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Task force presses Irvine for museum to honor first people of Orange County

An aerial view of the Great Park in Irvine.
An aerial view of the Great Park in Irvine.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Many of the ancestral artifacts of the original people of Orange County lie hidden away in storage, waiting to see the light of day.

The important cultural relics tell the story of the Juaneño Band of Mission Indians, whose sacred sites and traditional lands were plundered, desecrated and devoured by development.

But a cohort of community and tribal members is working toward finding a home for the artifacts, pressing the city of Irvine to create a cultural and natural history museum in the Great Park.

Joyce Perry, a member of the Juaneño Band of Mission Indians and an adviser to the Museum Task Force, said during a phone interview this week that there is nothing in the county that really tells her tribe’s whole story. She said there are thousands of artifacts “that need to come out” that are tucked away in warehouses, universities, anthropological societies and other storage areas.

Following years of delays, the Putuidem Village opened earlier this month in San Clemente. While the opening was seen as a major victory for the tribe, the 1.5-acre passive park doesn’t provide a home for the Juaneño artifacts. Perry said the museum would hold deep meaning for her tribe.

“We have items all across the world, but where do we put them?” Perry said. “What better place than a museum and a museum that is in our homeland?”

Juaneño spiritual leader Adelia Sandoval, center, leads guests in a prayer at Putuidem Village park.
Juaneño spiritual leader Adelia Sandoval, center, leads guests in a prayer at Putuidem Village park.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

The campaign for the museum began in 2015, when Mel Schantz Jr. said he started pushing for a site to honor the Native American community because it didn’t have any significant representation in Orange County.

“I needed to start putting in for something that honors the Native Americans that walked this land way before it became El Toro Air Base or the Great Park,” he said.

Descendants of the Acjachemen, whose history traces thousands of years, the tribe became known as the Juaneños when Spanish colonialists built Mission San Juan Capistrano in 1776. Today, the tribe has about 1,900 members.

Schantz said he started speaking with members of the Native American community to propose his idea for a ceremonial site. With the help of Juaneño tribal member Rebecca Robles and Cal State Los Angeles Anthropology Professor Pat Martz, they came up with a plan for a cultural and natural history museum, and the Museum Task Force was formed.

The volunteer group has worked hard to get city officials to buy into the vision of the museum being a central feature of the Great Park’s Cultural Terrace, a 236-acre portion of the park. The museum would also include fossils uncovered in Orange County.

“Since that time, administrations come and go, and the various council people that I’ve talked to, some of their eyes kind of glaze over when I’m talking about indigenous issues,” Schantz said, pointing out that several current council members have been supportive of the proposal.

Irvine Mayor Farrah Khan said this week that she’s been supportive of the museum because it would be beneficial for the community. However, she’s concerned with how the museum will be funded. Khan said the funding for the Great Park is running out, so there wouldn’t be enough from the city’s coffers to fully get the museum off the ground.

“That doesn’t mean that we can’t look into getting some help from the state or federal government for grants,” Khan said. “That might be a possibility, but fully funding by city funds is just not going to be available.”

Irvine Mayor Farrah Khan speaks during a press conference.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

The City Council will be making some important decisions about the future of the Great Park in the new year. Over the last two months, Irvine has been seeking public input to update its master plan of the park, which hasn’t lived up to its original billing as the second-coming of New York’s iconic Central Park. Located at the site of the former Marine Corps Air Station El Toro, the park today has a large sports complex, a soccer stadium, an amphitheater, a skating rink and a large orange balloon.

Khan said that City Council members will review the community feedback on the Great Park, then make decisions about additions to the park.

The museum wouldn’t be the first that the city worked with the Acjachemen. Khan said that they created a community center in the Portola Springs neighborhood to showcase artifacts that were found in the area.

Perry said the city has a good working relationship with the tribe and it understands the importance of honoring traditions and cultures.

“We made sure that we brought in members from the Acjachemen tribe to kind of help us with not only creating a room with the artifacts, but also providing the history,” Khan said. “So that’s something that’s very important, I think, not only for myself, but the rest of my colleagues.”

An aerial view of the Great Park in Irvine.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

If plans move forward with the museum, Perry wants to ensure that the tribe plays a central role in its plans.

“It’s been part of my life’s work to see that this happens, on top of making sure that the tribal perspective is always part of the story, since so many times we’re erased out of the story,” Perry said.

Schantz echoed the need for the tribe to dictate the direction of the museum.

”I do not speak for the tribe or its members, but in the shared belief that native history and culture is best told by tribal members themselves, especially where it comes to anthropology and archeology,” Schantz said. “Given that there are qualified and accredited tribal members in this field, it is my vision that they would be a primary component of the museum where it comes to the collections of artifacts, public displays and representations, as well as the research involved at the Museum of Culture and Natural History.”

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