Squabbles hamper O.C. Indian tribe

Times Staff Writers

For tribal members that had so much to gain by simply joining hands, even acknowledging one another’s existence has often proved too onerous for leaders of the Juaneno band of Mission Indians.

Efforts by tribal leaders to offer an olive branch to one another failed as recently as August and may have jeopardized the Juanenos’ chances to gain federal recognition as a tribe and, ultimately, the opportunity to build a casino.

Letters, phone calls and meetings over a dozen years have failed to unite the roughly 3,000 Juanenos. Instead, one petition to the Bureau of Indian Affairs seeking recognition was followed by a second, and then a third, while a fourth faction emerged in protest.


With casino fortunes in play and one gambling-related contract already signed, the stakes are high. This year, one tribal leader signed a contract with a Texas lobbying firm to help gain recognition. In exchange, the firm would get 6% of the Juanenos’ revenues from gambling for five years.

“We have the opportunity of a lifetime to be the strongest tribe in California, but all this silly infighting is killing us,” said Joe Ocampo, the 82-year-old leader of the Juanenos’ newest faction. “We all talk the talk about unification, but when it comes down to the nitty-gritty and pulling together, we can’t do it.”

Rep. John Campbell (R-Irvine), who is opposed to Indian gambling in Orange County, said he was unsure what to call the various groups based mostly in San Juan Capistrano.

“The tribes, and I am hesitant to call them tribes since they like have four factions, have failed with their petitions,” he said.

The BIA informed Juaneno leaders last week that their 25-year quest for recognition was coming up well short. Carl J. Artman, assistant secretary for Indian Affairs, said the tribe had failed to meet four of seven criteria required for federal acknowledgment.

The tribe has 180 days to overcome its faults and another 60 days to respond to public comments.

“These findings are nothing we should be doing somersaults over,” Ocampo said. “It means we should roll up our sleeves and get to work.”

Ocampo said Artman told him the tribe’s “lack of cohesiveness” contributed to the petitions’ failure. “I guess we’ve got too many chiefs and no Indians,” Ocampo said.

In August, David Belardes and Bud Sepulveda, chairmen of two of the factions, made a last-ditch attempt to unify the tribe, reaching out to Anthony Rivera, who claims to lead the largest number of Juanenos. But Belardes said Rivera never responded to e-mails. Rivera also didn’t return phone calls seeking comment for this story.

“We made the attempt, but Anthony and his group want to do their own thing,” Belardes said, adding that of 1,600 members claimed by Rivera, the BIA said only 2% had demonstrated descent from the historical tribe -- one of the four criteria the BIA found was lacking.

A month later, Belardes sent a letter to Lee Fleming, the director of the BIA’s office that grants recognition, that outlined the tribe’s fruitless unification efforts since 1995. In many cases, unification attempts ended with nothing more than unreturned phone calls or letters.

The Juanenos’ recent history has been marked by bickering over elections, casino proposals and even the size of each faction. But the tribe hasn’t always been divided. The Juanenos have occupied parts of Orange, San Diego, San Bernardino, Riverside and San Diego counties for thousands of years, tribal officials say.

The Juanenos say that their ancestral home, Panhe, existed thousands of years ago near the border of San Diego and Orange counties on land that is now part of Camp Pendleton. But the BIA found that fewer than 5% of Juanenos “demonstrated descent from the historical San Juan Capistrano Mission Indian tribe.”

The federal government’s report also found that the tribe failed to show three things: that it had been identified as an American Indian entity continuously since 1900; that it had evolved as a distinct community; and that the petitioners “maintained political influence” over its members.

But the government did say the Juanenos met three criteria: They have a governing document; they proved that members did not already belong to a federally recognized tribe; and its members meet other federal legal criteria.

Juanenos have no way of proving they were a political body since 1900, Ocampo said. “We were trying to keep from getting killed back then,” he said.

Belardes credits a lot of the recognition drive to the late Clarence Lobo, former chief of the Juanenos from 1946 until his death in 1985. Lobo pushed for the tribe’s federal acknowledgment “to help legitimize our people,” Belardes said, detailing a campaign that included getting family names and genealogy on tribal rosters.

Lobo’s efforts gained state recognition for the Juanenos in 1993. Federal recognition is proving far more elusive.

In the mid-1990s, as it became clear the Juanenos’ federal petition would be considered by the BIA, Belardes got involved with a lobbyist and a Las Vegas businessman interested in bankrolling the tribe’s effort with a casino in mind.

Belardes’ agreement wasn’t well received by other tribal members, and after a flurry of elections and a lawsuit, one faction separated and elected its own chairman. Several years later, Belardes was ousted from the main body and replaced by Rivera, who recently paid lobbyist Paul Moorehead $20,000 to advance his group’s federal recognition efforts.

In subsequent years, other leaders expressed dismay over the direction the tribe was going and split into their own groups. Some were prompted to do so after Belardes was accused of negotiating a deal with Nevada investors to build a casino on a 29-acre lot in San Juan Capistrano, thought to be a tribal graveyard.

“I don’t even know what we’re going to do now,” Belardes said, adding that “40 years of hard work by Clarence Lobo on behalf of the tribe just went down the drain.”