O.C. tollway could spoil burial site

Times Staff Writer

Where others see sycamores and sage lining the small valley harboring San Mateo Creek, Rebecca Robles sees her ancestors.

Robles is a member of the Juaneño Band of Mission Indians.

The valley, where her ancestors lived 4,000 years ago in an ancient Acjachemen Nation village called Panhe, is threatened by a proposed six-lane toll road next to the site that could unearth human remains and damage a sacred spot that Juaneños have visited for generations.

“To Indian people, we go to these places because they’re our Vatican, our Mecca,” said the San Clemente resident. We “go for spiritual renewal.”

Juaneños have formed a coalition to save Panhe and plan to urge the California Coastal Commission to stop the proposed Foothill South toll road at its October meeting.

It’s the latest impediment to the proposed 16-mile toll road extension from Oso Parkway to I-5 that would cut a path through San Onofre State Beach, next to the village site.


The area, which straddles the San Diego-Orange county border off Cristianitos Road, is on the state Native American Heritage Commission’s register of sacred sites in California.

A year ago, the state attorney general filed a lawsuit to stop the road on behalf of the Heritage Commission.

Although the village is long gone, the site is frequently used as a gathering area for songfests, and hundreds of Native American remains found in Orange and San Diego counties have been reburied there.

“Can you imagine putting a freeway overpass over Arlington Cemetery?” said Patricia Martz, a Cal State Los Angeles anthropology professor.

Martz, president of the California Cultural Resource Preservation Alliance, said toll road planners ignored several archaeological sites and omitted Panhe’s sacred status in its environmental planning documents.

Toll road planners dispute these contentions and emphasized the road’s importance to the region’s ability to cope with mounting traffic and congestion.

“If you were to compare this road to other projects, it has been the most studied road in the state, if not the nation,” Lance MacLean, a Mission Viejo councilman who chairs the Foothill/Eastern Transportation Corridor Agency that manages the 241 toll road.

Recently, a grass fire in Mission Viejo nearly shut down Interstate 5, “the only north-south route” in southern Orange County, he said.

“We need alternative routes, and the toll road provides one.”

The proposed toll road extension “was specifically designed to avoid the densest of archaeological sites” and avoid known or suspected burial areas, added Jennifer Seaton, a spokeswoman for the Transportation Corridor Agencies, which is based in Irvine.

“Our agency has been very sensitive about the cultural resources that are near the toll road’s proposed alignment.”

The agency is in talks with Juaneño leaders about mitigation for the turnpike, she said.

“That’s part of our responsibility, and we will stop work to deal with any unanticipated discoveries of remains,” Seaton said.

Juaneño leaders who have attended those talks but who did not want to be identified said they told the agency they didn’t support the road but wanted to hear what mitigating measures might be taken.

Tribal leaders said they had worked successfully with the toll road agency in the past.

After they voiced concerns about three archaeological sites in Weir Canyon, the agency modified its alignment of the 241 to protect them.

Seaton said it was premature to make similar assumptions about Panhe, but “we are talking.”

But some coalition members don’t want to discuss any alternatives to preserving Panhe.

The coalition includes several factions of the Mission Indians, some who have battled one another in a 20-year fight to win federal recognition.

“We’ve come together on this,” said David Belardes, a tribal chairman of one group.

Without federal recognition, the Juaneños have no land or reservation they can claim as their own, said tribal leaders who fear their culture is becoming lost as each generation passes.

Yet Juaneños have a special niche in the history of California.

Panhe is mentioned in the baptismal register at Mission San Juan Capistrano, which was founded in 1776 by Father Junipero Serra. Two years later, Serra baptized 16 Native Americans, including some from Panhe.

In 1988 Pope John Paul II beatified Serra, the second of three steps necessary for sainthood.

Many Indians and academics condemned the decision, pointing to the harsh conditions of mission life and Serra’s justification of beatings.

Even Juaneños disagree about whether their ancestors benefited from the introduction of European culture.

Some rail about how their ancestors constructed mission buildings and harvested food under Serra’s harsh discipline, while others note with pride that Cristianitos Road near Panhe was named in recognition of some of the first baptisms of their people in Orange County.

“This is why we’re fighting so hard to keep Panhe,” said Robles, whose mother, the late Lillian Robles, traced the family’s ancestry to a Juaneño named Albaro Panaula, who was born in 1753.

Her mother helped save Puvungna, a Tongva Indian village on the campus of Cal State Long Beach, during a 1993 protest when she pitched a tent on the ground and refused to budge for 15 days.

But in 2004, Juaneños lost a painful battle to preserve the site of Putiidhem, a 300-year-old village in San Juan Capistrano.

City officials approved the construction of a high school on the land. It was later named in honor of Serra.

At Panhe, Juaneños leased 5 acres owned by Camp Pendleton in the 1980s.

Although the lease has expired, tribal leaders are in negotiation over future use of the area with base officials, who have recognized the cultural significance of the area.

Robles said she knew it was difficult for non-Native Americans to grasp Panhe’s significance.

Perhaps it’s best understood as “being able to go to where your grandmother lived or your old neighborhood,” she said. “I always feel a sense of home here.”