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For Juaneño Indians, Unity Proves Elusive

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  • For Juaneño Indians, Unity Proves Elusive

    By Dave McKibben, L.A.Times Staff Writer

    Leaders of three factions in San Juan Capistrano aren't even on speaking terms. It could become a snag in the tribe's quest for federal recognition.

    Splintered for more than a decade, members of the Juaneño Band of Mission Indians have bickered over elections, casino proposals and plans to build athletic fields on their land.

    But the estimated 4,000 members of the Acjacheman Nation scattered throughout Orange County and other parts of the country may have a compelling reason to become one again: the promise of federal recognition.
    With recognition, the Juaneños could form their own government and qualify for many of the benefits enjoyed by the 562 federally recognized nations, including federal money for education and health care, land for a reservation and even, possibly, a casino.

    But as the Juaneños move into the final stage before formal recognition, there are few signs that their three factions are getting along.

    The three Juaneño leaders — David Belardes, Anthony Rivera and Sonia Johnston — have said they want to merge their factions. But as the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs begins to review the Juaneños' petition for recognition, the leaders apparently still are not on speaking terms.

    Joyce Perry, tribal manager under Belardes, said she sent certified letters to Rivera and Johnston two months ago but had not heard back from either.

    "I offered to meet them anytime, anyplace," Perry said. "And I'm comfortable with a moderator. If the intent is to come together, it would be in everybody's best interests to do it sooner rather than later."

    Johnston said she also had reached out to Belardes and Rivera through intermediaries.

    "No one has tape over their mouths," Johnston said. "I always hear what's going on in the other groups. We only have one history. But no, I haven't spoken with leaders of the other two groups."

    The Juaneños are indigenous to Orange County, dating back at least 10,000 years. In the late 1970s, a formal government structure was established and a petition for federal recognition followed a few years later. Today, Juaneños live throughout Orange, Riverside, San Diego and Los Angeles counties, and some live elsewhere in the country.

    Tribal members began receiving mixed messages in 1994 when Belardes' election as tribal chairman was disputed. Johnston was then elected by another group of Juaneños who recognize her as leader. A few years later, another group split away from Belardes when some members accused him of negotiating a deal with Nevada investors to build a casino on a 29-acre lot in San Juan Capistrano. The acreage is thought to be a tribal graveyard.

    Over the years, the three leaders have disagreed over whether to support JSerra Catholic High School's plan to build athletic fields on the burial site.

    They even have tussled over how many members each group has.

    Rivera, who took over one faction in January, says about 1,000 Juaneños recently switched allegiance from the other two groups and that his now has about 3,000 members.

    "I don't claim to be a hero or anything," Rivera said. "I'm just doing what the people elected me to do, and that's unifying our people. I think people are listening to our message."

    Johnston says her faction has about 1,500 members, though Belardes and Rivera say the number is much lower. Perry, meanwhile, said that about 280 Juaneños were under Belardes' leadership and that only about 200 people actually belonged to Rivera's group.

    "They say 3,000 are in their group," Perry said. "That's a huge concern of ours. We don't know who all these people are and where they came from."

    Rebecca Robles, whose family has been in all three factions at one time or another, said the rift was embarrassing.

    "Somehow, everybody is stuck," said Robles, a San Clemente nurse who now belongs to Rivera's group.

    "The split undermines us tremendously. There's not as much power as if we were speaking as one. Outside people seem to focus on the divisions."
    Robles said she had considered leaving the tribe altogether because it was in such disarray.

    "But the cultural ties are so strong," Robles said. "So I choose to stay and work with them."
    The Bureau of Indian Affairs said it was considering two Juaneño petitions, one from Johnston and another from Rivera. Nedra Darling, a bureau spokeswoman, says her office realizes that there are two factions — Belardes' and Rivera's — noted in the Rivera petition, so it has identified Rivera as the "spokesperson" for the acknowledgment process and Belardes as an "interested party."

    "We had to have a person we can deal with, so we picked Mr. Rivera," Darling said. "But they really do need to clarify who their leader and governing body are."

    Darling said the process could take at least two years. Anthropologists, archeologists and genealogists must evaluate and verify the Juaneños' tribal history and membership rolls. The petitions will be judged on the tribe's ability to meet seven criteria, including maintaining a distinct community and continuous government from historical times to the present, and providing proof of governing documents or procedures.

    Perry said she was concerned that the process could be muddied if the bureau received conflicting data from the three groups.

    "How foolish of us," Perry said. "We could be our own worst enemy."

    Perry said potential reservation sites included pockets of land on the former El Toro Marine Base, Camp Pendleton, the Cleveland National Forest off Ortega Highway and the Seal Beach Naval Weapons Station.

    Not everyone in O.C. is excited about the prospect of tribal recognition, because of the Juaneños' conceivably obtaining tribal land at the former El Toro base. Irvine Councilman Larry Agran proposed a resolution last month declaring his city a commercial gambling-free zone on the off-chance an Indian casino might be contemplated.

    Irvine is planning residential and commercial development around a 1,000-acre park to be built at the former base.

    None of the three tribal leaders have expressed a desire to build a casino, which would be a longshot at best. A full-scale urban casino would require approvals from local governments, the California governor and the secretary of the Interior.

    Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger issued a proclamation this year opposing Indian casinos in urban areas.

    "Gaming is not an issue for me now," Johnston said. "There is a law that states that we can do that, and casinos have brought many tribes out of dire poverty. But my main concern is a land base for our people.

    "We need a place to call home again."
    May the Great Spirit's blessings always be with you.

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