AN EFFORT TO SAVE A SACRED SITE
The site is Putiidhem, a unique archaeological site that has cultural, spiritual, and scientific value. It is listed in the California Native American Heritage Commission’s Register of Sacred Sites. It has been determined eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places under criterion A as a Traditional Cultural Property, the founding village of the Juaneño/Acjachemem. The traditional cultural values are documented through oral traditions regarding the founding of Putiidhem that were passed from generation to generation and documented in mission records and the historic accounts of Father Gerónimo Boscana in the 18th century. Based on this information it is eligible under criterion B as a place that is associated with a person important in history: Corrine, the woman chief who founded the village; it is extremely rare that a prehistoric archaeological site can be associated with a named person. Finally, it is eligible under criterion D for the potential to provide information important in history and prehistory.
The site is located in San Juan Capistrano on a 29-acre property on the corner of Camino Capistrano and Junipero Serra. The site has been almost completely destroyed by the construction of sports facilities, including a gym, swimming pool, and playing fields for a private Catholic high school, which ironically is named after Junípero Serra, the priest who established the missions that led to the destruction of the traditional culture of California Indians, including the Juaneño who are named after Mission San Juan Capistrano.
Putiidhem once was a thriving village with a spring, wetlands, community spaces, and burial grounds. The Junípero Serra Catholic high school now occupies the site. The wetlands and drainage place it under the jurisdiction of the Los Angeles District Corps of Engineers. The developer needed a Corps Section 404 permit to construct storm drain structures and a parking lot which provide infrastructure support. The issuance of the permit is a federal undertaking and places the project under Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act. Under 36 CFR 800.16 (d) the area of the undertaking’s potential environmental impact is defined as that geographical area within which direct and indirect effects caused by the undertaking could reasonably be expected to occur and cause a change in the archaeological or cultural qualities possessed by a National Register-eligible property.
Unfortunately, the Corps used their counterpart regulations Appendix C to limit the Area of Potential Effect (APE) to a very small strip of land within the western portion of the site adjacent to Camino Capistrano Street and the remnant wetlands within the eastern portion of the site. Both the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation and the State Historic Preservation Officer wrote letters stating that the Corps is in violation of 36 CFR 800 and has not properly determined the APE.
While the Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act consultation process for the permit drug on, the developers fenced off the two small areas of the site designated by the Corps as the APE and graded and filled the remaining areas of the site, including an area designated as a cemetery area that was supposed to be capped and protected. They constructed the gymnasium, excavated the swimming pool, and completed the trenching and installation of the storm drains and underground utilities.
The capping of the so-called sensitive area of the site (based on a 2% subsurface sample of eight acres of the site and where the reburials lie) was not done according to the National Park Service archaeological site-capping guidelines and cannot be considered a preservation measure as the cemetery area was graded and compacted. Other mitigation measures to protect the sensitive area, such as monitored hand digging for the installation of various underground facilities, were not always followed.
Since 2002 CCRPA has worked with the Juaneño/Acjachemem tribal members and the Sierra Club Sacred Sites Task Force to try to preserve the site. CCRPA and the Sierra Club Sacred Sites Task Forcemet with city council members, the property owners, Pueblo Serra, Inc. (the developers), the bishop of the Orange County Archdiocese, and the Trust for Public Lands, and held public education events to present an alternate plan which would preserve the site with native plants and a minimally invasive interpretive center. When these efforts failed, we wrote letters to politicians and opinion pages, spoke to reporters and participated in a Channel 4 documentary regarding attempts by the California Indians to protect their sacred sites. The Sierra Club Sacred Sites Task Force and Native Americans held prayer vigils at the site. CCRPA, the Sierra Club Sacred Sites Task Force, and Native Americans went door-to-door with petitions, spoke against the destruction at the public hearings, and wrote letters criticizing the inadequate and insensitive mitigation measures in the environmental impact report. Realizing that the California Environmental Quality Act provided no protection, CCRPA and the Sierra Club Sacred Sites Task Force, with strong support from the Native American community, turned to the federal courts for protection.
CCRPA felt that federal laws and regulations were circumvented and the site was almost completely destroyed. Therefore, CCRPA, with assistance from the Sierra Club, brought suit to preserve what was left of the site.
The overall objective was to prevent any further impacts to the known burial area and to obtain off-site mitigation in terms of funding for appraisals and options to purchase adjacent properties containing cultural deposits believed to be associated with the sacred site. These properties are in danger of development and the hope is to assist the city in their purchase for preservation as open space.
The lawsuit forced the developer to employ an independent archaeologist, limit excavation, and provide daily logs among other mitigations and protective measures. The lawsuit was then settled with payment from the developer to a trust to aid in the acquisition of off-site property in order to protect other important resources and to provide access for the Juaneño descendants to their ancestral lands. Off-site mitigation is an available form of mitigation under the regulations implementing Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act.