This is Where We Pray

As earthmovers move in, local Indians move to save their sacred land

Photo courtesy of
Lillian Robles' familyA large brown hawk wheeled over the circle of 70 people standing in the San Mateo Campground parking lot, listening to a middle-aged spiritual leader. Was it just coincidence? At each of the next five stops on this cross-county pilgrimage to the county's sacred Indian sites, a hawk or an eagle would circle above the same human circle.

That observation sparked this one: when a large bird flies overhead, Native Americans look up while everyone else stares straight ahead. But when a plane flies overhead, everyone else looks up while Native Americans stare straight ahead. It's as if we're tuned to different radio stations.

"This is not a protest—it's a prayerful vigil," said the spiritual leader, whose straight black hair is losing its battle against gray. As he spoke, a Native American woman "cleansed" the participants, spreading white smoke from a burning bundle of coastal sage over each, head to toe, front and back.

"My name is Jimi Castillo," said the spiritual leader, leaning on a large stick adorned with skins and feathers and topped with the head of a formerly living brown eagle. "I am Tongva, and I am Acjachemem."

The Tongva people inhabited much of Los Angeles and Orange counties down to Aliso Creek before the Spanish arrived and renamed them Gabrielenos after Mission San Gabriel. The Acjachemem lived from south of Aliso to northern San Diego County. They were renamed Juanenos after Mission San Juan Capistrano.

Many in the circle had arrived in cars and pickups with bumper stickers touting Indian causes. One Buick sedan had a large sign in the back window with the American flag and the words "United We Stand." A hand-painted "Save All of Bolsa Chica" sign stood upright in the front window of an old VW van. Several in the circle wore T-shirts bearing Native American images. Some women wore traditional Indian dress, their long, colorful skirts reaching incongruously to the tops of their Nikes.

The Harbor Cove tract in Newport
Beach may have been built on the
oldest and largest cemetary in the U.S.
Photo by Keith May

"Grandma Lillian Robles started this five years ago," Castillo told the circle. "She passed away in April. Members of her family are here. I was in sweat lodge last night. Grandma Lillian came there. I invited her to come with us today."

Robles, who died of cancer at age 84, was an elder in the Juaneno Band of Mission Indians. Her direct descendents were already here when Mission San Juan Capistrano was founded in 1776 and the city of Los Angeles was settled five years later. Her obituary ran in newspapers across the country, including the Chicago Tribune, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and the Seattle Times. Robles had earned a national reputation for battling developers to preserve ancient Indian sites. "This land speaks to me," she used to say.

Robles conceived the pilgrimage five years ago to remind people that there is sacred Native American land all over Orange County and that Native Americans and others here intend to make sure no one builds over those sites.

"People have the mistaken belief that the Indians are all gone," Castillo said. "This is to show that we're still here. Our people have been here for 25,000 years."

Grandma Lillian is gone, but her struggle continues. Every plot of land that was prayed over on Oct. 6 is earmarked for development. The proposed route for the extension of a toll road would carve through an ancient burial ground south of San Clemente. Luxury homes have already been built over sacred spots in Newport Beach and on the Bolsa Chica mesa near Huntington Beach. More homes have been approved for Bolsa Chica, while a golf course and other developments threaten a Native American burial ground at Hellman Ranch in Seal Beach. The holiest Native American land in the area is on the campus of Cal State Long Beach, where over the years preservation battles have ended with both stunning victories and defeats.

"There are supposed to be laws to protect sacred land," said Piit Secna Nosuun, whose given name is Kathy Sandoval. "This is where we pray. This is where we come to honor our ancestors. This is where we come together as a community. We must honor this place as much as we can. We will not let anyone build anything here because this is sacred land."

Even among Native Americans, there's disagreement about the proper handling of sacred land. While some Indians believe sacred sites should be left alone, others are paid by developers to handle the excavation and removal of bone fragments and chipped pots to storage facilities, museums or final resting places.

Bolsa Chica mesa is among
the stops on the pilgrimage
to sacred Indian land started
by Lillian Robles.
Photo by Keith May

Such divisions leave developers free to work with the tribal leader likely to put up the least resistance. Consider the Juanenos, for example. Though a recent court decision recognizes Jean Frietze as the Juaneno leader, the Irvine Co., Orange County's largest land developer, recognizes the authority—and pays for the advice—of David Belardes. When the city of San Juan Capistrano wanted to ban an Indian casino proposed for that city, they recognized Belardes; when it came time to rent space in the city's old fire station to Juaneno leaders, they recognized Frietze. There's even a third leader for them to choose from: Sonia Johnston of Huntington Beach.

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