Julie Leopo

An enterprising and award-winning photojournalist in Orange County and beyond. Leopo, as Voice of OC’s Director of Photography, has captured a wide array of photographs visually documenting the news and soul of Orange County local government and community. Her work has also appeared in Vice, KCET, Ed Source, The California Endowment and OC Weekly.

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This year has been filled with protests demanding equity and change in the way minorities and marginalized groups are viewed and treated in the United States. 

Here in Orange County, three different  local indigenous women who have ancestral ties to the Acjachemen natives, indigenous peoples of California, offer us their perspectives this holiday. Through their lives, in different ways, these women have committed themselves to bringing justice and truth to the Native American past in Orange County. 

Although Columbus Day and Indigenous Peoples day share a day in the month of October, the holiday has historically been recognized largely as an adventure, a moment in history where a new world was discovered by European explorers. However, in recent years a larger conversation has taken place around the holiday, one that takes into account the perspectives of the natives living here before the Columbus arrival in 1492. 

Just this past summer, in Sacramento, Governor Newsom called the dark history of Native Americans in California “a genocide.”

Newsom added, “California Native American peoples suffered violence, discrimination and exploitation sanctioned by state government throughout its history. We can never undo the wrongs inflicted on the peoples who have lived on this land that we now call California since time immemorial, but we can work together to build bridges, tell the truth about our past and begin to heal deep wounds.” These words fell onto the ears of these three indigenous women but were welcomed very differently. However, they can all agree that there is work to be done to begin the process of reparations. 

In an effort to  hear the stories that at times are shelved or hidden, I profiled three Orange County indigenous women who have used activism, education and preservation to reach their goals of reclaiming their history back. It is through the stories of their activism, ancestors and childhood life that you see the traces of what came before us. 

Joyce Perry

Joyce stands over her favorite area of the Bolsa Chica indigenous site. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Joyce Perry, 65, is of Acjachemen, Luiseno and Kumeyaay descent living in Irvine. Perrys activism stretches back 30 years. She is an Acjachemen tribal scholar, founder and President of Payomkawichum Kaamalam, an American Indian non-profit organization founded in 2000, Founder and Executive Director of the Acjachemen Tongva Land Conservancy, Cultural Resource Director for the Juaneno Band of Mission Indians, Acjachemen Nation- Belardes and former Board Member of the Blas Aguilar Adobe Museum/Acjachemen Cultural Center.

Through her prolific persona, she treats her activism “as her responsibility, with knowledge comes great responsibility, you have to go educate people because this is about California history not just Acjachemen history,” Perry explains, “the dominant society’s attempt to erase us is why a lot of our history is not recorded, and that is changing, we are taking responsibility and in  charge of how we want to be portrayed, and what our beliefs are. We are not allowing anthropologists or any others to define who we are and why we persist. We are done with academic and non-native people telling our story. We are perfectly capable,” comments Joyce over a phone interview. 

Joyce has done archived educational interviews with OC Public Libraries and has been instrumental to the language revitalization program, which enables her native tongue to be  recognized and documented into the Library of Congress. Perry also, along with others fought for the land in San Juan Capistrano, an open space in the northwest area,  which later in 2021 will open a cultural open air park, honoring the indigenous site. 

Perry keeps up with her cultural practices that she has passed down to her  two sons and two grandchildren, an act that will keep the memory of her ancestor’s traditions alive. “My family didn’t have an organized religion, we would just worship at the beach.” 

However, it has not always been easy for Perry and her family to worship, at times access to sacred areas in Orange County are off limits to the public. “Access to our sacred sites, are real difficult because sometimes they are private or on federal land, so you learn  really early on how to trespass, or you build relationships with the forest rangers and other and cooperative relationships with other entities so that they understand who we are, but I do want to emphasize things are changing, and the momentum is increasing,” Perry adds. 

The open area of the Bolsa Chica native site. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Although family traditions are important to the daily life of Joyce, she also sees the importance of playing a “governmental role” in her activism. She has sat face to face with the biggest developers along with their attorneys, testified in front of commissions and challenged their projects, defending sacred sites belonging to her ancestors. She was a part of the lawsuits against San Juan Capistrano and the Dioceses of Orange, and despite standing tall against these entities, there were times where she “felt minimized and disregarded.” 

“My approach has always been, you can’t make change unless you get inside, but everyone’s approach is different, I play a governmental role and others take a more grassroots approach, and they compliment each other.” 

Rebecca Robles

Rebecca Robles poses for a photograph at the Bolsa Chica Indigenous site. Credit: Courtesy of Rebecca Robles

Rebbeca Robles, 69, a mother to three sons and grandmother to five grandchildren witnessed activism from a young age. She was born and raised in Long Beach, and her activism has been long standing in between Orange County and Long Beach. She is currently active in CCRPA, a group of archeologist, anthropologists, and natives, Juaneno Band of Mission Indians Acjachemen Nation, and community group Friends of Puvungna, leading the activism efforts in conserving the ancient site at what is now Cal State Long Beach.  

Both her parents collectively have a  rich Indigenous history, her mother Liliana Robles, an Acjachemen member whose ancestral village, Panhe, is located in San Clemente, and her father a descendant of  the Yaqui tribe. 

A lot of her inspiration comes from the zeal her parents demonstrated through the  preservation of sacred sites. Both of them “were very in touch with the connection to the land and the importance of community, and preservation of history and culture. My mother felt like the sacred places were the repository of our culture. My parents stood against injustices.” 

Rebeccas’ father, Louis Robles, at the site of Putuidem in San Juan Capistrano in 2004 protesting the development of JSerra Catholic High School in San Juan Capistrano on the indigeonous site of Putuidem. Adjacent to this school, a new cultural park will be built that will honor Putuidem. Credit: Courtesy of Rebecca Robles

In Long Beach in 1993, her mother also was part of the protest in Cal State Long Beach, the site of where the Acjachemen Nation called the land “Puvungna.” Robles’ mother slept on the 22 acre land as a sign of her resistance to have the land developed. 

Following the footsteps of her mother, who has passed, Rebecca has just completed the 23rd annual Ancestral walk this October. Robles’ mother began the walks to hold space for indigenous peoples while Columbus day was being observed. “My mother started the Ancestral Walks, there are all these people that know about Columbus day, but they don’t even know that we are here, and our history tells us that we have been here for about 10,00 years at-least.”

This year, on Oct. 3, an Ancestor Walk took place, however, it was held virtually, with only a few members leading the walk through a live stream due to coronavirus precautions. Members walked through different ancient sites and prayed for healing, sang songs, and told stories. 

A walk map identifies 7 sacred sites, Important to note: there are many other sacred, historic and cultural sites than these listed on this walk map. Credit: Courtesy of Rebecca Robles

Historically, Robles has battled with the complicated history of different indigenous sites in Orange County, saying, “we have this very curious relationship to the land,” recounts Robles, “because we have all these very important sites, historic, culture sites, creation sites, religious sites, but we do not have access to many of them. We had 18 treaties that were not ratified but signed, hidden in Sacramento. We just got access to them.” These 18 treaties were made during the gold rush era in 1852, and Indians exchanged their rights to their ancestral lands for reservations. The treaties were never ratified and were held in secret.

Robles, has also discovered ways to navigate the world of activism by including scientists in her plight, “I found that, when I would speak at hearings or write letters, and say ‘this land is sacred this we have been here forever’, but when scientists could say ‘this place is radiocarbon dated to 10,00 years,’ or quoted scientific knowledge people got it. CCRPA has been very supportive, and it gave me a language many people could understand, other than what I was saying.” 

Despite setbacks, Robles understands that this will be an ongoing battle because she feels “Indian People are invisible people nationwide, it seems like it was a dark part of our history. Our country is built on the words freedom, justice, equality, but that is not what really happened or continues to happen.” 

Michelle Castillo 

Michelle stands in “La Colonia” neighborhood in Anaheim, an old citrus camp, and her childhood neighborhood. This neighborhood is considered one of the oldest surviving barrios in Orange County. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Michelle Castillo, 49,  a Chicana with Acjachemen ties, lives in Huntington Beach. Castillo grew up in the oldest orange grove barrios in Orange County, “La Colonia” a home to many citrus farms workers, in Anaheim. The owners of the citrus farms brought in people from Mexico and the Indian reservations. Michelle’s Acjachemen grandfather came from Soboba reservation in Riverside; her grandmother was a first generation Mexican American from Guanajuato who came to work for the citrus farm.

Michelle’s activism sprouted from her grandmother, a well respected presence in “La Colonia” and the women who were on her grandfather’s native side.

Castillo, who now gives back to her community through preservation efforts and connecting with youth through community programs recalls a day in which she was dealing with a troubled young man in her community center, and used her native history to encourage him to reassess his life. The troubled boy was a distant relative to Castillo. “I have a picture of your grandmother and grandfather when they got married. Your grandmother was the reason why the Magnolia 2 school in Anaheim district was no longer segregated.” In 1955, Magnolia school district integrated white students into the school. 

It is through the retelling of Orange County history while honoring the strong woman that came before her that she finds the strength to help youth, she elaborates, “my grandmother was part of rebuilding communities and was an influencer  in the citrus camps and she brought unity.” 

When it comes to cultural practices, Castillo tries to live as traditional as possible. “I feel like I try to live in a traditional way, but there are a lot of things that are not traditional like a microwave, refrigerator or air conditioning, but I follow ceremony ways, I wake up in prayer, even when I’m angry I’m praying. I’m a very spiritual person, not perfect but I’m spiritual.”

Castillo also actively gathers medicine in the open spaces of Orange County. Castillo looks back at her native roots, “I got to learn medicine through all the women around me growing up, and that is where my activism comes from and all these women were warriors in their community, even if it was against the sheriff. My grandmother at the age of five, I witnessed her being beat by the sheriff’s department, and that’s where police brutality started for me.” 

It is through this experience of her native and Chicano roots and the uprising they created that gives her the perspective she feels about her community and youth. 

A tradition that Castillo finds difficult to practice is gathering medicine such as Sage,  and gathering for ceremonial meetings. She recalls one particular incident in Orange County.

During the recent California wildfires, Castillo and another woman went to the water in Santiago Canyon to offer prayers and healing while they were confronted with a park ranger. Castillo explains “he, the park ranger, asked us if we were ‘even legal’ and asked if we had ID.” 

Castillo questioned the discrimination, “out of all the people that out there hiking, biking, and running with blonde European features here, we are asked ‘why us?’ but for some reason he was just so focused on us.” 

Castillo, is currently active in preservation efforts to stop any further development in Puvangna, an intertribal territory in Cal State Long Beach that is used by many Acjachemen as a site of prayer and remembrance. Castillo comments, “This is a sacred place and many depend on it as a miracle worker. Just like others have like the Virgen de Guadalupe. It is also more than just a gathering place, this is a burial site and prayers have been thrown there for a long time. Imagine just destroying that. Orange County will lose Puvangna, and many native people depend on Puvangna.”

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