Many sacred lands or former indigenous settlements across Orange County are buried underneath neighborhoods, businesses and other city infrastructure.

“We are buried with layers of what the community is now,” said award-winning educator and owner of Journeys to the Past Jacque Tahuka-Nunez, 70. 

“Our history has been buried. It has been buried under cities and in history books. Now, we are unearthing it and giving people a chance to know the full history of Orange County and California.”

The entrance to the Northwest Open Space region in San Juan Capistrano on Aug. 4, 2023. The space is approximately 65.5 acres, and includes Putuidem village. Credit: ERIKA TAYLOR, Voice of OC.

That rediscovery is happening in San Juan Capistrano, where an effort to resurrect the  Putuidem Village in an open space tract in the city’s Northwest corner is gaining attention and even bringing tribal members together in a historic way.

Putuidem was the “mother” village for the Juaneño Band of Mission Indians and Acjachemen Nation, thriving for many years until the arrival of Mission San Juan Capistrano in the late 1770s, according to the Sacred Sites International Foundation

Much of the village was erased as the mission expanded. 

The amphitheater at Putuidem Village on Aug. 17, 2023. The round center stage is used for ceremonies, demonstrations, field trips and more educational events at the park. Credit: ERIKA TAYLOR, Voice of OC.

“It was a cultural annihilation, a complete change of culture, clothes, food and language,” said Adelia Sandoval, 70, cultural committee chair and spiritual overseer for the tribe. “Many of my ancestors died, but the strongest survived. Those are the people that we descend from. They are the backbone of Orange County.”

Today, the modern Putuidem Village stands just 1.8 miles away from Mission San Juan Capistrano, one of the oldest mission sites in the United States.

Adelia Sandoval, 70, standing next to a replica kiicha hut at Putuidem village on Aug. 15, 2023. Credit: ERIKA TAYLOR, Voice of OC.

It was not until December 2021 that Putuidem was reborn as a cultural museum and gathering place for the tribe. 

Putuidem Village Park is open to the public, offering visitors a look into the county’s pre-mission history, and an undiluted California landscape. 

Sandoval believes that the park can help the community come to terms with history, and show others that there was “life before the mission.”

“I think people are afraid of us. They got to look and see the truth, and that’s not easy. When you talk to people about it, there is a certain guilt about history… I do believe that Orange County still needs to come to terms with it,” she said. 

Adelia Sandoval, spiritual overseer for the Juaneño Band of Mission Indians and Acjachemen Nation, at Putuidem village on Aug. 15, 2023. In her hands, she holds an abalone shell filled with Californian white sage. Historically, many from the Acjachemen Nation used abalone shells to create jewelry and in spiritual practices. Credit: ERIKA TAYLOR, Voice of OC.

Frank Barraza, board member of the Friends of Puvungna, believes that Putuidem can also help young tribal members reconnect with their family history, which may have been concealed by older generations for safety reasons.

“Younger generations of tribes are still uncovering what was hidden from us by older generations. Older generations needed to hide the culture in order to be safe,” said Barraza. “We are still learning about ourselves, and Putuidem can help.”

Barraza, 49, is a member of both the Acjachemen and Tongva Nations. He wants to see Orange County cities celebrate Acjachemen Nation and the first peoples of the county on a separate day from Indigenous People’s Day on the grounds of Putuidem. 

“There is always more to be done to acknowledge our history,” said Nathan Banda, 39, former City of San Juan Capistrano Cultural Heritage Commissioner and member of the Juaneño Band of Mission Indians. “I believe that every event should mention land acknowledgment of our people… I would like [the state and county officials] to give back lands to honor the 265 villages in Orange County, and for them to be owned and managed by our tribal government.”

Nathan Banda, 39, at Putuidem Village on Aug. 17, 2023. Credit: ERIKA TAYLOR, Voice of OC.

Although Sandoval and Tahuka-Nunez said that there have been many steps forward for the tribe in recent years, the lack of federal recognition continues to prevent them from protecting and restoring many ancestral lands.

According to census data, there are over 100 federally recognized tribes in California, including the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, Pechanga Band of Indians, San Pasqual Band of Mission Indians and other Southern California tribes.

“I have discovered that a lot of the other tribes and nations look at us like an ugly stepchild, because we are not federally recognized,” Sandoval said. “With their money and casinos, they don’t have respect for us. To them, we don’t really exist.”

More than 55 tribes remain unrecognized in the state, according to the UCLA American Indian Studies Center

One potential barrier to federal recognition is inter-tribal political tension that has split the tribe into three primary factions: 84A, 84B and JBMI-IP.

According to a report of findings against acknowledgement by the Federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, disputes over two elections within the Juaneño Band of Mission Indians resulted in its factioning. These disputes resulted in the designation of 84A and 84B served as the primary petitioners for recognition, while JBMI-IP was considered an interested party within the report. 

The report ultimately found that neither petitioners met the criteria for federal recognition.

“All three bands continue to practice our culture in various ways,” said Sean Acuna, Chairman of the Juaneño Band of Mission Indians 84B. “I’m going to focus on bringing my membership together and perpetuating our culture, and focus on unity.”

The original report for federal recognition noted that the three bands have made “occasional attempts at unifying,” but that the efforts were unsuccessful.

“The Putuidem Village project brought the factions together. I believe that it can re-unite us,” Tahuka-Nunez said.

“I believe that unity is an Acjachemen strength,” Acuna said. “I’m hopeful of being reunited.”

A bee landing on a Matilija poppy plant at Putuidem Village on Aug. 4, 2023. The Matilija poppy is native to California and northern Mexico. Credit: ERIKA TAYLOR, Voice of OC.
Nathan Banda, 39, standing under the “mother oak” at Putuidem Village on Aug. 17, 2023. Credit: ERIKA TAYLOR, Voice of OC.
A cyclist on the dirt path at Putuidem Village on Aug. 4, 2023. The pathway snakes around the village, offering visitors a brief history about Acjachemen Nation through signage posted around the path. Credit: ERIKA TAYLOR, Voice of OC.


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