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San Clemente Journal

Jacque Tahuka Nunez, Storyteller of Native Dreams

Dec 08, 2022 10:43AM ● By Donia Moore

Educator Jacque Nunez grew up in the historic Los Rios Adobe in San Juan Capistrano. The 230-year-old house was her great grandmother’s and the family lived there helping to take care of her until she passed away.

 by Donia Moore, photos by Michelle Marie Photo

Jacque Tahuka Nunez is uniquely qualified to represent her ancestors. A storyteller unequalled, she is a 9th generation Rios (the name given to the Ajachemen by the Spanish in the late 18th century) whose ancestors helped to build the San Juan Capistrano Mission. They are an indigenous people of California who historically lived south of what is known as the Aliso Creek and what became San Diego County. 

Jacque and her husband, Ed, are celebrating their 40th anniversary.

 Today, they call themselves the Juaneno Band of Mission Indians. The name denotes those people who were ministered by the padres at Mission San Juan Capistrano. Their language was related to the Luiseno language spoken by the nearby Luiseno tribe. The language was all but extinct, but thanks to the research and records of several tribal members it is being revived by members actively learning the language and matching it to recordings made in 1933 that surfaced around 1995.

Words are powerful, regardless of the language in which they are spoken. In her 32 years of traveling to schools, events and on the stage, Jacque’s words were always powerful and positive; sharing what she believes with students and empowering them to be unafraid and courageous; leading with respect and kindness.

An educator for forty years, the former kindergarten teacher and USC graduate has the skill set as a storyteller to thoroughly engage her audiences. Her portrayal of her heritage is well researched, dignified, and sincere and it has helped to educate thousands of people about the Native American cultures. She has traveled to over 1,500 educational institutions from preschool to universities. Her play, Journeys to the Past, has been performed for over 30 years reaching thousands of students at Kavli Theater, Huntington Beach Library, Cerritos Performing Arts Center, La Habra Performing Arts Center, Wells Fargo Performing Arts Center and Sherman Indian High school where the students are integrated as actors and stage hands. 

While times have changed a little, Jacque emphasizes that we still need her message, “Diversity is all around, we need to celebrate each other and know that our community is beautiful because of the many cultures that live in American today. Remember, YOU are special, and no one in the world is just like you! Promise me you will learn five wonderful things about your family and your heritage. And let's celebrate our differences and learn about each other.”
Jacque introduces the history of this once flourishing group of people through her play originally created for young audiences to share the beauty and richness of her tribal history. “Journeys to the Past” centers on a modern time when a young working mom, wishing that her life was less hectic, dreams of her ancestors’ way of life. At that moment, the curtain rises to reveal a re-created early California Indian village with an all-tribal cast, leaving the audience in awe. Talented storyteller Jacque serves as the audience’s guide through this time and place when the beautiful Ajachemen nation flourished along the California coast. Those attending learn about indigenous cooking, the art of weaving baskets, children’s games, community celebrations and much more. The story ends in present days with dancers from various tribes wearing magnificent traditional attire, performing dances that they participate in today in current Intertribal Pow-Wows throughout North America.

Ajachemen History
The original Ajachemen 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. The majority of the population occupied the outlets of two large creeks: San Juan Creek combined with Arroyo San Onofre which drained into the ocean at the same point where Mission San Juan Capistrano was ultimately situated. The highest concentration of villages was along the Lower San Juan. The Ajachemen lived in permanent well-defined villages and seasonal camps. Village populations ranged between 35 and 300 residents consisting of single lineage in the smaller villages, and a dominant clan joined by other families in the larger settlements.
In addition to providing spellbinding performances and irrevocable details, Jacque also introduces outstanding workshops during which participants of all ages can engage in authentic Native American crafts, games, tool-making and other activities reflecting the way that the Ajachemen children learned mathematics (stick game), coordination (ring toss), or art (yucca paintbrush). 
Jacque’s family is also involved in educating people about their native roots. They had long hair like their dad when they returned home to their ancestral land of San Juan Capistrano. They were even attending the school she went to as a child: San Juan Elementary School. Most of the children there were first generation Hispanic and didn't even know who the Juaneno Native Americans were, even though the Mission which Jacque’s ancestors built was right across the street. Her boys were angry most of the time because the other students made fun of their braids. They called them girls and made motions to cut the braids off. Jacque finally went to the principal and requested that she do an assembly to share about her family’s native heritage. He agreed so she combed her shelves at home for native artifacts, had her husband dance a traditional inter-tribal dance, and convinced her cousin to perform a shawl dance as she spoke about the California Indigenous people of Capistrano.

The principal was so impressed he called the head of the Indian Education Title 6 Program and asked that a representative come to see Jacque’s presentation about the local tribe. He was hoping that they could use her storyteller talents for school presentations. Her career changed that very day. A preschool teacher at the time with 13 years classroom experience with K-3rd grade, her job now was to do assemblies for schools about the lifestyle of her people. However, other tribes began to ask her to go to their areas too. She performed a contrast and comparison of Central and Northern California tribes, but basically the information aligned with their lifestyle, as well. 

What had become a family business overnight just kept growing. Jacque turned her one-hour storytelling into a one-hour play and it toured for 19 years, performing for more than 100,000 students. During the last run of the show, Cerritos nominated the one-hour play to be performed at the Kennedy Center.
Today their beautiful stage of the living village is enjoyed at Cal State San Bernardino with CNAD in September and coordinated by the San Manuel Education Department. Thousands of children have participated in the performance for the last 17 years. 

Both Jacque and her son have been the introducers of the California Indian Day Celebrations. Her granddaughter Sequoia is involved in helping to host some of the workshops. It is her hope that perhaps in the next few years her son will bring their play back on tour again. Jackson who is the youngest of the boys will carry on her work. Her other two boys will also be a part of continuing the legacy of Journeys to the Past but it will always be Jacque and her uncontainable enthusiasm that will remain the heart of the show.

For more information: [email protected] 
or (949) 248-2558

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