COLUMN ONE : Orange County Tribe Battles for Its Identity : The Juaneno Indians were stripped of a large part of Southern California. They seek U.S. recognition to validate their past and enrich their future.


Before the Spaniards, the Mexicans, the Catholic Church and U.S. settlers took away their land and left them homeless, the Juaneno Band of Mission Indians could lay claim to much of Southern California.

The ground beneath Disneyland, Camp Pendleton and Mission San Juan Capistrano belonged to them. Many Juanenos are buried under what now are strip malls and parking lots, forgotten long ago in the rush from wilderness to pavement.

But their 4,500 descendants, about half of whom live near the adobe mission here, have not forgotten. They are trying to persuade the federal government that they exist as a tribe with roots dating back 10,000 years.


That struggle for recognition is a product of the Juanenos’ embattled history and the increasingly strident competition that may determine their future. They are among hundreds of Indian groups hoping to win the potentially lucrative blessing of the U.S. government. Federal recognition could bring a tribe a reservation, with schools, housing and health care provided by taxpayers. It could even mean a casino brimming with profits.

The Juanenos’ campaign is also complicated by a spate of tribal pretenders inspired by what critics call “Dances With Wolves” romanticism.

“We want a place to carry on the traditions of our culture,” Juaneno leader David Belardes said. “For our children, our children’s children and their children. We are the indigenous people of this area.”

The Juanenos formally applied for tribal status in 1982 but made their first government claim more than a century before that. In recent months, they have emerged from among hundreds of bands, rising to No. 1 on a long list trying to gain active consideration by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Their bid has been bolstered by recognition from the state, which cited an archeological history dating back a hundred centuries.

The Juanenos’ lack of federal recognition is “an oversight of history,” said Paul Apodaca, curator of Native American art at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana and an authority on Indian culture. “Absolutely, they’re a tribe. They had their own language, their own group identity. They practiced religion in a way that was distinct to them. They were a legitimate social entity.


“You have to remember, tribal recognition is not the government granting them something. Rather, it is recognizing them as a legitimate legal entity that the government has unfinished business with. And the government has unfinished business with the Juanenos. It needs to grant them recognition.”

In some ways, the plight of the Acjachemen people--as the Juanenos were originally called--is similar to that of many California tribes. After thousands of years comfortably living off the land and developing a rich, peace-loving culture, they were enslaved by Spanish missionaries in the 18th Century. The Mexican government recognized them as citizens with limited rights. The United States seized the territory in 1848. Its settlers offered a $25 a head bounty on California Indians, a practice that did not end until the turn of the century. The bounty forced many Juanenos to retreat to the hills and others to marry Latinos in attempts to assimilate.

Despite such obstacles, the Juanenos maintained an “identity continuously throughout history, so we are, in fact, a tribe,” said Belardes, 47, whose father, grandfather and great-grandfather pioneered the tribe’s cause and who have a street named after them in San Juan Capistrano. “And we’ve governed ourselves from mission times to the present. In my mind, that means federal recognition.”

Today, Juanenos can be found as far as Texas and Florida, but most live in Orange County. Many are Catholics who have intermarried and “continue to pay taxes on the land our forefathers owned before the government took it away,” said Belardes, a groundskeeper for the Capistrano Unified School District.

As often as he can, he and fellow Juanenos gather for ceremonial dances and prayers, basket weaving and tribal conferences, where they speak their own language, Acjachemen, and pass on the sorrows and triumphs of their culture.

In the history they often retell, the Acjachemen people welcomed the Spanish missionaries, only to be converted to the conquerors’ religion and commandeered to help build Mission San Juan Capistrano in 1776.

The Spaniards renamed the tribe for the mission. They used “Juanenos” to refer to the scattered but closely related bands of raven-haired, brown-eyed, olive-skinned Indians living in the canyons and along the shores of the Pacific. Although it is hard to estimate population data, scholars say several hundred to several thousand Juanenos roamed the beaches and arid hills of much of the Southland.

Their territory extended from the southern tier of what is now Los Angeles County to Camp Pendleton in north San Diego County and east to Riverside County, according to the state resolution recognizing the tribe.

Some historians and members of the Gabrielino Indian band dispute those boundaries, saying the Gabrielinos--who lived primarily in the Los Angeles Basin--shared at least part of the territory.

Forced to work as slaves, the Juanenos were shackled with collars and leashes and kept in line by the garrisons that accompanied the mission fathers. The Spaniards used them for construction work, farming and domestic labor, forbidding them to pray to their god, Chinigchinich, or speak Acjachemen.

The Spanish originally intended to return the mission lands to the Indians after they had civilized the tribe. But the Juanenos received only a few plots after the new Mexican government secularized the mission and freed them from the padres’ authority in 1833.

Much of the land was divided among white settlers, who established a town in San Juan Capistrano in 1841. California became a U.S. territory after the Mexican-American War in 1848, and a state in 1850.

When the United States seized the territory, “it sent Army generals around to negotiate treaties,” Apodaca said. “And they just didn’t meet with everybody. It’s that simple. There was no real pressure to because they already owned the state.”

The Juanenos first petitioned U.S. authorities for recognition in the mid-19th Century, when the bounty program was still in force.

The bounty, or scalping as it was commonly known, ended only because law enforcement became more civilized and society more friendly to California Indians, who did not become U.S citizens until 1926.

By the turn of the century, the Juanenos had lost all claim to their vast acreage. Not one of 18 treaties signed with early settlers was ratified by Congress, which foresaw the state’s potential wealth.

The very existence of the treaties was concealed for half a century. Had they been ratified, Indians would have owned about a quarter of the state, scholars say.

After statehood, many Indians were crammed onto what was left of the Spanish ranchos, then left homeless when the lands were sold.

Some believe that the Juanenos’ peaceful nature cost them the chance for federal recognition earlier.

“The Juanenos were made to suffer largely for being peace-loving,” said Jane Uyeno, president of the Native American Indian Cultural Center in Tustin. “Like a lot of tribes who chose not to fight, they got stomped--in every way possible.”

By contrast, the Pechanga tribe, which fought the last Indian war in California, ended up with more than 6,000 acres in Riverside County.

In 1952, each Juaneno was awarded $150 as part of $25 million set aside by the federal government to buy out California’s Indians. They had filed suit more than a decade earlier over land rights.

Angered by the payoff and the tawdry history it represented, Juaneno leader Clarence Lobo filed a second suit on behalf of the state’s Indians. When the government offered to settle that suit 20 years later for $29.1 million, Lobo objected, saying it amounted to 47 cents an acre for the Indians’ confiscated land.

What angered him more, Lobo said, was that fellow Indians outvoted him 4 to 1 to accept the settlement. In 1972, they received individual checks of $668.52, after legal fees. Lobo refused his check and moved to Northern California, where he died of a brain tumor. An elementary school in San Clemente was recently named in his honor.


A tribe recognized by the Bureau of Indian Affairs can establish its own sovereign government, with a court system and police force. It has access to lucrative grants for higher education and the power to tax any tenant who uses the land. It can also gain the multimillion-dollar profits that some reservations reap from casinos.

“The federal pie for Indians is so small that if you include more tribes, slices of the pie get even smaller,” said a top congressional aide who works only on behalf of Indians and who requested anonymity. “What often results is an ugly fight bordering on civil war.”

More than 300 tribes in the continental United States and 226 native villages in Alaska are recognized by the federal government. About a third of those in the continental United States are in California, and nearly a third of those are in Southern California.

All have satisfied the strict ethnological, historical, legal and political requirements outlined in federal guidelines, the bureau says.

Federal recognition depends on factors including a tribe’s “repeated identification by (U.S.) authorities, a longstanding relationship with state government, repeated dealings with a county, parish or local government based on the group’s individual identity,” according to the agency’s literature.

A prospective tribe’s chances are enhanced if it has been identified as an Indian entity by scholars, the media and in dealings with recognized tribes or national Indian organizations, the agency says.

Since the Federal Acknowledgment Program was established in 1978 to handle modern claims, the Bureau of Indian Affairs has recognized nine tribes out of 147 petitions. Congress has recognized four on its own. Six tribes are under active consideration, with three--including the Juanenos--to be considered next, agency spokesman Carl Shaw said. Another 83 are in the application process, Shaw said.

Gaining tribal status has been complicated by legalized gambling, which began on reservations in 1980, and the surge in “new age” Native American groups. Both have increased the number of contenders for tribal status and raise questions in some minds about some groups’ motives.

Other tribes assailed the Golden Hill Paugussetts of Bridgeport, Conn., for instance, saying the group seeks recognition solely to establish a casino that would try to divert New York City gamblers from Atlantic City, N.J.

Indeed, the profit potential is enticing. The Mashantucket Pequot’s Foxwoods casino in Connecticut reports a net operating profit of more than $20 million a month and a 45% to 50% profit margin compared to that of 10% to 15% in Atlantic City.

Indian gaming enterprises began with a bingo hall in Florida and have expanded to 68 casinos and 170 high-stakes bingo games in 24 states, with more planned. About half the nation’s recognized tribes are trying to open gaming halls.

San Diego County is home to three such casinos. Riverside and San Bernardino counties have one each. In Palm Springs, the Agua Caliente band of Cahuilla Indians plans to build a gaming casino downtown to be managed by Caesars World. The partnership, announced in November, 1992, calls for a $25-million gambling hall to open in 1995.

Belardes said he was approached about opening a casino in Orange County if the Juanenos are recognized. Suggested reservation sites include military bases that are facing closure or land in the Cleveland National Forest.

“Our goal is to be recognized,” he said. “Beyond that, we cross each bridge as we come to it.”

Tribes fear the potential of what Indian lobbyist George Waters calls “new age charlatans from California” to win recognition from Congress, which can grant tribal status without imposing the Bureau of Indian Affair’s criteria.

“We call them the post-’Dances With Wolves’ Indians,” he said, referring to the 1990 Kevin Costner movie. “They run around in sweat lodges, thinking Indian religion is so cool. Most aren’t even Indians. But they hinder the efforts of all of those who might be legitimate. The effort to become recognized is, I’m afraid, a vicious struggle with too many competitors and a government running out of money.”

But most of all, Indian groups fear that the inclusion of “charlatan” tribes could diminish their own role as self-contained, sovereign powers--for which they have fought for centuries.

Many Juanenos hope that recognition comes during the Clinton Administration. Such optimism is sobered by the fact that few tribes were recognized during the Ronald Reagan and George Bush years.

Juaneno leader Belardes hopes tribal recognition will come, in part, to bestow lasting honor on Lobo.

If their fight fails? “It will be a continuation of how our people have been wronged throughout history,” Belardes said. “We’ve survived and made it on our own, without the government’s help. So we would continue to exist, to maintain our culture and carry on, to teach our traditions to our children, who would pass it on to theirs.

“In God’s eyes--if not the nation’s--we know we belong.”

Who Are the Juanenos?

* Name: The name Juaneno was given to native Californians by the Spaniards, who converted them to Christianity in the 18th Century.

* Numbers: 3,000 still live in California; many live elsewhere.

* History: Tribe dates back 10,000 years and once populated the arid hills, canyons and beaches of Southern California.

* Customs: Family groups lived in villages.

* Language: Acagchemem. (pronounced ha-SHAY-mem)

* Religion: Chinigchinich. (pronounced cha-NEE-cha-NEE)

Source: Los Angeles Times