by Donia Moore
Wander the overgrown trails and secret game paths of Cristianitos Canyon above San Onofre State Park, and you’ll get an idea of the land that welcomed the area’s first recorded inhabitants, the Acjachemen.
Over 9,000 years ago, a band of hunter-gatherer Native Americans found their way to the sparkling San Mateo Creek and the wealth of California Scrub Oak acorn-bearing trees, wild berries and edible roots and bulbs. Deer, rabbits and squirrels provided a ready meat supply for the tribe’s hunters, shared only with mountain lions, coyotes, foxes and other predators, but no competing tribes. The Acjachemen were part of the roughly 275,000 people thought to be living in all of California at that time.
Now mostly dry, San Mateo Creek bed was the river that first drew Indians to the area.
Before the Spaniards
In approximately 1200 AD, two important Acjachemen settlements were established fairly close to each other. Panhe was settled in what became the southern end of San Clemente. A larger village called Putuidem began life in nearby San Juan Capistrano. Putuidem became the “mother village,” a hub with smaller villages surrounding it. It is still referred to as the “mother village” by many Acjachemen descendants. Circular shelters made of branches; reeds and tulle grass, called kiichas were often home to extended families seeking protection from the elements in both villages.
The people of California were entirely unaware of and unaffected by, the landing of Christopher Columbus in 1492. Fifty years later, in 1542, Juan Rodrieguez Cabrillo sailed along California’s coast and investigated San Diego Bay, Catalina Island, San Pedro, and the Channel Islands. Thirty-seven years later, Francis Drake explored portions of the northern coastline. Little in these first contacts was traumatic. Few native people were affected, but stories about these white visitors with their big ships and loud guns must have crept into narratives throughout the state via the numerous trading routes.
Life in Panhe
Work in the Acjachemen village was shared by everyone, from building shelters to gathering food and water. Men’s typical jobs included fishing and hunting with snares, bows and arrows and throwing sticks. They tanned the skins of the animals they hunted. They built boats of tulle, shaping the cattail like grasses into bundles and tying them tightly together with strong vines. By kneeling or standing, they could pole their way through calm coastal waters, making it easier to catch fish.
Men also held high positions within the tribe as a Doctor or Shaman. Usually an inherited position, it was secured by a man buying a special medicine kit or bundle holding the tools of the trade. This could include tiny obsidian points for cutting, dried herbs and roots, small mortars and pestles for grinding, charms, small stones and feathers. The Shaman danced, chanted, and made potions to cure illnesses like toothaches, upset stomachs, sore throats, and more. It was believed he had super-natural powers and that by sucking the affected part of an ill individual he could clear it of toxins and poisons.
Women were critical to the survival of the community. They were the first ecologists, making use of everything. Their tasks included basket weaving, food gathering, cooking, and preparation and knowledge of medicinal plants. They also oversaw the storage of food for the entire tribe.
Medicinal Healing and Religious Beliefs
When there was work to do, all the tribe members worked. If there was celebrating, all participated. Acjachemen children were educated in oral tradition through stories told by their elders. They learned the aromatic properties of the white sage, the epidermal healing tendencies of Oak galls, the cleansing properties of amole soap made from the Yucca and used as shampoo, the water-holding ability of tightly woven Tule grass baskets, how an infusion made from the shiny leaves of Holly Leaf Cherries could soothe a cough, and many other things. Tribal elders also taught the history of the tribe.
The Acjachemen had no written language. Myths and legends explained their arrival in this world. Like most Native Americans, they were a deeply spiritual people who believed in interacting respectfully with nature and co-existing with all life-forms. They celebrated their religion with sacred songs and dances.
One creation myth follows the god Chinigchinich. Chinigchinich has variously been represented as a creator deity, a culture hero, lawgiver figure, or a prophet. The most distinctive characteristic of Chinigchinich beliefs concerned the existence of a set of “Chinigchinich avengers” who spied on human beings and enforced the moral codes. These figures included Raven, Rattlesnake, Bear, Mountain Lion, and others. There were also ceremonial items sacred to Chinigchinich, including mortars and winnowing trays. Chinigichinich beliefs were associated with the initiation ceremonies for adolescent boys, during which the hallucinogenic plant Datura (Toloache, Jimsonweed, Datura wrightii) was ingested, but elements of these ceremonies were much more widely shared than were a belief in the specific character of Chinigchinich.
An open patch of the original Putuidem site still exists in San Juan Capistrano. The City of San Juan Capistrano is working with the Juaneno Tribal Council to save this piece of ancient history. It is being turned into a small park with a model village containing kiichas, discovery trails and an amphitheater to eventually be built on the land. It will be used for tribal ceremonies as well as an educational tool for future generations of schoolchildren and visitors.
The site of Panhe is in the upper end of San Onofre State Park. The park was created by presidential decree in 1971 on property leased from the Navy. It is home to both an Acjachemen burial site and numerous endangered or threatened species. Year after year, the modern Acjachemen have taken to borrowing back their sacred ground to gather, pass on traditions and renew the connection between humans and earth
But the Acjachemen, themselves, who once spanned Orange and San Diego counties, are now a landless people because they are not a federally recognized tribe. In California, they are listed as the “Juaneño Band of Mission Indians, Acjachemen Nation.” Unfortunately that state designation does not afford them the same benefits as entry into the federal directory.