Saturday, February 17, 2024

O.C. Q&A: Native American Edition

Acjachemen Chief Clarence Lobo (1912-1985)  

Q:  What happened to the Indian tribes who lived in Orange County?

A:  From the Mission system, to European-introduced diseases, to the Indian "removals" that continued into the 20th Century, California Indians have dwindled in number dramatically. But they're not gone. You probably cross paths with Tongva (a.k.a. Gabrielino) and Acjachemen (a.k.a. Juaneño) people -- the two main native groups who lived here when the Spanish arrived -- more often than you know. Over the centuries, most have intermarried with the Spanish, Mexican, and American families who settled here. But if you ask around, it's not difficult to find families whose Orange County roots go back at least 2,000 years. 

What's more mysterious is what happened to the so-called "Millingstone Horizon" culture (known earlier as the "Oak Grove" culture) -- People who lived here thousands of years before the Tongva and Acjachemen arrived, and who didn't leave a forwarding address.

Q:  Have any local Indian words stayed in our dialect?

A: The only one most folks know is "Niguel" -- and even that word was likely altered to suit the Spanish ear and tongue. Niguel (or something similar) began as the name of a spring on Aliso Creek, and a nearby Juaneño Indian village. The name was later attached to the surrounding area and, in the 1840s, to the Rancho Niguel. Much, much later, the Rancho's name was co-opted by various housing developments and the City of Laguna Niguel. There's some uncertainty about the actual meaning of the word, although Acú (one of the last full-blooded Juaneño) and later anthropologist/archaeologist Stephen O'Neil both indicated that the word probably refers to a young woman. Their opinions trump the shakier theory that "Niguel" means "the place where ziggurats become white elephants."

Q:  Who were the very first people to live in Orange County?

A:  While we don't know with any certainty, let me explain about a longtime contender for that honor,...

In 1933, Laguna Beach teenagers Howard Wilson and Ed Marriner found bones, including an oddly shaped skull, exposed by construction excavation along St. Ann's Drive near Pacific Coast Highway.  Howard's mother didn't want a skull in the house and repeatedly tried to throw it away. Howard always fished it out of the trash when she wasn't looking. (Every boy with a mother and a comic book collection will instantly recognize this scenario.) In the 1960s, the skull was brought to the attention of famed paleoanthropologist Dr. Louis Leakey who determined that it was more than 17,000 years old, and perhaps as old as 40,000 years. That would have made "Laguna Woman," as she's known, one of the the earliest Americans ever discovered. 

However, later testing with more sophisticated methods showed Laguna Woman's skull to have been no more 5,500 years old. At that point, she dropped from contention as the earliest Orange Countian. Stone tools and other artifacts show there were people living here at least 9,000 years ago.

Q:  Why did Juaneño Chief Clarence Lobo dress like a Plains Indian, when California tribes' actual traditional attire was very different?

A:  Even Lobo's friend, historian Jim Sleeper, teased him in his Third Orange County Almanac: "You still wearing that Sioux headdress, Clarence?" But Lobo knew exactly what he was doing. 

I covered this in my lecture on "San Juan Capistrano, 1860-1960" at the Mission last August, but the story is worth retelling... 

"In 1946, Clarence Lobo became Chief of the Juaneño or Acjachemen native people. After generations of his people gradually fading from view and being absorbed into the larger population, Lobo brought attention to the tribe’s uniqueness, culture and history. He fought for native rights, tribal recognition by the government, and a better understanding among his own people of their roots. 

"After many instances of traveling to meet government officials only to be ignored, he realized that he needed to LOOK like an Indian chief to get the attention of the white man. He adopted an elaborate headdress of the Sioux variety, along with the other colorful beadwork and trappings of plains Indians. Those who knew anything about California Indians snickered, but it worked. He was no longer ignored."

All those (primarily white) government officials ushed him into their offices immediately, because he looked like the kind of Indian they recognized from Hollywood movies. This, in turn, gave Lobo the window he needed to plead his case.

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