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New Church-Indian Divide

November 27, 2002

The Juaneno Indians' fight to preserve an ancient village site in San Juan Capistrano echoes the centuries-old unease between indigenous Californians and Roman Catholic settlers. The Native Americans were there first but, as usual, never got a property deed. Teenagers will play ball over what may be Indian graves unless the factionalized Juaneno band and a Catholic high school enter good-faith talks. The struggle is just one chapter in California's spotty record of preserving sites precious to the land's earlier residents.

The 29 acres in question contain the remains of a village, Putiidhem, founded in the 1400s and a rare "mother village" from which other Indian settlements sprang. The villages in turn attracted Catholic missionaries, who picked a nearby spot for Mission San Juan Capistrano. Strange to say, the Juanenos' claim on the land was strengthened by the mission fathers, who chronicled Indian genealogies. Thus some living Juanenos can trace their ancestry to the village.

Now a new Catholic high school wants to put its athletic buildings and playing fields on the site. One Juaneno faction approves; the other two are outraged. Fanning the discontent is the school's name: Junipero Serra High, JSerra for short, after the missionary whom many California Indians accused of destroying much of their culture.

Some Juanenos want the entire parcel left untouched as a sacred site, though archeologists think the main part of the village was limited to about five acres. The primary issue is the remains of ancestors. Seven sets of remains have been found, and archeologists are certain there are more.

The Juanenos are not (yet) federally recognized and thus have no cash-generating casino. This is not a rich tribe that could buy the land. The Catholic school, for its part, has struggled to find a big parcel of flat land, a rarity in Orange County. As a compromise, putting aside part of the land, especially the five key acres, may be possible and certainly makes sense. But JSerra's actions have prompted mistrust.

Two months ago, school officials said they would talk only to the Juaneno tribal leader most sympathetic to them because he was the only one recognized by the state. That's untrue; all three factions are recognized by the state, and school officials say they realize that now. Still, despite 20 years of archeological evidence, they continue to question whether Putiidhem was on their land.

State law lauds preservation of such sites, but does little to bring it about. Gov. Gray Davis vetoed a stronger measure last session, with the valid criticism that the wording gave Indian tribes too much power over land planning. Sen. John Burton (D-San Francisco) plans to bring the measure back; under it, Putiidhem probably would qualify for stronger protection.

Recent federal legislation would pump $10 million into California's aging missions, including the 196-year-old Great Stone Church at Mission San Juan Capistrano. A worthy goal -- but it should be accompanied by a concerted effort to preserve less scenic, untouristy Native American sites that in some cases existed thousands of years before those missions.

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