Last year, Belardes and his group clashed with Gabrieleno-Tongva members over control of remains unearthed on the Bolsa Chica mesa, where Brightwater Hearthside Homes is building 300 more pads no one can get financing for. The developer sided with Belardes, its hand-picked monitor.

Conner finds it telling that Belardes years ago reached a compromise with the operators of JSerra High School, which is up Junipero Serra Road from the mission, when it came to the building of a sports complex over the sacred Juaneño village of Putiidhem.

“They feel not only were a lot of people buried there, but it is also where their ancestors lived and ruled,” Conner says. “He was the Juaneño who said, ‘Oh, that’s fine, that’s cool; go ahead and put in an athletic field and big field house there.’ But we want to put in flowers, grass and a fountain, and that, somehow, is wrong.”

Tribal Manager Joyce Perry, with Belardes at the portion of the cemetery open to the public, believes the mission acted "with malice."
John Gilhooley
Tribal Manager Joyce Perry, with Belardes at the portion of the cemetery open to the public, believes the mission acted "with malice."
Stephen Miles, the Belardes group's attorney, will argue in court the mission violated various local, state and possibly federal laws.
John Gilhooley
Stephen Miles, the Belardes group's attorney, will argue in court the mission violated various local, state and possibly federal laws.

The Native American Heritage Commission thought so, unanimously calling on the city to explain why no penalties were levied against the mission and asking the mission to catalog its culturally sensitive areas, document its cultural and archaeological resources, contact all Juaneño leaders about future projects, and publicly apologize for any disturbances the Rectory Garden work may have caused (see “Grave Situation,” Dec. 25, 2008).

But Conner says Belardes has lost so much respect at the mission they now negotiate exclusively with Anthony Rivera, a rival Juaneño group’s leader who is a Mission Basilica San Juan Capistrano parishioner and supporter of the Rectory Garden project. Repeated calls to Rivera’s office for this story were not returned.

After Belardes and his tribal council sent Holquin a letter dated March 25, 2007, admonishing the priest for recognizing Rivera over other Juaneño leaders, Holquin responded a week later with a “Dear David” letter stating the mission was following the U.S. Department of the Interior’s lead in identifying “Chairman Rivera as the official leader of the Juaneño Band of Mission Indians.”

Belardes at one time led the largest faction of Juaneños, but he was ousted amid acrimony over dealings with Las Vegas casino interests in the mid-1990s. Rivera later rose to lead that group, but members who did not like the way things were being run splintered off and chose Belardes as their leader. When considering a tribe’s petition for federal recognition, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) finds it impossible to deal with several representatives, so it recognizes Rivera as the Juaneño tribal representative and other leaders as interested parties. But the BIA takes no position on internal tribal conflicts, will not decide who the leader is and considers submissions from other members of the tribe.

Holquin concluded his letter with a “personal observation.”

“With all of the new opportunities to improve the interpretation, depiction and involvement of Native American ancestry, you have consistently been invited to be part of this process,” Holquin writes. “However, in most instances, you have provided me, my executive director and our staff with resistance and criticism. You have made ultimatums and refused to attend events, or stood on the sidelines mocking the Mission. I recall a meeting with city officials where you were invited to apologize to the Mission for your personal derogatory comments with regard to the cemetery management and my involvement as ‘desecrating the cemetery.’ I am still waiting for that apology. To suggest I should recognize a leader who has no official standing with the Federal Government, does not work to promote the history of the Native Americans at the Mission, does not volunteer, is not a part of the Mission Parish, and continues to project a hostile attitude toward me and this historic institution confounds me.”

*     *     *

Sitting at a conference table in her lawyer’s ultra-modern Irvine office, Joyce Perry, tribal manager of the Belardes Juaneño faction, explains that her chief and Holquin started off fine. Then Belardes was asked to perform an Indian ceremony at a Catholic event.

“Rule No. 1 is ‘You don’t ask a chief to perform a ceremony.’ It’s inappropriate,” Perry says. “David didn’t want to be the token show Indian at the grand opening of Father Holquin’s stone church. That made Father Art mad. That’s when it started.”

As he sits at the head of the table across from Perry, Stephen Miles, the Belardes group’s attorney, makes the mission’s argument about as well as Conner does. Feral cats once roamed the unkempt dirt lot that has been transformed into the beautiful Rectory Garden. The former Old Cemetery beneath the Rectory Garden is a Catholic graveyard. It is a private area, walled off from the public. Belardes does not get along with other Juaneño leaders.

All true, Miles says. But the lawsuit he will argue comes down to one simple question: Did the Rectory Garden project violate California environmental- and cultural-resource laws?

The mission should be ashamed a portion of the cemetery was left unkempt for so many years, but that does not excuse turning it into a party zone, says Miles. “Show me another Catholic cemetery that looks like the Rectory Garden project,” he says.

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