SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO — 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.