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A Native History - San Clemente Times

A Native History
by David Zimmerle


Heading down the hiking trail that leads to Trestles, it’s often difficult to remember what Cristianitos Road lends the further east you travel. Though the different breaks may be waking up to southern swells at the beach, while Camp Pendleton continues to serve as a home base for many of America’s finest, and the conditions for getting outdoors are pristine this time of year, tucked in the middle of all that life and just up the road from the Trestles parking lot is a little more history right in our own backyard.

Coinciding with Earth Day next week, a special event will be celebrated Sunday, April 18, as the 3rd Annual Earth Day Celebration at Panhe San Mateo Campground takes place from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

The indigenous Village of Panhe was the historical home of the Juaneño/Acjachemen people and continues to be used as both a spiritual and ceremonial site.

“A lot of people know of this area in regards to the Marine Corps and surfing, but this is actually a Native American sacred site,” said Rebecca Robles, an Acjachemen woman, co-founder and co-director of the United Coalition to Protect Panhe (UCCP) and board member of The San Onofre Foundation. “This San Mateo archeological district is a huge village of the Acjachemen people.”

This year The San Onofre Foundation also decided to partner up with Panhe after its inaugural celebration last year, and the two have become quite a match for this year’s event.

“Last year was The San Onofre Foundation’s first Earth Day celebration,” said Susan Goggins, Project Manager and Interim Executive Director for The San Onofre Foundation. “We had a booth out here at the event last time and this year we wanted to really forge a real partnership with Panhe.”

A Little History on the People

The Juaneño/Acjachemen are a Native American group from Southern California who lived in what is now part of Orange and San Diego counties. They received their Spanish name from the priests of the California mission chain because of their proximity to Mission San Juan Capistrano—today calling themselves the Juaneño Band of Mission Indians.

Robles, a descendent of the village through her mother, also noted the Juaneño/Acjachemen were pivotal to life at the Mission as their contribution was “huge in a labor sense with most of the natives working there.”

The name Juaneño describes those people who were ministered by the padres at Mission San Juan Capistrano, with contemporary Juaneños, who identify themselves as descendents of the indigenous society living in the San Juan and San Mateo Creek drainage areas, adopting the indigenous term Acjachemen. The language they spoke was related to the Luiseño language spoken by the nearby Luiseño tribe. Though that language was extinct, it is being revived by several tribal members who are learning the language again, thanks to the research and records of Anastacia Majel and John P. Harrington, who recorded the language back in 1933. Tape recordings resurfaced around 1995.

The Purity of Panhe

Panhe, which translates to “place by the water,” is an ancient Acjachemen village whose site is estimated to be about 9,500 years old. The largest portion of the village is where Cristianitos and El Camino Real intersect. Currently, it is a sacred, ceremonial, cultural, and burial site for the Acjachemen people, and many of those natives trace their lineage back to Panhe. Panhe is also the site of the first baptism in California, and in 1769 witnessed the first close contact between Spanish explorers, Catholic missionaries and the Acjachemen people.

“It really holds a unique portion of history,” Robles said. “For people in the community in San Clemente it’s like living on a museum—it’s definitely a treasure.”

According to Robles, after an El Niño year in the early 1980s, the weather that rolled through southern California also deteriorated the site and exposed its numerous ancestor remains. As a result, the Marine Corps set aside this piece of land for the ancestors and the Acjachemen people.

An Inspiration for Earth Day

The celebration at Panhe has roots in much of the political activity surrounding Trestles and the fight against the Foothill-South Transportation Corridor that continues today. Several years ago, when the battle to save the famous surf break from a billion-dollar toll road project began to intensify, Robles felt some of the other issues regarding the land were being overlooked. “[UCPP] worked with numerous other outlets at the time like Surfrider, Save Trestles and the San Onofre Foundation, and really, all of our goals overlap,” Robles said. “We all knew how the toll road would impact Trestles and surfing in the community, but no one knew about the issues facing the Native American people of Panhe. We felt our issues were just as important and wanted to share our concerns with the public and make people more aware of the living history here in San Clemente.”

Robles also feared a toll road near the site would mar its spiritual nature.

“One of the main goals is to preserve the connection to this place,” she said. “A toll road near the campground would totally disrupt the ceremonial site and the pristine nature of it. And it’s interesting to note that more than 90 percent of archeological sites in Orange County have been destroyed through the building and development process.”

Robles maintained the key ideas behind the goals at Panhe are the preservation, education and interpretation of the people and the place. This event is a great way to continue that relationship with the community.

“We’re really excited about the Earth Day event because it’s a chance to interface with the public with a really fun interactive festival,” she said.

Goggins, too, supports the importance of this event.

“I think the biggest part of this event is to educate the people on the impact Native American history has right here in our own backyard,” Goggins said. “It’s unbelievable that people don’t know it’s a phenomenal historic site.”

About the Event

• 15 nonprofit organizations will be onsite, including The San Onofre Foundation, the California Cultural Preservation Alliance, United States Census, UCPP and the City of San Clemente’s Environmental Programs.

• Seven vendors will be available ranging from Acjachemen weavers, jewelers and basketry to face painting and an Indian taco booth.

• Master of Ceremonies this year are Juaneño Jacque Nunez and Louie Robles.

• The tentative schedule includes an opening greeting prayer song and greeting of people (10 a.m.), an open flute circle (10:15 a.m.), a journey into the past with Jacque Nunez (11 a.m.), the honoring of elders (noon), an interactive music session (12:30 p.m.), singing and dancing with the Earth Day conclusion at 3 p.m.

• Free parking will be available at Concordia Elementary and free shuttles will run to and from the campsite every 30 minutes. Limited parking is available at the San Mateo camp grounds and the fee to park is $15. In light of Earth Day festivities, the San Onofre Foundation encourages people to walk, ride, bike or skateboard to the event.

• Other tribal members will also attend as well as Acjachemen descendents from the village, and this event is also an intertribal celebration.

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