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Tug Over Indian Burial Site Escalates

History: In San Juan Capistrano, one faction seeks the city's help in buying and leaving the land untouched.


A group of American Indians and archeologists has launched a campaign to preserve a 29-acre parcel it says contains dozens of ancient burial plots and is the last undeveloped remnant of the former tribal village now known as San Juan Capistrano.

At a prayer vigil Sunday, members called for the city to join them to buy the property, build a cultural center and leave the Juaneno burial site untouched.

"It's a cemetery, and the people there are our ancestors," said Fran Yorba, a tribal officer for one faction of Juanenos that advocates preservation. "We have a moral obligation to our future generations to fight for this piece of history not to be erased."

It's the latest twist in the saga of the former agricultural parcel at Camino Capistrano and Junipero Serra Road, a lot the city had hoped could generate tax dollars and the crowded public school district is eyeing for a middle school.

The land belongs to Junipero Serra High School, a Roman Catholic institution slated to open across the street next fall. The parochial school wants to put athletic fields there, a plan that school officials say has been approved by another faction of the local Juaneno tribe so long as only fields, not buildings, are placed above any burial grounds.

"We want to use this site, but we want to respect their ancestors," said Tim Busch, head of Serra's board of directors.

Serra supporters, meanwhile, are circulating petitions to force a citywide vote next spring that would change the parcel's commercial zoning so it can be used for athletic fields.

Local preservationists have been bolstered in their efforts by archeologist Patricia Martz, who believes there may be as many as 175 more bodies buried on the land.

Martz, a professor at Cal State Los Angeles, said the tribal village was first inhabited in the 1400s. It was known as Putiidhem, which means "her navel" in honor of a revered clan leader.

Martz also heads the California Cultural Resource Preservation Alliance, a group of Indians and scientists formed to preserve Orange County archeological sites, including the Serra land.

But archeologist Henry Koerper of Cypress College, an expert on Orange County prehistory who has studied the property for 20 years and written reports on it for the city, cast doubt on Martz's burial estimates. He said some estimates have run as high as a dozen, but only seven burial plots have been found.

"Unless you have X-ray vision, it's impossible to say how many more burials are down there," Koerper said.

Knowing where there are concentrations of burials means a school could probably position buildings and fields so no remains are disturbed, he said.

Koerper and Serra officials said the state has designated San Juan Capistrano resident David Belardes as the authorized Juaneno representative and that he has agreed to the school's plan.

Belardes could not be reached for comment, but tribal manager Joyce Stanfield Perry said the school has promised the tribe that a Juaneno monument will be dedicated at the fields and that its history classes will accurately portray Indians.

"It is extremely unfortunate that we do not own that land and that we cannot protect it in the manner that is appropriate," Perry said. "But so far, [Serra officials] have been very sensitive to our needs."

Other members of the splintered tribe challenge Belardes' authority to make decisions.

Sonia Johnston, tribal council chairwoman for a third faction of Juanenos, said school officials are listening to whatever Indian group is willing to go along with its development plans.

"They're trying to say that all of us who are emotionally and spiritually attached to that land don't exist," Johnston said.

Busch, Serra's board chairman, replied that while school officials are sympathetic, they cannot compromise with all the factions.

"We're not discounting their importance, but legally they aren't recognized by the state," he said.

Serra backers have struggled for three years since they first announced plans for the Catholic high school at another site in the city. Since then, a Christian ministry backed out of a deal to sell land to Serra after finding that non-Catholics would be barred from teaching religion there.

Earlier this year, the school persuaded the city to drop plans for a hotel and office complex there, but it still needs to win a zoning change.

Complicating matters, the Capistrano Unified School District has designated the site as its first choice for a new middle school.

District officials, who have considered using their powers of eminent domain to take the land, heard a presentation by alliance members last week and said they may revisit four other sites also under consideration. But Deputy Supt. Margaret LaRoe said there is much reason to recommend the Serra Road property.

"If you take away the fact that it's sacred, this is a rare piece of land: a buildable, flat parcel within San Juan Capistrano," LaRoe said. "There aren't a lot of good pieces like this left."

If Capistrano Unified does try to take over the land, tribal manager Perry said the tribe would seek the same provisions it has with Serra High School.

"This isn't about choosing the best development plan," she said. "This is about making sure that education and preservation prevail."

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