The San Juan Capistrano city council’s backpedaling on the Putuidem Cultural Park project is troubling for many reasons, and they are all related to California’s unspeakably genocidal history toward American Indians. More to the point is how this history is still constructing the present and manifesting itself in the ugliest of ways in arguments to commercialize what remains of the open space. The idea to develop the last remaining undeveloped Native site in Orange County with a glamping operation or any other project to generate money, subjecting the Native community to another act of dispossession, is immoral and disgusting. It is an act of erasure of Acjachemen people and culture, and a subtle act of genocide.
In the fields of American Indian and genocide studies, scholars make distinctions between various kinds of genocides. One of the most important points is that the Jewish holocaust is only one type of genocide, and certainly not the one to compare all genocidal events to. The fact is, the well-known intellectual who coined the term genocide for the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide in 1948, Rafael Lemkin, did not base his research on the Jewish holocaust in framing the Convention. He studied the colonial history of North and South America, including the United States.
Since Lemkin’s work, a body of literature describing what constitutes genocide has been built. Scholars have named U.S. colonial history “settler colonialism,” and it’s a framework historians are increasingly embracing. Settler colonialism is a particular type of colonialism where the goal is the acquisition of indigenous lands through the elimination of indigenous peoples. This can occur via the outright killing of indigenous peoples, and this is certainly what characterizes early California history. But it also happens in other ways through a system of never-ending aggression.
California history—especially the beginning of the American period in 1850—is not the romantic stories of beautiful mission architecture and intrepid sailors and rugged gold miners seeking their fortunes as incessantly taught to schoolchildren. It is about the greed of invaders who saw a population of people who stood in the way of their manifest destiny. They undertook a killing rampage driven by bounties for Indian bodies paid for by federal money, lasting decades, to ethnically cleanse the land for the newcomers. Don’t believe it? Even Governor Newsom recently delivered a long overdue apology for California’s genocide. That was part one of the American-sponsored genocide, but by no means did it end there.
Then came the eighteen treaties made by the federal government but never ratified that resulted in massive land theft of those who survived the bounty-killings and an illegal but little-known slave trade that lasted till the end of the nineteenth century. What followed throughout the twentieth century were countless policies and laws that continued to expropriate the land and political existence of nearly half of the tribal nations that remained. In broad strokes this is the sequences of events that ensnared the Acjachemen/Juaneño people and resulted in their complete dispossession of land today.
The total lack of education of this history keeps otherwise well-meaning people from doing right by California Indian people, especially here in Orange County. There has never been a reckoning of this history, and the reason is because the logic that drove the history became cemented into legal, policy, and social structures—not just in California but the United States in general. What we are left with are references to Indians as having tragically faded away into a past that no one believes themselves accountable to, despite the fact that Acjachemen people are still here fighting for what little has not been devoured by the greed of Orange County developers.
This, in a nutshell, is what we call settler colonialism, and why we refer to it as a structure bent on the elimination of indigenous people. It is fundamentally genocidal because it seeks to wipe away every trace of the original inhabitants and replace them with invading populations.
Remember: if you are not of indigenous heritage of the land you are living on, unless your ancestors came here in chains you descend from of one of various invading groups of people, whether you were born here or not.
The open space near J. Serra High School is all that is left of Acjachemen people’s beloved village site in SJC. It was bad enough that we had to endure the swallowing up of the major portion of Putuidem for the building of a school named for the instigator of California’s systematized slavery system. This new assault is intolerable beyond words.
For a change, San Juan Capistrano, do the right thing by indigenous peoples and stick to the plan for a complete cultural park unencumbered by some crass, greed-driven commercial development. Figure it out. This is your last chance to get it right.
Dina Gilio-Whitaker (Colville Confederated Tribes), professor of American Indian Studies, California State University San Marcos
Rebecca Robles, Acjachemen tribal memberRebecca Robles, Acjachemen tribal member
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