The Juaneño Band of Mission Indians, Acjachemen Nation are the original inhabitants of the lands that ultimately became the County of Orange, as well as parts of San Diego, Los Angeles, and Riverside Counties. Long before the Spanish arrived to build Mission San Juan Capistrano, the land of Orange County was home to the Acjachemen people. For thousands of years, the Acjachemen culture and way of life thrived because they understood their survival was interconnected with the natural world. The oak woodlands, valley meadows, river marshes and ocean were their supermarket, pharmacy, and hardware store. The Acjachemen viewed the land as something sacred that needed to be protected and carefully used to insure the livelihood of their people. Our ancestors provided the original manpower for the construction of some of the earliest key landmarks in Orange County, including the Mission San Juan Capistrano, where we get our Juaneño name.
Present-day Orange, Northern San Diego County, Southern LA County, and Western Riverside County, is home to the Acjachemen people. Acjachemen believe they have lived there since the beginning of time. Archaeological evidence shows an Acjachemen presence there for over 10,000 years.
The Acjachemen resided in permanent, well-defined villages and seasonal camps. Village populations ranged from between 35 and 300 inhabitants, consisting of a single lineage in the smaller villages, and of a dominant clan joined with other families in the larger settlements. Each clan had its own resource territory and was "politically" independent; ties to other villages were maintained through economic, religious, and social networks in the immediate region.
Native leadership consisted of the clan chief, who conducted community rites and regulated ceremonial life in conjunction with the council of elders (puuplem), which was made up of lineage heads and ceremonial specialists in their own right. This body decided upon matters of the community, which were then carried out by the clan chief and those under him. While the placement of residential huts in a village was not regulated, the ceremonial enclosure (vanquesh) and the chief's home were most often centrally-located.
The Acjachemen had a patrilineal society and lived in groups with other relatives. These groups had established claims to places including the sites of their villages and resource areas. Marriages were usually arranged from outside villages establishing a social network of related peoples in the region. There was a well-developed political system including a hereditary chief. Religion was an important aspect of their society. Religious ceremonies included rites of passage at puberty and mourning rituals.
The highest concentration of Acjachemen villages was along the lower San Juan Creek. In 1775, Spanish colonists erected a cross on an Acjachemen religious site before retreating to San Diego due to a revolt at Mission San Diego. They returned one year later to begin constructing and converting the Acjachemen population. The majority of early converts were often children, who may have been brought by their parents in an attempt to "make alliances with missionaries, who not only possessed new knowledge and goods but also presented the threat of force." Spanish military presence ensured the continuation of the mission system.
In 1776, as Father Serra was approaching Acjachemen territory with a Spanish soldier and one "neophyte," a recently baptized Native who was a translator for Spanish authorities, a crowd of painted and well-armed [Acjachemen] Indians, some of whom put arrows to their bowstrings as though they intended to kill the Spanish intruders, surrounded Serra's group. The "neophyte" informed the Acjachemen that attacking would only result in further violence from the Spanish military. As a result, the Acjachemen desisted, aware of the serious threat that military retaliation represented.
During the late eighteenth century, the mission economy had extended over the entire territory of the Acjachemen. The Spanish transformed the countryside into grazing lands for livestock and horticulture. Between 1790 and 1804, mission herds increased in size from 8,034 head to 26,814 head.
As European disease also began to decimate the rural population, the dominion and power of the Spanish missions over the Acjachemen further increased. By 1812, the mission was at the peak of its growth: 3,340 persons had been baptized at the mission, and 1,361 Juaneños resided in the mission compound. After 1812, the rate of Juaneños who died surpassed the amount of those who were baptized. By 1834, the Juaneño population had declined to about 800.
The Acjachemen resisted assimilation by practicing their cultural and religious ceremonies, performing sacred dances and healing rituals both in villages and within the mission compound. Missionaries attempted to prevent "indigenous forms of knowledge, authority, and power" from passing on to younger generations through placing recently baptized Indian children in monjerios or dormitories "away from their parents from the age of seven or so until their marriage." Native children and adults were punished for disobeying Spanish priests through confinement and lashings. The logic behind these harsh practices was "integral to Catholic belief and practice." Gerónimo Boscana, a missionary at San Juan between 1812 and 1822, admitted that, despite harsh treatment, attempts to convert Native people to Christian beliefs and traditions were largely unsuccessful.
Emancipation and Secularization Period
Governor José María de Echeandía, the first Mexican governor of Alta California, issued a "Proclamation of Emancipation" (or "Prevenciónes de Emancipacion") on July 25, 1826, which freed Native people from San Diego Mission, Santa Barbara, and Monterey. When news of this spread to other missions it inspired widespread resistance to work and even open revolt. At San Juan, "the missionary stated that if the 956 neophytes residing at the mission in 1827 were 'kindly begged to go to work,' they would respond by saying simply that they were 'free.'" Following the Mexican secularization act of 1833, neophyte alcades requested that the community be granted the land surrounding the mission, which the Juaneños had irrigated and were now using to support themselves.
However, while Juaneños claimed and were granted villages, there was "rarely" any legal title issued, meaning that the land was never formally ceded to them following emancipation, which they protested as others encroached upon their traditional territory. While rancho grants issued by the Mexican government on the lands of the San Juan mission were made in the early 1840s, Indians' rights to their village lands went unrecognized. Although the Juaneños were now "free," they were increasingly vulnerable to being forced to work on public projects if it was determined that they had reverted to a state of dependence on wild fruits or neglected planting crops and herding or otherwise failed to continue practicing Spanish-imposed methods of animal husbandry and horticulture. Because of a lack of formal recognition, most of the former Acjachemen territory was incorporated into Californio ranchos by 1841, when San Juan Mission was formed into a pueblo.
The formation of the San Juan pueblo was a direct result of the actions of San Diego settlers, who petitioned the government in order to gain access to the lands of the mission territory. Prior to the formation of the pueblo, the one-hundred or so Juaneños living there were asked if they favored or opposed this change: seventy voted in favor, while thirty, mostly older, Juaneños opposed, possibly because they did not want to live among the Californios. The formation of the San Juan pueblo granted Californios and Juaneño families lots for houses, and suertes, or plots of land in which to plant crops.
Following the American occupation of California in 1846 and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, Indian peoples throughout California were drawn into the 'cycles of conquest' that had been initiated by the Spanish. During the 1850's alone, the California Indian population declined by 80 percent. Any land rights Native people had under Mexican rule were completely erased under American occupation, as stated in Article 11 of the treaty: A great part of the territories which, by the present treaty, are to be comprehended for the future within the limits of the United States, is now occupied by savage tribes. As the United States government declared its right to police and control Native people, the claims of Indians who had acquired land in the 1841 formation of the San Juan pueblo, were similarly ignored, despite evidence that the [American] land commission had data substantiating these Juaneños' titles.
By 1860, Juaneños were recorded in the census with Spanish first names and no surnames; the occupations of 38 percent of their household heads went unrecorded and they owned only 1 percent of the land and 0.6 percent of the assets (including cattle, household items, and silver or gold). It was recorded that 30 percent of all households were headed by women who still lived in San Juan on the plots of land that had been distributed in 1841 under Mexican rule. It was reported that shortly after the census was taken, the entire population began to leave the area for villages to the southeast of San Juan. A smallpox epidemic in 1862 took the lives of 129 Juaneño people in one month alone of a population now of only some 227 Indians. San Juan remained an important town for Juaneños and other Indians connected to it, so that by the "latter part of the nineteenth century individuals and families often moved back and forth between these villages and San Juan for work, residence, family events, and festivals.
American occupation resulted in increasing power and wealth for European immigrants and Anglo-Americans to own land and property by the 1860s, in sharp contrast to the pattern among Californios, Mexicans, and Indians. In the Santa Ana and San Juan Capistrano townships, most Californios lost their ranchos in the 1860's. By 1870, European immigrants and Anglo-Americans now owned 87 percent of the land value and 86 percent of the assets. Native people went from owning 1 percent of the land value and assets, as recorded in the 1860 census, to 0 percent in 1870. Anglo-Americans became the majority of the population by the mid-1870s and the towns in which they resided were characterized by a marked lack of ethnic diversity. In the 1890's, a permanent elementary school was constructed in San Juan. However, until 1920, for education beyond sixth grade, students had to relocate to Santa Ana – an impossibility for the vast majority of Californio and Juaneño families.
Chinigchinich and the Starman
Chinigchinich by Father Geronimo Boscana
Chinigchinich is an in-depth ethnographic description of the Acagchemen (Juaneño) Native Californian culture written during the Mission period in Alta California. While at Mission San Juan Capistrano (1812-1826), Friar Boscana wrote a detailed report concerning the Acagchemen (Juaneño), California Indians, in response to an 1812 questionnaire sent by the Spanish government to the missions located in Alta California. Boscana’s work was translated first by Alfred Robinson who published it in 1846 as an appendix to his book "Life in California." Robinson assigned the title "Chinigchinix or Chinigchinich.” Boscana was distinguished for writing one of the most comprehensive ethnographic portrayals of a Native Californian culture during the Mission period. A portion of the translator's Introduction appears to be missing in this scanned version of the 1846 publication. The rich colored illustrations including the "Starman" were done by artist Jean Goodwin. The "Starman" has become an iconic image with the Acjachemen and is seen in public art and on the tribes seal. The Chinigchinich book has become a vital resource for the Acjachemen people in revitalizing cultural practices.
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