David Belardes, OC's Most Controversial Native American Leader, Draws a Line in the Cemetery

John Gilhooley

Chief Belardes Makes His Stand
Orange County’s most controversial Native American leader draws a line in the cemetery

Walking up a fertile hill that hovers over the town of San Juan Capistrano, Juaneño Indian Chief David Belardes scans a row of green plants swallowing the edge of a gravel path.

“The mustard greens are pumping,” he says with awe. “When we were kids, we’d eat those all the time.”

Just then, a little blond dog darts ahead of its owner, scampers over to a mustard green, sniffs it, lifts a leg and pees on it.

“That’s why you boil them before you eat them,” Belardes says with a hearty laugh.

At the top of the hill on this bright, beautiful winter afternoon, you can make out the tallest parts of the town’s biggest tourist attraction and the jewel of California’s mission system, Mission San Juan Capistrano, to which Belardes has been closely tied for nearly all of his 62 years. He met his wife, Cha Cha, in kindergarten at the mission’s school for Indians in the 1950s. Until recently, she had worked at the mission for the past 25 years.

Half of Belardes’ family descended from two of California’s original Spanish settlers, one of whom arrived with Gaspar de Portolá’s first exploring expedition in 1769. The other half came from the Juaneño Band of Mission Indians, Acjachemen Nation. Cha Cha’s family is also half Juaneño, half Spanish, including the Aguilars of the Blas Aguilar Adobe, the museum Belardes runs around the corner from the mission.

As the chief of one of four Juaneño factions, Belardes is also a familiar face at the historical landmark, not as an employee, but as a Native American advocate who ensures his culture is preserved and protected there. For years, he worked closely with Mission Basilica San Juan Capistrano’s longtime pastor, the late Monsignor Paul Martin.

He and Martin would go on to have a terrible row, but they managed to patch things up a year before Martin’s 2003 retirement. Belardes offered warm words at the monsignor’s funeral two years later, and he remembers him as a dream to work with compared to the crew running the mission now.

Belardes is suing the mission and Diocese of Orange Bishop Tod D. Brown because a Rectory Garden dedicated to Martin’s memory was built over land that is part of a cemetery where thousands of Juaneños are buried, three bodies deep.

The mission’s lawyer accuses Belardes of “making a federal case” out of the Rectory Garden because of bad blood with the mission’s current leadership team and jealousy over the mission’s close ties to a rival Juaneño leader. Belardes fires back with accusations of years of dodgy—and possibly illegal—renovations and excavations at what he calls “Disneyland South.”

During one of the Juaneños’ unsuccessful attempts to win federal recognition, California’s legislature in 1993 estimated there were 7,000 living descendants of the Juaneños. Non-Indians have joined Juaneños and members of the Gabrieleno-Tongva Band of Mission Indians, whose ancestors also settled in parts of what would become Orange County, in attempting to stop potential desecration of lands that centuries before were Indian villages. These include Pahne at what is now San Mateo Campground, Puvunga on the grounds of Cal State Long Beach, “Puvunga East” near Seal Beach’s Hellman Ranch, the Bolsa Chica mesa near Huntington Beach and the land beneath the Harbor Ridge community in Newport Beach.

Belardes is trying to protect land under which there is no question thousands of Indians are buried and, he claims, real damage has occurred, but he does not receive any support. That is because he is distrusted by many environmentalists for working closely with builders of contentious Orange County developments down in the valley.

He has also been at the center of squabbles with other Native Americans because, as he puts it, “getting two Indians to agree on anything is impossible.”

*     *      *

Visit Mission San Juan Capistrano on a rainy day if you don’t like crowds. Aboveground crowds, that is.

“Approximately 2,000 people, mostly Juaneño Indians, were laid to rest in this area of unmarked graves,” read the words under “Mission Cemetery” on the map handed to visitors at the entrance.

The mission and downtown San Juan Capistrano are situated on what was once the village of Acjachema, whose people inhabited Orange County for 10,000 years. They built California’s seventh mission three miles to the east before it was moved to the current spot in 1777. The Spanish, other European settlers and their livestock brought diseases that killed many Juaneños, who were buried at the mission and up a hill just a short drive away on Ortega Highway.

Asked where the Old Cemetery is, a guy atop a ladder points to the portion of the Mission Cemetery that is open to the public. It is immediately east of Serra Chapel, where there is a large monument topped with a Celtic cross installed by the mission’s longtime pastor, Father John O’Sullivan, to memorialize those who built the mission. O’Sullivan’s tomb is at the foot of the monument.


The area is bounded by the back wall of the massive old stone church, the east chapel wall, the portion of the mission’s perimeter wall that runs parallel to El Camino Real and a wall that was created 50 years ago to cut the Old Cemetery in half and essentially give the rectory a private back yard.

Archival photos show crosses dotting that lot. Those markers are long gone. O’Sullivan, who led the mission from 1910 to 1933, installed the first Rectory Garden there, but it went to weed. The homeless were once allowed to camp there, but it mostly served as a storage area for landscaping equipment.

Near the middle of the wall bisecting the Old Cemetery is a locked, wooden gate. If you are tall enough to peek over it, you’ll see the new Rectory Garden with its lush lawn and plants, automatic sprinklers and large fountain, with surrounding paving and brick work. Against two sections of wall, new planting soil has been piled into mounds with knee-high religious statues plopped atop them. Below the mounds are cement footings for a large brick fireplace and a built-in barbecue and food station that were ripped out after Belardes caught wind of them.

In the spring of 2007, the mission’s current pastor, Father Art Holquin, decided to turn what he called a “rat-infested lot” into his Rectory Garden honoring Monsignor Martin. Work was completed quickly so the garden would be ready in time for a party attended by a cardinal flying in from Rome. The affair went off without a hitch, with music played and alcohol served on the ground beneath which Juaneños are buried.

By city law, construction permits should have been pulled. By state and federal law, such work should have included an archaeologist or at least a Native American monitor to minimize disturbances to sacred grounds. None of that happened. At Belardes’ urging, the city issued a stop-work order in July 2007, but by then, the Rectory Garden was just about completed. The matter went before the city’s Cultural Heritage Commission and the City Council, which ordered removal of the fireplace and barbecue but allowed their underground footings, some hardscape and the fountain to remain because it was feared removing them would further disturb the sacred grounds. Holquin apologized. Twice.

Belardes refuses to sign off on the compromise because, “I can’t say it’s not illegal if it is.” He almost sounds apologetic. The only solution he sees is returning the grounds to their previous condition. That’s why he is pressing his lawsuit in Orange County Superior Court Judge Nancy Stock’s courtroom, where an opening brief from his lawyers, who are working pro bono, is due March 16.

Ed Conner, the Diocese of Orange’s attorney and longtime Mission Basilica San Juan Capistrano parishioner, accuses Belardes of making a mountain out of an oversight because he so despises Holquin and the mission’s lay executive director, Mechelle Lawrence-Adams. Conner spoke on behalf of both for this story.

“Our bottom-line contention is the Rectory Garden is part of the Old Cemetery, but any excavation that was done for the foundation and fireplace, nothing was discovered,” Conner says. “It looks beautiful. Nobody who has seen it objects to it other than David Belardes, and I don’t know what his point is, unless it is to pay his attorney fees, rip everything out and put it back the way it was.

“The surprising thing to me is nobody knows where the burials are. No one’s found any remains. They don’t know how far the Old Cemetery goes into the Rectory Garden.”

The cemetery, wherever the hell it is, is Catholic, not Juaneño, Conner maintains.

“There was no desecration,” he says. “Grass, flowers and a fountain—that is not desecrating anybody. This is much ado about nothing.”

*     *     *

Making his case before the Native American Heritage Commission, the state agency that protects Indian remains and cultural resources that met Dec. 12 at San Juan Capistrano City Hall, Belardes said, “I worked for Camp Pendleton, Rancho Mission Viejo, the Irvine Co., all the Aliso Viejos, the toll roads, state parks, Caltrans. I’ve done this for 30 years and forgotten more than I’ve done.”

For years, he has been the go-to Indian for Orange County developers in need of a Native American monitor or most-likely Juaneño descendant to sign off on their projects. He has worked alongside company-hired archaeologists to oversee countless removals and reburials of remains as the building industry seemingly covers every square inch of open land in cement, stucco and asphalt.


It is tribal custom—and state law—to return Indian bones, teeth and other remains back to the earth from which they were plucked as quickly as possible. Because there is also a desire to keep these locations secret to prevent further ground disturbances, ceremonial reburials are generally conducted in private. That secrecy and willingness to work with the entities disturbing the dead in the first place foments the kind of mistrust that’s led to the fracturing of the Juaneños into at least four factions.

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.”

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.

He concedes it is a Catholic cemetery but adds that thousands of Native Americans are buried there, and the site is on the sacred land file under California resources law. Miles also questions whether it is sound legal strategy to raise the issue of Catholic baptisms of mission Indians. “They used Native Americans to build the missions. Do they really want to go into the history of the treatment of Native Americans, which shows many were forced to convert and essentially serve as slave labor?”

The mission has also said the Rectory Garden area is private and the bishop of Orange is the private landowner of the entire property, so state laws may not apply. But Miles notes the mission is also a state treasure that receives government funding. As for the fractured Juaneños, Miles says, “We all know there are different factions of the Juaneños. Everyone recognizes things would be better if they banded together. But this issue is not part of that tension. It’s fodder for another group. This is just David Belardes discovering a violation of the law.”

That is what the mission is reacting to when they disparage Belardes’ work as a Native American monitor, Miles says. Each project Belardes approaches is different and requires different forms of mitigation. However, with the Rectory Garden, “there was no opportunity for him to discuss this with them before,” Miles says. “There was no tribal monitor present.”

Miles notes that representatives of two other Juaneño groups told the Native American Heritage Commission they support Belardes’ fight and that no one other than Rivera voiced disagreement with the commissioners’ decision that December night.

“When the City Council heard the matter, they wanted compromise. Wrong. It was a violation of the law,” Miles says. “They see compromise as the legal solution. We don’t agree that’s the standard of the law. We’re arguing for full restoration. It’s not rocket science.”

Based on the gist of the mission’s statements, it sounds to Perry as if a church-vs.-state argument will be made in court. Miles says he’s ready. Besides the National Preservation Act, the California Environment Quality Act and various misdemeanors, Miles says, the Rectory Garden project may have violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, a federal statute that provides stronger protection for religious freedom in the land-use and prison contexts.

“They are infringing on the Native Americans’ religious beliefs as well,” says Miles, who is sharp enough to recognize the irony of that statement.

*     *     *

Jane Olinger of the nonprofit, Irvine-based California Cultural Resources Preservation Alliance (CCRPA) has joined Miles and Perry at the legal-office table, where she adds up the experience of five different professional contractors hired for the Rectory Garden project. “Together, they have over 100 years in the business,” she says. “And not one pulled a permit?”

Olinger was “personally offended” by workers who said they did not see any remains amid the unmonitored construction. “I’ve been with archaeologists on a site,” she says. “They will hover over a rock that no one else would know is something.”

She reserves special contempt for Mechelle Lawrence-Adams, the mission’s lay executive director. “If an administrator of an institution like this does not know this is a historic site, she should be called on the carpet,” she says. “That’s the opinion of Jane Olinger, not the CCRPA.”

Perry bets the case will be precedent-setting, and Miles believes the interest of a state agency such as the Native American Heritage Commission, which can call on the state attorney general’s office for legal muscle, opens the possibility of an expanded investigation.

Belardes had previously said the Rectory Garden project fit a pattern of “questionable activities” at the mission.

At the far northwest corner is an area known as the Monjero, where young Indian girls were locked up at night so men would not rape them. (It didn’t work.) Belardes has found no evidence of required archaeological reports having been filed for recent excavation work at the Monjero, the barracks building and the ceramics building. He further alleges cultural resources have been damaged or destroyed during construction. During excavations for what would become the Monsignor Martin Education Center, an 1817 hospital was discovered, but, again, no reports were filed, according to Belardes, who added that efforts to preserve the area proved fruitless.


Calls to the city were directed to Cultural Heritage Officer Teri Delcamp, who said she could not comment due to the Belardes litigation, which was technically filed against the city, with the bishop and mission named “real parties of interest.”

The Native American Heritage Commission has been made aware of Belardes’ other allegations about Mission San Juan Capistrano, but it has not received sufficient information to launch a formal investigation. Such complaints are becoming common. Indian leaders contacted the state agency over construction of a parking lot above Indian graves at Mission San Luis Rey near Oceanside and a lack of city permits pulled before construction that led to the discovery of 20 sets of Native American remains at Mission San Diego de Alcalá. The commission has also been alerted to mistreatment of Native American burials and artifacts at Central California’s Mission San Juan Bautista and Mission Nuestra Señora de la Soledad, respectively.

Reached by telephone, Knox Mellon, executive director of the nonprofit California Missions Foundation and formerly the state historical-preservation officer under two California governors, says mission-rehabilitation work must adhere to standards set by the U.S. secretary of the interior. Anyone who seeks his foundation’s guidance will be given a list of certified archaeologists who can make sure those standards are met.

“There is always a great desire to preserve the historic fabric—the more the better,” Mellon says. “There are instances and situations where some historic fabric needs to be sacrificed. Every effort should be made to minimize what we call an adverse effect. Optimum is not to destroy any, but if some must be destroyed, try to minimize it.”

He is quite aware of tensions between missions and tribes when renovation clashes with preservation and especially how answering to multiple tribal leaders compounds frustrations at Mission San Juan Capistrano.

“What they desperately need is federal recognition because that brings money,” Mellon said of the Juaneños. “When I was the state historical-preservation officer, the feds would tell me over and over again, ‘We’re not going to stick our necks out because there are multiple factions.’ The feds do not want to spend money where there is controversy. There are three factions [actually four] in San Juan Capistrano that still are not able to get together and gain what they all need desperately and what they all want. I can see the frustration everyone sees there. The leadership of San Juan Capistrano is desirous of doing the right thing. It is a very awkward situation.”

He said he has much respect for Belardes, who sits on his foundation’s board. “I know it is very frustrating for him to try and push ahead, knowing he feels he is doing the best for that faction of the tribe he represents,” Mellon said. “But, you know, if you talk to different groups, suddenly you find there are different interpretations.”

*     *     *

As he is being driven to his home down in the San Juan Capistrano flats, Belardes recalls a meeting he attended years ago at which an associate of Monsignor Martin referred to “the Roman Catholics’ mission.”

“This is the Juaneños’ mission, I told them,” Belardes says with a sly smile. “Without the Juaneños, there would be no mission.” He pauses for a beat.

“They didn’t like that much.”


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