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New tribal leader will help the first people of O.C. in their decades-long battle to gain federal recognition

Heidi Lucero, the new chairwoman of the Juaneno Band of Mission Indians, poses at Puvunga, a sacred site in Long Beach.
Heidi Lucero, the new chairwoman of the Juaneno Band of Mission Indians, poses at Puvunga, a sacred site in Long Beach.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

For more than 30 years, the Juaneño Band of Mission Indians in Orange County have been fighting to gain federal recognition.

For a tribe with limited resources, the pursuit has been difficult. But with a new leader at the helm, the goal may be within reach.

For the record:

12:13 p.m. Sept. 24, 2021For the Record: An earlier version of this story said that the federal government didn’t acknowledge that current descendants are from the historic tribe. The story has been corrected with the information that the federal government recognized that most but not all of the tribal members were descendants of the historic tribe.

Heidi Lucero, the new chairwoman of the Juaneño tribal council, believes she has the skills to lead the tribe forward. Lucero was chosen by tribal members along with the rest of the council as part of its election process, which occurs every four years. Council members took their seats in July.

Lucero said gaining federal recognition is one of the tribe’s primary goals, but it is an intensive, years-long process. Thousands of pages of research need to be compiled and submitted to the government for evaluation.

In 2011, the tribe was denied federal recognition. Lucero said the government acknowledged the tribe as historic and that most but not all of the tribal members were descendants of the historic tribe.

Lucero said because the tribe doesn’t have federal recognition, the tribe doesn’t have any legal hold to anything it discovers at sacred sites. Federal recognition would empower the tribe to gain control of those artifacts and would give children the right to apply for federal grants. It would also give the tribe a land allotment that members could live on and use for sacred ceremonies.

“For a lot of our elders, what it means is that the government is actually acknowledging that we exist,” Lucero said.

The tribe is currently appealing the denial and putting together a whole new petition. It will take years to compile all the information that it will need to file with the government.

The process doesn’t favor tribes. The federal government has used the Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood to determine tribe enrollment and any eligibility for government benefits. That certificate is determined through blood quantum, which is a measure of the amount of Native American blood in a person. It’s a controversial system some claim is a way for the federal government to rid itself of its responsibilities to the Native American community, as more people mate with people of other races.

“Throughout history, blood quantum was used to define a point at which responsibilities to tribes, entitlement programs, treaty rights and reservations would end,” Maya Harmon wrote in a legal article in the California Law Review. “The government hoped that using blood quantum would eventually eliminate Native peoples — that intermarriage would ‘dilute’ the amount of ‘Indian blood’ in the population, causing descendants of Native peoples to become indistinguishable from the rest of the population.”

Some tribes adopted the same system as the government, but others have chosen to use different methods to determine tribal enrollment. Instead of using the blood quantum certificate, Lucero said her tribe is moving toward using lineal descent to prove members’ place in the tribe. It requires that members link to a historic village and ancestor genealogically. So members have to comb through historic records such as birth certificates, death records or marriage certificates.

“The whole idea of blood quantum, it’s a tool of the government to say you don’t have enough Indian blood to be considered Indian,” Lucero said. “Besides being very inaccurate, that’s one of the reasons that we decided to move away from that.”

Lucero’s experience as a researcher primes her for leading the effort. She is a phlebotomist with Kaiser Permanente and has a master’s degree in anthropology, with an emphasis on cultural anthropology and California archaeology, and another master’s degree in cultural sustainability.

“I think that my background would be a plus in really being able to research all that and find all that material,” Lucero said. “Because I have a good deal of knowledge about the tribe — the ceremonies of the tribe, language and everything that makes us unique as a tribe — I think that is what makes me qualified.”

Lucero served in 2013 as a member-at-large on the tribal council and later as a cultural resource director for the tribe. This is her first time as chairwoman.

As a cultural resource director she monitored construction sites for any artifacts or human remains that could be important to the tribe. The 405 Freeway widening project was paused in 2019 after Native American remains were found during excavations.

“We just make sure that if something is discovered we stop the project in order to make sure we take care of our ancestors,” she said.

Heidi Lucero, the new chairwoman of the Juaneno Band of Mission Indians, hopes to gain federal recognition for the tribe.
Heidi Lucero, the new chairwoman of the Juaneno Band of Mission Indians, hopes to gain federal recognition for the tribe.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

Another major focus for Lucero will be regaining the nonprofit status of the tribe, which was suspended about a decade ago after the prior leadership failed to file taxes. It’s crucial for the tribe to have nonprofit status to receive grants.

The tribe also can’t bring in money through donations and fundraising until the suspension is lifted. Lucero said they have about six months in reserves, but she would like to have at least a year’s worth.

Lucero also hopes to reestablish the tribe’s relationship with the city and with other neighboring tribes, including the Tongva, the Chumash and the Kumeyaay, among others. Lucero said the tribe isolated under past leadership.

“Tribes want to help each other,” Lucero said. “The more of us that are recognized, the more of us stand to say, ‘We are the first people of California’... It’s about working together as indigenous people.”

Lucero is also excited for the upcoming opening of the Putuidem Village in San Juan Capistrano, where the Juaneño are headquartered. For many years, the Juaneño have fought for this sliver of land dedicated to their history and tradition.

The sacred sites and lands of the Acjachemen descendants, whose history traces back thousands of years, have been plundered, desecrated and devoured by development. The tribe became known as the Juaneños after Spanish colonialists built Mission San Juan Capistrano in 1776. Today it has about 1,800 members.

The Putuidem Village will pay tribute to the history of the Juaneno Band of Mission Indians.
The Putuidem Village will pay tribute to the history of the Juaneno Band of Mission Indians.
(Courtesy of Thomas Toman and Paul Meshkin)

The Putuidem Village was seen as a long-sought tribal victory when the San Juan Capistrano City Council first approved the educational park in 2016. The Northwest Open Space, a 65-acre natural area near the 5 Freeway where the 1.5-acre municipal park is being built, is considered one of the first Native American settlements in what became Orange County.

But in ensuing years, the city delayed the project, and tribal leadership questioned whether the park would ever be completed.

Though it was expected to open as early as 2019, the Putuidem Village was stalled by various financial obstacles. It is now expected to open this fall.

Tribal leaders have said the park could be an important tool for educating the public and a vital gathering place for tribal members, where they could perform ancient rituals important to them. Some tribal members have been waiting for a piece of dedicated land like the park for decades. The humble 1.5-acre passive park will include an amphitheater area with boulders and log seats, a trail and various depictions of the Juaneño way of life, including ramadas, kiichas — a thatch home — and manos, a ground stone tool. The surrounding areas of the park have native plant habitat.

“It was really important for us to make sure that our community still had a piece of that village left that we can go to hold ceremony and pray for those people that lived in that village and had died before we came,” Lucero said. “It’s really important that we always acknowledge that they were there and we’re still here protecting their land.”

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