Published on July 22, 2012 by Amy
The Juaneño or Acagchemem are a Native American group from Southern California. The Juaneño lived in what is now part of Orange and San Diego counties and received their Spanish name from the priests of the California mission chain due to their proximity to Mission San Juan Capistrano. Today they call themselves the Juaneño Band of Mission Indians, Acjachemen Nation.
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The former Spanish settlement at Sajavit lies within that area occupied during the late Paleoindian period and continuing on into the present day by the Native American society commonly known as the Juaneño. The name denotes those people who were ministered by the padres at Mission San Juan Capistrano. Many contemporary Juaneño, who identify themselves as descendents of the indigenous society living in the local San Juan and San Mateo Creek drainage areas, have adopted the indigenous term Acjachemen. Their language was related to the Luiseño language spoken by the nearby Luiseño tribe. The language was extinct but is being revived by several tribal members learning the language, thanks to the research and records of Anastacia Majel and John P. Harrington who recorded the language back in 1933 (the tape recordings resurfaced around 1995).
The Acjachemen territory extended from Las Pulgas Creek in northern San Diego County up into the San Joaquin Hills along Orange County’s central coast, and inland from the Pacific Ocean up into the Santa Ana Mountains. Aliso Creek formed the northern boundary. The bulk of the population occupied the outlets of two large creeks, San Juan Creek (and its major tributary, Trabuco Canyon) and San Mateo Creek (combined with Arroyo San Onofre, which drained into the ocean at the same point). The highest concentration of villages was along the lower San Juan, where Mission San Juan Capistrano was ultimately situated. The Acjachemen resided in permanent, well-defined villages and seasonal camps. Village populations ranged from between 35 to 300 inhabitants, consisting of a single lineage in the smaller villages, and of a dominant clan joined with other families in the larger settlements. Each clan had its own resource territory and was “politically” independent; ties to other villages were maintained through economic, religious, and social networks in the immediate region. The elite class (composed chiefly of families, lineage heads, and other ceremonial specialists), a middle class (established and successful families), and people of disconnected or wandering families and captives of war comprised the three hierarchical social classes.
Native leadership consisted of the Nota, or clan chief, who conducted community rites and regulated ceremonial life in conjunction with the council of elders (puuplem), which was made up of lineage heads and ceremonial specialists in their own right. This body decided upon matters of the community, which were then carried out by the Nota and his underlings. While the placement of residential huts in a village was not regulated, the ceremonial enclosure (vanquesh) and the chief’s home were most often centrally-located. Fray Gerónimo Boscana, a Franciscan scholar who was stationed at San Juan Capistrano for more than a decade beginning in 1812, compiled what is widely considered to be the most comprehensive study of prehistoric religious practices in the San Juan Capistrano valley. Religious knowledge was secret, and the prevalent religion, called Chinigchinich, placed village chiefs in the position of religious leaders, an arrangement that gave the chiefs broad power over their people.
Boscana divided the Acjachemen into two classes: the “Playanos” (who lived along the coast) and the “Serranos” (who inhabited the mountains, some three to four leagues from the Mission). The religious beliefs of the two groups as related to creation differed quite profoundly. The Playanos held that an all-powerful and unseen being called “Nocuma” brought about the earth and the sea, together with all of the trees, plants, and animals of sky, land, and water contained therein. The Serranos, on the other hand, believed in two separate but related existences: the “existence above” and the “existence below”. These states of being were “altogether explicable and indefinite” (like brother and sister), and it was the fruits of the union of these two entities that created “…the rocks and sands of the earth; then trees, shrubbery, herbs and grass; then animals…”
Today, the Juaneño Band of Mission Indians is seeking federal recognition as a federally organized tribe. Its headquarters is in San Juan Capistrano, California and it has over 2,800 enrolled members. It sought the retrieval of the former Marine Corps Air Station El Toro, which was an Indian Rancheria until the 1930s when the land was sold to the US government.