'Carpetbaggers, Thieves and Land-grabbers'

Toll road officials raise the dead in their war with local Native Americans

County toll road officials are shocked—can't understand why Juaneños, members of the county's Native American tribe, are upset about plans to build a six-lane highway within 50 feet of their honest-to-God Indian burial ground. Rather than force them to watch Poltergeist, state Attorney General Bill Lockyer has chosen to sue them. Twice.

It's about time someone stuck up for the Juaneños.

In 1776, America was created and the Juaneños were condemned. That year, Father Junipero Serra enlisted the local natives, inhabitants of the village of Panhe, to construct Mission San Juan Capistrano. They were encouraged to convert to Catholicism and then work themselves to death to bring about their everlasting salvation. Mexico secularized the mission in 1835 and gave the Juaneños back some of their land; settlers grabbed much of that, further marginalizing the natives. An 1865 smallpox epidemic sent the tribe into obscurity. Today, Panhe, site of one of their largest precolonial villages, has been reduced to a five-acre fenced parcel between Cristianitos Road and San Mateo Campground. Surviving Juaneños still gather there for religious ceremonies and ancestor reburials.

Now comes the Foothill-South toll road, a 16-mile extension from Oso Parkway in Rancho Santa Margarita to the 5 freeway just south of the San Diego County line. In March, Lockyer and his office filed lawsuits to stop construction. His suit alleges the Transportation Corridor Agencies (TCA) failed to consider the project's impact on the environment. His office's suit claims the Foothill-South would cause "severe and irreparable damage" to a sacred Native American site on public property, a violation of California Government Code 5097.9.

The TCA says Lockyer is wrong, that it has consulted with Native Americans for years—and heard no objections. "Letters were sent to all tribal groups in November 2003, and groups were called during December 2003," the agency says in its environmental report. "No specific comments were received from these follow-up telephone conversations."

"I find it difficult for them to hide out behind the veil of 'Yeah, we tried, but they never called us back,'" says Larry Myers, executive director of the state's Native American Heritage Commission. "And I find it very difficult to believe they would get no response. Rebecca Robles and her group came to us nine months ago."

Robles is chair of the Sierra Club's Sacred Sites Task Force. She wrote the TCA last year to warn the agency that Panhe lay in the path of the Foothill-South. A copy of her letter obtained by the Weekly shows that, among other matters, Robles raised the specter of vandalism and grave robbery—what she called "public accessibility to previously inaccessible archaeological sites."

The TCA played dumb, responding that it was "unclear" why anyone would believe the toll road would facilitate such access: "It is unlikely that someone interested in looting an archaeological resource would use the transportation corridor as a way to access and illegally collect materials from any archaeological resource."

In fact, the TCA's own environmental impact report predicts precisely that outcome. In Section 4.16-3, the agency cites the potential of the road to increase "disturbance of archaeological resources including the potential for scavenging and/or damage by relic collectors." The TCA was so concerned about these resources that it didn't include the location of said resources "in order to protect them from unauthorized collecting and vandalism."

The TCA's environmental impact report originally described Panhe in 1835, when Mexico secularized Mission San Juan Capistrano and granted its land to residents: "Predation by assorted carpetbaggers, thieves and land-grabbers, and political wrangling between religious and secular leaders further degraded the little pueblo." In the final report, the above phrase was struck out and replaced with, "Land transfers from Native Americans to various European settlers further degraded the little pueblo." Perhaps the first version offended modern-day carpetbaggers, thieves and land-grabbers.

 
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