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Juaneno Indians Split Over Catholic High School Opening

A tribal leader helps mark Junipero Serra's first day, while other factions protest plans for sports fields to cover a burial ground.

September 04, 2003|Dave McKibben | Times Staff Writer

Orange County's newest high school opened Wednesday in San Juan Capistrano, with picketers reminding the uniform-clad students, parents and civic boosters of the controversy surrounding the campus.

Junipero Serra High School, five years in the planning, was welcomed by a Juaneno Indian who stood alongside school supporters, and targeted by other Juanenos who protested plans for the school's athletic complex to be built atop ancestral burial grounds.

About 500 people attended the ribbon-cutting at the Catholic school, after driving by Indians chanting prayer songs and hoisting signs that proclaimed "Our Ancestors Not 4-Sale," "Shame on Serra," "A Campus Without Dignity" and "No Building on Sacred Ground."

"They have the right to organize and speak out, but that's not going to infringe on our celebrating or stop us from giving our students a quality education," said Tim Busch, co-founder and president of the school. "We believe what we're doing here is the right thing."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday September 05, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction
Indian headdress -- A photograph caption that appeared in the Orange County edition with a California section article about the opening of a new high school incorrectly described a "traditional Juaneno headdress." The headdress depicted is traditional for the Plains Indians.

The 29 acres in dispute, across from the main campus, had been zoned for office and retail use until the city in May gave the school tentative approval to build athletic fields and a performing arts center there.

Two factions of the Juanenos prefer that the site be used for a cultural center to honor their ancestors.

David Belardes, leader of a third faction, agreed to support the school after campus officials promised not to destroy any burial sites and to erect monuments recognizing tribal leaders. Belardes participated in the ribbon cutting, to the irritation of protesting Juanenos.

Also attending were San Juan Capistrano Councilmen Joe Soto, David M. Swerdlin and John S. Gelff, who will be asked to give the project final approval next year after environmental and traffic studies are completed.

Juanenos who oppose the school's use of the land have sued the city, hoping to block the sports fields on the grounds that the city has violated state environmental laws.

Busch said he was confident construction would begin on the athletic facilities by May.

During the 45-minute ribbon-cutting event, Busch welcomed 11 teachers and 110 freshmen and 50 sophomores in their khaki pants and skirts, white shirts and blouses and black "JSerra" sweater vests.

Joanie Inlow, whose son Matthew is an incoming freshman, said she was not bothered by the dispute surrounding the school's athletic fields.

"I'd rather see a Catholic high school here than a strip mall or a casino," said Inlow, a San Juan Capistrano resident. "Teaching children and improving their lives can only help the community. There's been a lot of obstacles along the way. But it seems anything worthwhile is never easy."

Betty Cappelletti, whose son Joseph will play football at Junipero Serra, said she recently learned of the battle over the land. "I'm hoping both sides can come to some sort of agreement," said Cappelletti, whose husband, John, was a Heisman Trophy winner at Penn State. "There's just not much land available around here."

Rebecca Robles, who belongs to a Juaneno faction led by Damien Shilo, said they will continue demonstrating to preserve her tribe's sacred land. "We don't have the lease or the deed, but when we pray, we feel this land is ours," she said. "We will continue to try and build the web of public support."

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