran, interim public works and utilities director for San Juan Capistrano, said the city is aware of the memorial but is not clear about who constructed it. He said is not aware of any plans to have it taken down, even though it is on city-owned property, Los Rios Park.

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As he stepped onto the park, where sycamore trees hovered over picnic tables and a trellis lushly covered in grape vines shaded benches, Nathan Banda glanced at the buildings that housed his ancestors hundreds of years earlier. Today, the area is a tourist attraction. That isn't bad, he figures, if the Juaneño heritage is being preserved.

Consider that although the language, rituals and other practices are often passed on to new generations, the tribe has largely merged with European settlers and culture. And although there is a Juaneño office in the city, the tribe does not have official federal recognition and all that that might confer. Members have pointed to occasional divisions within the tribe and ineffective leadership.

The Los Rios Historic District, near Mission San Juan Capistrano and across the railroad tracks from the train depot, is the oldest continually occupied neighborhood in the state. Its more than 30 buildings include three adobe homes built in the late 1700s for mission families.

Most of the dwellings are private residences. Others provide specialty retail, restaurant and commercial services. Some are both, a combination of money-making ventures and housing, an interesting and unique meld in a county where many communities draw clear distinctions with strict housing regulations.

Walk the single road of the Los Rios district, where bougainvillea, cactus and butterflies brim, and it is not hard to sense the early 18th century. The setting is steeped in generations of history.

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Black-and-white photographic images have been transferred to ceramic tiles embedded in a garden wall near the Los Rios butterfly sanctuary. A couple depict children playing in the street and a man in the mid-19th century holding the reins of a horse.

"That's a picture of my great-great-great-great grandfather, who was a trainer for polo ponies," Banda said. "Everyone down here is family. This is a special place."

Nathan Banda, a tribal member of the Juaneño Band of Mission Indians, sits on the city of San Juan Capistrano's Cultural Heritage Commission, where he and four other appointees encourage awareness and appreciation of the city's cultural and historical significance.

That means sharing his tribe's ancestry.

While the Indians identified themselves as Acjachemen, the Spaniards and Father Junipero Serra, who founded the first nine of the 21 Spanish missions in California, named them "Juaneños," combining the mission's title and the Spanish word for child, "nino."

Today, the tribe counts over 1,900 blood descendants who live in and around Orange County and who have all been verified through a certified genealogist who traced each person's lineage to Acjachemen village ancestors. About 100 of the members live in San Juan Capistrano, Banda said.

The tribe is both proud and protective of its ancestry, people and culture that defines its territory today. One of Banda's several cousins occupies a home in the Los Rios Historic District that has remained in the family for over nine generations and 220 years, he said.

Banda can trace his heritage back several generations to a descendant who married into the tribe. Serra gave the ancestor land to build adobe structures where tribal members who were constructing the mission could live with their families, Banda said.

The land was the start of the Los Rios district, where inhabitants intermarried and raised generations of families.

"All these families grew up together and became family friends," Banda said. "The nice part for our generation is that we are able to literally follow my daughter's generation and know the birth date of my great-great-great grandmother because it's all recorded in mission records. You can even see Father Serra's signature. All these tribal members remained close and relied on each other."

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But celebrating that ancestral past was frowned upon in the 1800s when the tribe faced racial discrimination. A group called the "committee," made up of wealthy town residents, killed off landowners for their land and threatened to kill a priest who was an advocate for the poor people in town, including Indians and Mexicans, Banda said.

Perhaps this legacy explains why some people think the clan is mysterious and hard to understand.

"They're a pretty private people," said a Los Rios resident who asked not to be named, referring to the Juaneños.

Nathan Banda's mother, Bobbie Banda, refused to let her four children neglect their rituals and cultural identity. Bobbie, an American Juaneño tribal elder and activist, successfully championed efforts to introduce Native American curriculum and Juaneño language courses in the public school systems. She was a ninth-generation member of the Rios family.

"My mom made it important that I knew who I was," said Banda, who wears a tattoo of his late mother's face on his arm. "She was always educating our culture and made sure we were surrounded by the Native American arena."

That means honoring his ancestry's lineage, which traces him to the kinship Bear Clan, people known as healers. For cultural gatherings and ceremonies, Banda dresses in a bearskin robe and works to heal other Indians of any ills, offering encouragement and strength.

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Because of the current winter solstice, the Bear Clan has been called into hibernation, where the members metaphorically sleep as their souls are cleansed. They then emerge in the spring for a new beginning.

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Healing others and preserving the tribe's ancient native wisdom traditions was a common practice of Banda's cousin and fellow tribal member Bobby, who was regarded as a person who interacted with the spirit world.

And here is where the stories merge.

Bobby died from cancer in 2010 but remains honored with the memorial in Los Rios Park. It was built by Bobby's daughter, Dakota, according to Nathan.

The memorial was specifically constructed around a sage bush that held great meaning for Bobby. He would clip its leaves for arrangements to give to tribal members and friends outside of the group. The plant has, in the Juaneño tradition, been used to clear the air of bad spirits and influences.

"He was a person with a heart of gold and an awesome friend," said Carrie Ybarra, a friend of Bobby's for several years who works in San Clemente. " I still think about him all of the time."

The tribal members return to his memorial every May to honor the man who grew up in the Los Rios Historic District and who believed in the medicinal purification powers of the bush.

The site that holds feathers, rocks, flowers and images of Bobby memorialize the person who was strong in facing his illness and who prepared others to fend off bad spirits, Banda said.

The memorial also serves as a place where passersby may start to learn about the special tribal member as well.

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