The Acjachemen's victory
The Acjachemen quietly marked the win against the Foothill South toll road by honoring land that will not be disturbed.
By Karin Klein, Los
Angeles Times, DECEMBER 27, 2008
On the chilly morning of the winter solstice last Sunday,
the sun was just cresting the ridgeline of San Mateo
Canyon as the Acjachemen talking circle started. Twenty
or so people stood around a campfire. They passed a
smoking bundle of dried white sage from hand to hand,
then took turns speaking.
But rather than the cycle of seasons,
the topic on everyone's mind was that they had won,
they who are not accustomed to winning. The ground on
which they stood, site of an Acjachemen village that
flourished for more than 8,000 years, would not be traversed
by a turnpike. Not likely, anyway, after the federal
government three days earlier rejected an appeal to
build the Foothill South toll road through San Onofre
The debate about the proposed toll road
centered on potential damage to a favorite surfing spot
and the fate of the endangered Pacific pocket mouse.
Less mentioned was Panhe, the former village located
within the state park just south of San Clemente, to
which a number of Acjachemen -- called Juaneño
by the Spanish -- can trace their lineage, thanks to
the careful records kept by missionaries.
"This is our Mecca," Rebecca
Robles, one of those descendants, had told me on an
earlier visit. "This is our temple."
In 1769, the Portola expedition came
across the 350 residents of Panhe. This is where the
first baptism in California was performed, the site
now marked with a large white cross.
It's easy to see how Panhe's importance,
both historical and as a modern gathering place for
Acjachemen ceremonies, might be overlooked, even though
it is listed by the Native American Heritage Commission
as a sacred site. The cross is the only obvious sign
of previous human settlement. But a wealth of artifacts
lies underground, along with untold numbers of human
The Acjachemen lost efforts to preserve
old settlements at Bolsa Chica in Huntington Beach and
at a site near the San Juan Capistrano mission. And
their decades-long quest to become a federally recognized
tribe has so far failed, in part because they are split
into four factions. (That failure in turn is a relief
to municipal leaders who fear the group will erect its
own objectionable development -- a casino.) The toll
road was a rare and unexpected victory.
By the time the solstice ceremony concluded,
the canyon was softly sunlit, newly green from recent
rains and looking much like it must have for thousands
of years. How many of us can stand on a spot and say
that when Christianity was born, when the Ten Commandments
were written, my ancestors were right here?
We admire civilizations for the
man-made monuments that transform the landscape. The
Pyramids. Stonehenge. The Acjachemen honor their ancestors
for leaving no trace.