What We Can Learn About the Juaneños' Modern-Day Plight From 'Chinigchinich'

This Was Indian Country
What we can learn about the Juaneños' modern-day plight from Chinigchinich

Poor Juaneños. More than two centuries after Spanish conquistadors discovered what's now Orange County and forever changed the lives of the region's original inhabitants, our local Indians still can't get an even break. The United States government denied the Acagchemem nation federal recognition last year, while the Catholic Diocese of Orange illegally built on one of their cemeteries this year and stated in a history book (see “Loose Canon,” May 30) that the Juaneños easily converted to Catholicism because of their “friendliness and docility.” They recently made the news again after one of four factions accepted $350,000 from the Transportation Corridor Agencies in exchange for no longer opposing plans for the 241 Toll Road extension to pass through an archaeological site where a Juaneño village once stood.

Pawns, victims, nuisances: The Juaneños have always played a part in the Orange County story—never positive, always in relation to the white man. It's telling that in even the best ethnography written about them, the Acagchemem are little better than heathens. That survey is Chinigchinich, a long-out-of-print book recently released as a small paperback by the antiquarian publishing house BiblioBazaar, and its overview of Juaneño culture tells much about why we treat OC's natives the way we do.

Chinigchinich has an interesting history of its own. It was originally written by Gerónimo Boscana, a Franciscan friar who spent more than a decade at Mission San Juan Capistrano in the early 1800s. But his manuscript wasn't publicly unearthed until 1846, when it was included as an addendum to Alfred Robinson's Life In California During a Residence of Several Years in That Territory, one of the first books written by an American about Old California. Capistrano priests gave Boscana's unfinished manuscript to Robinson, who decided to translate it. To this day, Chinigchinich remains the only mass-published insight into Juaneño life before the Conquest.

“The reader will decide as to its merits,” Robinson writes in the brief introduction, before turning the narrative over to Boscana. “The motives which have induced me to write the present history, have been, principally, to fulfill my obligations as Apostolical Missionary; to have before me the means of presenting to these poor Indians an account of the errors entertained by them during their state of heathenism, and to contrast the same with the light they now enjoy as Christians,” the padre states in the first sentence—and that's all you really need to know about the book's take on the Juaneños.

Boscana alternates between offering a detailed, valuable account of Juaneño religion, customs and traditions (note to conservatives: They practiced gay marriage) and taking cheap shots at his wards. He begins with the group's creation myth—a brother and sister wedded to create Earth, but mankind didn't arrive until the appearance of Chinigchinich, a triune being who taught the Indians their faith before departing for the heavens. The similarity to Christianity (there's even reference to a Great Flood in Juaneño mythology) is so obvious that even Boscana was moved to write, “What I should like to know, is, from whence they received such accounts? For, notwithstanding their imperfect, as well as fabulous description, they have some allusion to the Truth.”

Too bad Boscana couldn't remove his Imperial Spain goggles because the Juaneño society he described shared other traits with the Spaniards of Alta California: monarchical, governed by warrior-priests, with special attention paid to warfare, religious festivals and purification by masochism. Instead, Boscana returns again and again to his disgust for the Juaneños:

.On wondering why the Juaneños were a hunter-gatherer society instead of tending crops and livestock: “Although ripe in years, they had no more experience than when in childhood—no reasoning powers, and therefore followed blindly in the footsteps of their predecessors.”

.On trying to convert the Indians to Catholicism: “[Readers] will, I say, agree with me, generally, regarding their belief; as all their operations are accompanied by stratagems and dissimulation, they easily gain our confidence, and at every pass we are deluded.”

.On their general manner: They “may be compared to a species of monkey” and their “grave, humble and retired manner” conceals “a hypocritical and treacherous disposition. . . . His eyes are never uplifted, but like those of the swine, are cast to the earth. Truth is not in him, unless to the injury of another, and he is exceedingly false.”

But tell us how you really feel, padre!

The book ends abruptly, with the sight of a comet in the sky in 1823 and the Juaneños debating among themselves whether it meant liberation from the mission system or continued oppression. Boscana, for once, doesn't volunteer an opinion because he doesn't need to. Chinigchinichset the stage for nearly two centuries of American disregard for the Juaneños and served as the primary source for every historical depiction of them taught in Orange County schools. The Indians themselves, as always, persevere on the margins.

Chinigchinich by Friar Geronimo Boscana, translated by Alfred Robinson; Bibliobazaar. Paperback, 83 pages, $10.


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