The Juaneño or Acjachemen are an indigenous people of California. They traditionally lived along the coast in what is now Orange and San Diego counties. The name "Juaneño" derives from the Spanish Mission San Juan Capistrano, founded to colonize the area in 1776. They traditionally spoke the Juaneño language, a variety closely related to the Luiseño language of the nearby Luiseño people, but this is extinct. In the 20th century, they organized as the Juaneño Band of Mission Indians, Acjachemen Nation, which is recognized by the State of California, but is not federally recognized.


During the late Paleoindian period and continuing into the present day, the southern coastal area was occupied by the Native American society referred to by Spanish colonists as the Juaneño.[2] Spanish priests named them as the people colonized by the nearby Mission San Juan Capistrano.[3] Today many contemporary Juaneño who identify as descendants of the indigenous society living in the local San Juan and San Mateo Creek drainage areas prefer the adopted indigenous term Acjachemen as their autonym, or name for themselves, in an effort to decolonize their history.

Aliso Creek (Orange County) which traditionally marked the boundary between the Tongva and the Juaneño.

The Acjachemen territory extends 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 Creek. The Spanish built Mission San Juan Capistrano there.[4] The Acjachemen resided in permanent, well-defined villages and seasonal camps. Village populations ranged from between 35 and 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.[5]

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.[6] 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.[7]

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).[8] 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.[9] 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..."[10]


Their language is related to the Luiseño language spoken by the nearby Luiseño tribe located to the interior.[11] Considered to speak a dialect of Luiseño, the Juaneño were part of the Cupan subgroup of the Uto-Aztecan languages.

Their language became extinct by the early 20th century. The tribe is working at reviving it, with several members learning it. Their studies are based on the research and records of Anastacia Majel and John P. Harrington, who recorded the language in 1933. (The tape recordings resurfaced around 1995).


The Juaneño Band of Mission Indians has organized a government. It elects a tribal council, assisted by tribal elders. The Juaneño Band headquarters is in San Juan Capistrano. There are more than 2,800 enrolled members.

It is recognized as a tribe by the state of California. They filed a petition in 1982 to seek federal recognition as a tribe, and are working with the Bureau of Indian Affairs on documentation.

In the 21st century, the tribe filed a land claim, seeking to regain the territory of the former Marine Corps Air Station El Toro. This had been held by them as an Indian Rancheria until the 1930s. At that time, the US government bought the land for use as a defense facility.[citation needed]

In May 2013, Acjachemen voters elected the first all-female Juaneño tribal council in its history.[12]

Notable Acjachemen

  • Thomas "Happy" Hunn, elder and San Juan Capistrano patriarch.
  • Bobbie Banda, elder who established Native American education programs in public schools.[12]

See also


  1. ^ After Kroeber, 1925
  2. ^ Kroeber 1925, p. 636
  3. ^ The appellation Juaneño does not necessarily identify a specific ethnic or tribal group, as the Spanish sometimes gathered diverse peoples to live and work as servants and slaves at their missions.
  4. ^ O'Neil, pp. 68–78
  5. ^ Bean and Blackburn, pp. 109–111
  6. ^ Boscana, p. 37
  7. ^ Kelsey, p. 3
  8. ^ Hittell, p. 746
  9. ^ Hittell, p. 749
  10. ^ Hittell, pp. 746-747
  11. ^ Sparkman, p. 189: Linguistically, the Acjachemen tongue is a dialect of the larger Luiseño language, which is derived from the Takic language family (Luiseño, Juaneño, Cupeño, and Cahuilla Indians all belong to the Cupan subgroup), a part of the Uto-Aztecan (Shoshone) linguistic stock (this language is sometimes referred to as "Southern California Shoshonean"). But the language at Capistrano and Soboba differed "considerably from that of the remainder of the s, and by some the people of these places are not included among the Luiseños."
  12. ^ a b Park, Brian (2013-05-08). "Bobbie Banda, Juaneño Tribal Elder, Dies at 66". Capistrano Dispatch. Archived from the original on 2013-06-15. Retrieved 2013-06-04. 


  • Boscana, Gerónimo, O.F.M. (1933). Chinigchinich: A Revised and Annotated Version of Alfred Robinson's Translation of Father Gerónimo Boscana's Historical Account of the Belief, Usages, Customs and Extravagancies of the Indians of this Mission of San Juan Capistrano Called the Acagchemen Tribe. Phil Townsend Hanna, ed. Fine Arts Press, Santa Ana, CA. 
  • Bean, Lowell John and Thomas C. Blackburn (eds.) (1976). Native California: A Theoretical Retrospective. Ballena Press, Socorro, New Mexico. 
  • Feinberg, Leslie (1996). Transgender Warriors. Beacon Press, Boston, MA. ISBN 0-8070-7940-5. 
  • Hittell, Theodore H. (1898). History of California, Volume I. N.J. Stone & Company, San Francisco, CA. 
  • Kelsey, Harry (1993). Mission San Juan Capistrano: A Pocket History. Interdisciplinary Research, Inc., Altadena, CA. ISBN 0-9785881-0-X. 
  • Kroeber, Alfred L. (1907). "The Religion of the Indians of California". University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology. 4 (6): 318–356. 
  • Kroeber, Alfred L. (1925). Handbook of the Indians of California. Dover Publications, Inc., New York, NY. 
  • O'Neil, Stephen (2002). "The Acjachemen in the Franciscan Mission System: Demographic Collapse and Social Change". Master's thesis. Department of Anthropology, California State University, Fullerton. 
  • Sparkman, Philip Stedman (1908). "The Culture of the Luiseño Indians". University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology. 8 (4): 187–234. 

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