Longtime Juaneño Indian Leader David Belardes Loses His Battle with Cancer

David Belardes, R.I.P.
David Belardes, R.I.P.
Photo by John Gilhooley/OC Weekly

The passing of David Belardes, the onetime chief of the Juaneño Band of Mission Indians in San Juan Capistrano, warrants a look back at our Feb. 5, 2009, cover story.

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

After months of battling esophageal cancer, Belardes died Monday at Mission Hospital in Mission Viejo. He was 67.

About 70 people gathered in Mission Basilica San Juan Capistrano's Sacred Garden Monday for a ringing of the mission's bells in Belardes' honor, reports the Orange County Register.

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That's one of the places Belardes and I had met for the cover story, which was about his legal dispute with the mission and Diocese of Orange over improvements being done to part of the cemetery where thousands of Juaneños are buried, three bodies deep. Native Americans believe sacred land should not be disturbed.

That was just one of the land battles that made Belardes controversial, even to other Juaneños. He was eventually ousted as chief and started his own separate faction of the tribe, which the original Juaneño Band of Mission Indians did not recognize. A follow-up to my cover story on Belardes revealed that the then-leadership of the Juaneños did not believe Belardes was a Juaneño.

Anthony Rivera's Juaneño Indian Tribal Council Says Chief David Belardes Is No Juaneño

(To give you an idea of how fractured the Juaneños are, that leadership group was later ousted.)

Before the reporting on the cover story began, I'd sought out Belardes for several stories over the years, including those on development near what is considered sacred land on the JSerra Catholic High School campus in San Juan Capistrano and on the mesa overlooking the Bolsa Chica wetlands in Huntington Beach. Once I even pretended to want to write a feature on his preservation of the historically significant Blas Aguilar Adobe in San Juan Capistrano. No luck, I could never get to him, only his answering machine. I believe we finally hooked up after I first met his tribal manager Joyce Perry at a public hearing.

I can't speak for Belardes, but I suspect he would have liked to see federal recognition of the Juaneños before he died. That would have made several of the land disputes that helped make him controversial less controversial because the Juaneños would have had greater control over what happened on top of their sacred land.

David Belardes is survived by his sister, Donna Belardes Murphy, and two sons, Domingo and Matias. His family plans to honor him with a traditional Catholic rosary on Friday at the Serra Chapel and a funeral mass at Mission Basilica on Saturday, the Register reports. He is to be buried next to his wife, Aurora "Cha Cha" Belardes, who died in 2009.

Email: mcoker@ocweekly.com. Twitter: @MatthewTCoker. Follow OC Weekly on Twitter @ocweekly or on Facebook!


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