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Tribe Wrangles Over Burial Site

Ancient graveyard is to be site of O.C. school's sports fields. Juaneno faction wants it left alone.

November 18, 2002|Dave McKibben | Times Staff Writer

The one point on which everyone agrees is that the rugged, 29-acre spread in San Juan Capistrano is a graveyard, most likely the resting spot of early inhabitants of a tribal village known as Putiidhem.

Beyond that, the land speaks of conflict.

Indian tribal members who trace their ancestors to the land are divided on what they'd like to see done with it. One faction wants it left as is -- open and untouched. Another is willing to strike a bargain with developers. A third group hopes an interpretive center will someday be built on the land. There has also been talk of building a casino on the property.

The city-approved use -- an athletic complex for a Roman Catholic high school -- has driven another wedge into the long-running dispute over the property's fate.

Supporters of Junipero Serra High School intend to open the campus next fall across the street from the burial site. Barring last-minute obstacles, the tribal land itself will be used for tennis courts, a gymnasium and playing fields. In a split vote, the San Juan Capistrano City Council approved the plan last month.

One faction of the Juaneno tribe is willing to live with the athletic fields, as long as the administrators agree not to destroy any burial sites and to erect monuments recognizing tribal leaders and religious figures.

"We've never made a statement supporting any development there," said Joyce Stanfield Perry, a tribal manager speaking for David Belardes, a Juaneno leader who has monitored archeological sites in the past. "But it's private land, and we don't control it. So we did the best we could to preserve our culture."

Two other factions of the tribe have come together in opposition to the plan, though one wants the land left unspoiled while the other has reluctantly agreed with a state preservation group that an interpretive center should be built there.

"To have a tourist attraction on my cemetery is offensive, but we were backed into a corner," said Damien Shilo, a 45-year-old San Juan Capistrano resident and leader of one tribal faction. Junipero Serra High officials, whose search for a school site has spanned four years, have tried to steer clear of the tribal dispute, while at the same time proceeding with their plans.

"We are trying to build a Catholic high school," said Marc Spizziri, a founder of the school. "It's disconcerting to have all this divisiveness."

The school, across Junipero Serra Road from the burial site, is scheduled to open in 10 months, welcoming an inaugural class of freshmen and sophomores. School leaders have held prayer blessings.

They've broken ground on a cafeteria. Parent-teacher nights have been held.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange has been reluctant to get in the middle of the land dispute. Bishop Tod D. Brown was scheduled to attend a public blessing of the site three weeks ago, but the event was abruptly canceled. School officials said the event was postponed because of the threat of rain and because a school booster had a change in his schedule.

But Msgr. Lawrence J. Baird, press secretary for the Diocese of Orange, said Brown never planned to attend the event.

The blessing was held a week later and attended by Msgr. Paul Martin, a priest at the city's historic mission.

The land dispute may also have frightened off the Capistrano Unified School District, which had been eyeing the land for years as a site for a middle school.

Supt. James A. Fleming recently announced that the district, which could condemn the land and take it for public school property, is no longer interested in the site.

Archeologists have been studying the land in northern San Juan Capistrano for years and have differed on what it holds.

Pat Martz, an archeologist at Cal State Los Angeles, said the tribal village dates to the 1400s when it was known as Putiidhem, the ancestral home of the Acjachemen nation.

Martz believes there might be as many as 175 burial sites on the land.

Henry Koerper, a Cypress College professor and expert on Orange County prehistory, has studied the site for 20 years and puts the number of burial plots at only seven.

The Juanenos have broken ranks before over the land.

In 1997, the tribe split into three groups when some members accused Belardes, then the tribal chairman, of negotiating an agreement with Nevada investors that would have placed a casino on the burial site.

Though Belardes' group denied the accusation, Shilo, the leader of a rival faction, said his group pulled out of the casino negotiations after learning that the 29-acre parcel would be the site for the gaming hall.

According to Shilo, the deal called for a Nevada group to acquire the land for a gambling and museum complex.

In exchange, Shilo said, the group would lobby for the Juanenos to get federal recognition, making them Orange County's first federally recognized tribe.

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