By Matt Coker
By R. Scott Moxley
By Charles Lam
By Nick Schou
By Gustavo Arellano
By Gustavo Arellano
By Steve Lowery
By R. Scott Moxley
Photographs line the walls of the Juaneño Band of Mission Indians, Acjachemen Nation office in a former fire station on La Matanza Street in San Juan Capistrano. One series shows modern-day tribal members collecting tule leaves for cone-shaped huts known as kiichas that their ancestors used as shelter.
No Kodak moments are reserved for the tribe’s longtime former chairman, David Belardes, who is the chief of a separate Juaneño faction. The tribal council, led by chairman Anthony Rivera, does not recognize other factions—and they contend Belardes is not even a Juaneño. That charge has been amplified repeatedly on ocweekly.com since the publication of a recent Weekly cover story (“Chief Belardes Makes His Stand,” Feb. 6) and related posts on the paper’s staff blog, Navel Gazing.
This is just the latest salvo in a battle that has been raging between Juaneño factions for years. Besides Rivera and Belardes’ San Juan Capistrano-based groups, there are Santa Ana-based factions led by Joe Ocampo and Bud Sepulveda. The San Juan Capistrano schism has been blamed on everything from Belardes’ alleged profiteering as a Native American monitor for powerful land developers to the divisive influence of Las Vegas gambling interests.
Accompanied by three members of his tribal council, Rivera explained that genealogy studies of enrolled members are required if the Juaneños are to gain long-sought federal recognition. “It is part of the package,” Nedra Darling, Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) spokeswoman, later confirmed.
Each tribal member is represented by a brown folder stuffed with blood-test results, genealogical charts and other data. Each must match one of a handful of Juaneño ancestors confirmed by a genealogist recommended to the tribe by the U.S. Department of Interior.
Tribal-council members have long accused Belardes of misrepresenting the tribe. Vice chairwoman Fran Yorba, who grew up with Belardes in San Juan Capistrano, said she started hearing stories in the mid-1990s that Belardes was not a Juaneño. Though Belardes was no longer a member of his group, Rivera commissioned a May 3, 2008, genealogical study of his rival that has been reviewed by the Weekly. Lorraine “Rain Cloud” Escobar, a board-certified genealogist out of Modesto, could not support a previous claim by Belardes of Juaneño blood on his father’s side, concluding that his paternal grandparents, Teodosio Belardes and Ramona Yorba, were of Mexican and Spanish ancestry; Escobar indicated she found “no contemporary evidence as ‘Indian.’”
“Just because you wear a headband,” Rivera said of Belardes, “it does not make you an Indian.”
“When I first heard of their attempt to discredit my family history, I thought, ‘How cruel,’ and I was hurt,” Belardes responded later. “After I thought about it, the casino Indians are so disconnected and new they would not know our history, so I considered the source.”
The Belardes group alleges “new Indians,” lured into tribal politics by future riches being dangled by casino-gaming interests, are trying to drive out opponents.
“The irony of it all is they would not have a tribe to steal or any sacred sites to remember, if it weren’t for my cousin Raymond and my efforts,” Belardes said. “No one can take my family’s longevity and history away from me. I know who I am, and my family knows who they are.”
The Belardes clan is deeply intertwined in the history of the Juaneños and San Juan Capistrano, which even has a street called Via Belardes. The BIA’s records show Teodosio Belardes was like a captain to longtime Chief Clarence Lobo and that when no one from the Lobo family came forward to lead after Clarence’s death in 1985, first Raymond Belardes, then David Belardes took over leadership.
That all changed when the tribe was approached by casino-gaming representatives—and Belardes himself opened the door to them. But while sitting in the chairman’s seat now occupied by Rivera, Belardes in 1995 broke off talks after receiving legal advice that the discussions could derail federal recognition. Joyce Perry, now tribal manager of Belardes’ group, says tribal members who favored continuing down the casino path organized an election that Belardes refused to participate in. A new chairman was elected in 1997. Rivera is the third since then.
In his office, Rivera showed the Weekly a document that shows Belardes was “disconnected from the tribe” in 1997 for a laundry list of abuses of power and a resignation letter bearing Belardes’ signature from that same year. Now, in light of the genealogy study, Rivera said, “Twelve years later, it turned out to be the right thing to do.”
Perry calls this a long campaign to “character-assassinate David.”
“Mr. Rivera’s group has every right to define how they want to be governed, and they have every right to define their membership,” she said. “We are traditionalists. We maintain that old families that they disenrolled are Juaneños, and we look forward to putting our community back together again.”
Disenrollment is a hot topic in the American Indian community, in Southern California and around the country. The BIA revealed Jan. 9 it had received complaints that 50 previously unregistered tribal members the bureau had reinstated had been barred from tribal-government elections by the San Pasqual Band of Diegueno Mission Indians in Valley Center. Tribal security guards and San Diego County sheriff’s deputies reportedly blocked those legitimate voters from the polls even after the BIA disclosed the previous disenrollments were based on mistakes.
California records from the 1700s and 1800s upon which genealogists rely can be spotty. Indians—who were often abused, raped and hunted with impunity—often hid their heritage or identified with their Spanish, Mexican or Anglo ancestors on documents collected by schools, missions and the federal government. These documents are now being dusted off to prove or disprove tribal identity.
“We are adamant about not allowing the federal government to define our tribe,” Perry says. “It’s a sovereignty issue.”
Rivera’s tribal council is sticking to its genealogical guns. In December, the council pleaded to the state Native American Heritage Commission to “clean up” the list of most likely descendants (MLDs) it distributes to developers in need of American Indian monitors to deal with Native American remains uncovered during construction. For 30 years, Belardes has been doing this work on some of Orange County’s most contentious developments. Until the panel, which is considering his tribe’s request, changes the way MLDs are selected, “the Native American Heritage Commission does a disservice to this tribe,” Rivera said.
His group claims the largest membership, with around 900 families. It is the one true Juaneño tribe, says Rivera, who called the other groups “interested parties.” That conclusion is based on Department of Interior findings that indicate his group is the main petitioner when it comes to the tribal-recognition process that Belardes started because it is easier for the government to deal directly with one representative. “Interested parties” are also invited to submit documents, petitions and testimony, but the government clearly states it will not choose or identify an ultimate tribal leader.
Ocampo confided he, too, is being accused of not being Juaneño—by the vice chairwoman he appointed.
“I don’t pay much attention to it,” he said. “All she is doing is splitting the tribe once again. They get carried away with their own importance.”
He is “very disappointed in the way these supposed leaders are acting” and believes each leader should step aside and allow all Juaneños to elect one chairman for the good of the tribe. If Rivera does not sign off on that, Ocampo suggests, the remaining groups should join forces. “Then we can say, ‘Here we are, Mr. Rivera. Would you like to join our group?’”