Native American Battle Over a Mission San Juan Capistrano Garden Gets Ugly

A fountain similar to this one at the mission has caused a battle royale
Courtesy Mission San Juan Capistrano

Grave Situation
Native American battle over the possible disturbance of an Indian burial site at a Mission San Juan Capistrano garden gets ugly

A legal battle over beautification of a long-neglected dirt lot over Mission San Juan Capistrano’s Old Cemetery is born out of “a vendetta,” according to one attorney arguing the case.

Ed Connor, who represents the Diocese of Orange, blames Native American tribal leader David Belardes not getting along with Mission Basilica San Juan Capistrano parish pastor Father Arthur Holquin for a protracted dispute that has drawn in the San Juan Capistrano Cultural Heritage Commission, the City Council, the California Native Heritage Commission, Orange County Superior Court and at least four groups of the Juaneño-Acjachemen Band of Mission Indians.

Belardes, who is the longtime chairman of one Juaneño group, has served as a Native American monitor on many building projects at the mission in the past 30 years, especially when the late Monsignor Paul Martin was in charge. But he has been called upon far less frequently since Holquin took over upon Martin’s 2003 retirement.

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“David Belardes does not get along with Father Art,” says Connor, a longtime member of the parish.

Holquin decided in late spring 2007 to turn what he called a “rat infested” lot into a memorial garden honoring Martin. Included was a fireplace, fountain, food-preparation area and landscaping. But in Holquin’s zeal to get the project completed before a cardinal’s arrival from Rome to consecrate a new altar, he made two huge mistakes: He did not get city-required permits, and he failed to enlist a state-required Native American monitor to help deal with what are considered sacred remains that construction often unearths. By law and custom, Indian bones, teeth and artifacts must be quickly reburied as close as possible to where they were found.

There should have been no question a monitor was needed: The mission’s own maps show part of the Old Cemetery, where the ancestors of many Juaneños are buried, is under the so-called Rectory Garden, which is adjacent to the rectory, near the El Camino Real mission entrance.

Belardes, who did not learn of the project until it was essentially completed, complained on July 17, 2007, to the city of San Juan Capistrano and the Native American Heritage Commission (NAHC), which strives to preserve and protect Indian remains and associated grave goods. The city issued a stop-work notice two days later.

After months of investigations and negotiations, the mission submitted a belated site plan this past April that the city approved. In May, Belardes appealed to the city’s Cultural Heritage Commission, arguing the project was disruptive to remains. Holquin claimed no bones were ever uncovered, but he did admit mistakes were made. The commission upheld the site-plan approval as long as the fireplace and food-prep area were removed.

Belardes wanted everything gone, so he appealed to the city council. Though technically no work should have gone on at the mission until the council hearing, Connor advised ripping out the fireplace and food-prep area, thinking that might “make this go away.” Holquin in August apologized to council members, who decided removing the fountain and concrete foundations might disturb remains. They also ordered new Rectory Garden grass be replaced with drought-resistant turf that requires less watering.

A month later, under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), Belardes took the city and mission to court on grounds that environmental reports had never been filed on the fountain, foundations and landscaping. A June hearing is scheduled.

San Juan Capistrano Mayor Mark Nielsen held mediation meetings in November between the mission, Belardes and Anthony Rivera, the leader of another faction of Juaneños who began working with Holquin to address Native American concerns after the priest’s apologies. Belardes walked out of those talks after a second meeting.

Rivera defended the mission and Holquin when the NAHC took the matter up Dec. 12 at San Juan Capistrano City Hall. “I want to make this clear: No bones were discovered,” Rivera told commissioners, who are appointed by the governor. “The laws have been satisfied. The mission and Father Holquin have been working very hard to make sure this does not happen again.” He noted the mission flies a Juaneño flag and that many Juaneños are parishioners.

Stephen Miles, an Irvine-based attorney who represents Belardes, countered that by the time Rivera got involved, “the damage had already occurred.” The lawyer also called it “disingenuous” to say no remains were found because neither a monitor nor an archaeologist trained to spot bone fragments was ever present.

Belardes, who attended the mission school in the 1950s and helped conduct the first Native American reburial there in 1981, accused the Church hierarchy of having acted “with malice” because they knew the garden would be over a cemetery and Indian monitors would be required. “These are our ancestors’ remains here,” Belardes said. “They keep saying ‘garden, garden.’ ‘No,’ I tell them, ‘this is a cemetery.’”

Commissioners could not contain their outrage.

“I’m angry,” said Commissioner Julie Tumamait-Stenslie, a Barbareño/Ventureño tribal leader. “There is no respect. We don’t really know what was disturbed there.”

“I am sorry they are not here,” said Clifford Trafzer, a Wyandot Indian and Native American Studies director at UC Riverside, of Church officials. “Shame on you, that’s what I say; shame on you, Church.”

In the end, the NAHC voted unanimously to ask the city why no penalties against the mission were deemed appropriate and demand the mission assess its entire property for culturally sensitive areas, document all archaeological and cultural resources, contact all Juaneño tribal leaders about any future work that goes on there, and publicly apologize for any disturbances the Rectory Garden may have caused.

Days later, Connor expressed surprise, then blamed tribal politics.

“Frankly, we feel the mission is caught in between two competing factions—the recognized Juaneño faction and this other faction led by Mr. Belardes, who is trying to get recognition for himself,” Connor says. “He wants to get the spotlight turned on him, when, in fact, we have been working very closely with and have the support of the one faction the federal government has been working with, Anthony Rivera’s.”

The mission has already apologized, complied with city conditions and tried to make amends, he contends. “This goes far beyond whatever makes sense,” Connor says. “A number of tribal factions are supporting us. I guess it’s just par for the course down at the mission.”

He questioned whether the NAHC even has jurisdiction. “It is a Catholic cemetery; it always has been,” Connor says. “Anyone buried there was buried by a priest. It’s not a Juaneño burial ground.”

Miles tells the Weekly that the cemetery is on the NAHC sacred-land list, that more than 1,000 Native Americans are buried there and that Catholic funerals “don’t have any bearing on whether it’s sacred land that has cultural significance with respect to Juaneños and their ancestors.”

But, he says, he understands Connor’s rationale. “From day one, that is what led the mission to decide to break state and municipal laws and construct the Rectory Garden project in the first place,” he says.

He concedes “there is a history” between his client, Belardes, and Holquin, but adds, “oftentimes, I believe, the mission will try to defer focus to the damage they caused. They want to talk about other matters. David Belardes observed illegal activity. Now the mission is reacting to him because he’s the one who called them to task.”

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