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A Tribute to Chief Clarence Lobo
By Doris Walker,
Clarence Lobo spent much of his life in the house where he was born in 1912 – on San Juan Capistrano’s historic Los Rios Street. His life changed when, in 1946, he was elected chief of the Juaneño Indians, a band of about 1,000 members – a third of them still living in the community of their ancient roots. Originally known as the Acagchemem, they had been renamed for the Mission San Juan Capistrano by the Spanish padres in 1776.
Lobo’s great-great-great-grandfather, Juan Antonio had also been an Indian Chief. He had led the Cahuilla Band, native mountain/desert dwellers who resided inland, away from the influence of the coastal missions. Juan Antonio, born three years before the first Europeans had arrived, was known as the “Chief of Peace” and “Friend of the White Men”.
Eventually, in 1826, Juan Antonio had come to Mission San Juan Capistrano to be baptized. Though he was 60 years old, the chief had gone on to establish the Robles family strain that became intertwined with the Capistrano Lobos through marriage.
Clarence Lobo’s middle years were spent in a modern tract home on a knoll of Dana Point, overlooking the Capistrano Valley. That setting offered more room for his vast collection of Indian artifacts – especially stone metates and morteros that had been used to grind acorns into meal by his ancestors.
Lobo was very outspoken about the importance of preserving historic relics and sites in the area, where the natives had built villages long before Cabrillo is credited with discovering California in 1542. “My fathers knew it was here all the time,” he was eager to point out.
As a boy, Clarence had watched the productive groves of walnuts that his grandfather had brought to the valley uprooted for orange trees, as marketing trends changed. After World War II, he was awed by the earth-eating monsters that began to level the rolling valley land his forefathers had used for centuries, but left in its natural state. Newcomers were apt to assume it had undergone its “first” development when the mission was established.
Lobo himself was destined to spend many years working as a heavy-equipment operator in surrounding quarries. Whenever his machine uncovered relics from the old way of life, it reunited him with the heritage he loved. With great tenderness he would remove them from harm’s way and carry them home to add to his comprehensive collection.
Yet even as a youngster, Clarence had sometimes sensed that it was not a good thing to be Indian. For it meant being different, being set apart. It made him feel like a living artifact himself, from an era that no one liked to talk about. When he attended Capistrano Union High School, he came to realize that Native Americans were a demoralized minority.
When Lobo reminisced about his boyhood in San Juan Capistrano, the pride he held for his forebears – the original settlers of the mission valley – welled up inside him. Fortunately his warm sense of humor tempered the hurt that would accumulate during the quarter century he spent as spokesman for his overlooked people. The poet in him rephrased it this way:
“History is alway spring; no one wants to talk about winter and its nasty weather and floods.” He knew that his people had been treated with much less respect than the migratory swallows who had adopted his home valley.
One year, with a mixture of anticipation and regret, the chief had shaved away the striking mustache he had cultivated. However, he did so proudly, because he had been asked to serve as grand marshal of the Pioneer Days parade at Twentynine Palms.
Lobo had come to realize that face hair looked out of place with the 32-feather headdress he would wear as chief of the Juaneño Indians of southern Orange County. He wanted to be careful with his image, knowing how seldom it is that a real Indian chief gets to lead a western parade.
Ironically, the headdress was not the authentic attire for a California native chief, who would have worn only a feather or two in his headband. But Lobo had also come to realize that it was necessary for him to wear full feathers if he was to be taken seriously by the public as a modern chief. Times change.
For him, the mustache had become a symbol, too … proof that Indians are just like everybody else. Contrary to legend, they too must shave, though their hair is slower-growing. In fact, Lobo knew it would take two years after the parade until his mustache would be full-grown again, but he had learned to be a patient man.
The incongruity of his hair and his headdress paralleled the mixed sentiments that overlaid this 20th century chief’s entire adult life. Another paradox was the status accorded the fruit of his marriage to Bess, who is part Taos Indian. By government ruling, their first son, Clarence Jr., is a legal Indian, while their second son, Wesley, is not. Those born after 1951 have no official status despite blood lines. Their father found it a “nasty and distasteful task” to teach them about their special heritage. It was harder than trying to describe the severest of winters to natives of sunny Capistrano.
Some historians claim that the Juaneño band no longer exists because of its diffused blood. Instead, Chief Clarence Lobo felt his people belonged to the list of endangered American species that are fast approaching extinction. Of the once populous Juaneños, his aunt – Chita Robles Clark of San Juan Capistrano – was the last full-blood. He himself was three-quarters Juaneño and one-quarter Spanish.
Through the years, the more the chief looked at the past, the more he wanted to assure a part of the future for his people. He protested when in 1944 California Indians were “allowed to win” a lawsuit against the U.S. government for $17 million. The court set aside $12 million for services already rendered, and the remaining $5 million was placed in trust “for benefits as needed”. This left Lobo’s people “starving millionaires,” for each Indian wound up with only $150 cash, not received until six years after the court ruling.
“Promises are but leaves on the tree,” Lobo expounded with the part of him that was more poet than warrior. “Fulfillment is the fruit. It is simple to find many leaves, but not all trees bear fruit.”
As counselor to the League of California Indians, Lobo decided to probe deeper into the rights of his own Juaneños, whose original lands extended through most of Orange County, from the sea to Santiago Peak of Saddleback Mountain – a total of 500,000 acres. Unlike most Native Americans, they have never been given a reservation, nor payment for their aboriginal land rights.
So Lobo motorcycle up to Sacramento, where he combed the records. He discovered that 18 unratified treaties between the United States and California Indians, that were drafted back in the 1850s, had not even included mention of his band. They had dispersed as a people when secularization of the missions came in the 1830s, and the federal government had sold their lands to outsiders, leaving them no legal status.
Lobo’s action on behalf of the local Juaneño Indians led to his election as their chief in 1946, a title given for life when he was only 34 years old. He later attained leadership in California’s Mission Indian Federation as well, and to him fell the unenviable task of taking their combined land claims to Washington – “the land of the marble wigwams”.
Business-suited with his impressive war bonnet under his arm, Lobo flew off in an “iron bird” for the nation’s capital, where Indian chiefs are also expected to wear feathers. However, his sincere attempts to communicate with officials in Washington were continually thwarted.
“The Great White Fathers stoked my feathers the wrong way,” he was quick to phrase it. They gave him “a handful of beads and cheap whiskey,” not realizing that he was a cultured man and preferred good Scotch.
As a result, Lobo refused an official tour of historic Washington shrines, explaining that it would eventually lead to the Lincoln Memorial, which bears the inscription “Great Emancipator”.
“I can’t face him!” the proud chief told the lawmakers. “He didn’t emancipate my people!”
Yet when the officials had left him, Lobo took an unofficial tour by himself, and was significantly touched by the landmarks of national history. For his incongruous role as an Indian chief included the patriotism of a true American.
Washington refused to bargain with the Juaneño leader, who came home a sad but wiser man. His research and television appearances on behalf of his people only intensified.
In 1963 he returned to the city of marble wigwams with his war bonnet and prepared statement about his people. He offered the latter to a joint hearing of subcommittees of the 83rd Congress that was concerned with granting the rights and responsibilities of citizenship to Native Americans. The chief had come to realize that, collectively, California’s natives had lost over 60 million acres – more than half the state – through the unratified treaties.
“By nature my people are trusting to the point of being gullible,” he explained. “California was admitted to the Union in 1850 on a rental basis, and we’re asking the government to buy it back honorably, if they want it.”
Lobo visited the Senate, the House and one joint session of Congress. Then just as he was making real headway –scheduled to attend a series of hearings on Indian affairs and hoping to speak to the chief executive himself – President Kennedy was assassinated. Official business came to an abrupt standstill. Lobo stayed in Washington for the funeral, then returned home to continue his solitary paper work.
Early in the Johnson administration, long years after cross-country negotiations seemed to reach a climax for California Indians. The “White Fathers” in Washington offered a settlement to all of them in 1964 – $29 million, or 47 cents an acre for the land that once was theirs.
Chief Clarence Lobo led his people, the Juaneños and a united front of 47 Mission Indian bands, in a stand against the judgment. But the government ruled that those eligible to vote acceptance could have as little as 1/128 Indian blood … and so the watered-down majority accepted 47 cents as better than nothing. They didn’t receive their checks until 1972.
Lobo was quick with verbal arrows, telling his people that they had sold their heritage for a string of cheap beads. He reminded them that the claim money would really go into a “special account for benefits as needed,” and that anyone with less than ⅛ native blood would have trouble drawing on it. It would be much more honorable, he insisted, to leave the debt on the books than to be insulted.
The irate chief went so far as to call for abolishment of the Federal Bureau of Indian Affairs. With 20 years of research to his credit, he charged that agency with “keeping Indians in bondage by teaching generation after generation to be dependent on the government. Members of his own Juaneño band, he noted, had always paid their taxes, yet received no special benefits.
Far from defeated, Chief Lobo tried a new approach. Since the government had offered the Indians 47 cents an acre, the determined man sent a $12.50 check to President Johnson to pay for 25 acres in the heart of the Cleveland National Forest, out the Ortega Highway east of San Juan Capistrano.
“I offered 50 cents an acre to make it a profitable deal for them,” he explained. He moved his house trailer into Upper San Juan Campground (then closed for construction) to squat his claim on the former site of Juaneño tribal territory. He even held a powwow there. Moved by his action, a Chippewa Indian from the Midwest sent him $2 to buy four more acres.
Lobo’s hope was to set a legal precedent, holding out for acreage promised by former Congressional Acts in lieu of accepting the paltry cash payment. He said that if he were successful, he would keep the lange as a campground where the Juaneños could retain their right to roam. He also wanted to open a little store where they could “chew the rag over Indian affairs”.
However, the chief’s paying job as a bus driver with the Capistrano Unified School District kept him in town on weekdays, and eventually the trailer was ruined by vandals. Finally, his check came back from Washington without a reply, yet perforated with nine staples holes, the result of being shuttled from desk to desk … “the passing of the buck,” he surmised.
“It is really difficult to turn your canoe around and paddle upstream against the current,” Lobo realized.
More years passed, and the dream was neither accomplished nor abandoned. Eventually, in the 1970s, Clarence and Bess moved to Northern California, where one of their sons had settled. If the chief had not won his fight, he had made a significant notch on the tribal feather.
“Once I wanted to write a whole volume, but I became satisfied to add maybe a couple of lines to the Native American story,” he resignedly concluded.
It personally disappointed the civic-minded man that he had never been asked to lead a parade in his own hometown as he had elsewhere. Yet Lobo had become a member of his native city’s planning commission – the first Indian chief to hold such a position in any American city. His input had been greatly respected locally. He had also been elected to several terms as a director of the San Juan Capistrano Historical Society, of which he was a founding member.
Inwardly, Lobo had the satisfaction of knowing that he really had a legal leg to stand on in the matter of Indian rights, and that he had done what few Indians had done before … ripple the waters in Washington. He also realized that his speaking out about the old claims had at least welded his own people closer together.
The chief was also able to enrich the culture of the elementary school children he chauffeured daily, singing them Indian songs and telling them Indian stories as he drove them through the undeveloped cattle-grazing areas of the mission city. Yet for years his poetic mind had been haunted by an image he had seen from his school bus, in the lands that were once his people’s hunting grounds. It was an image he identified with – a bull with its head caught in a hole in the barbed wire fence because he had dared to reach out for the grass growing on the other side.
During the final years of his life in the north, the disillusioned man continued to call himself “Lobo from San Juan Capistrano,” and to know that he was “a full Indian chief – a real one recognized by the President of the U.S. of A.”
When the announcement of John Wayne’s death reached him in 1979, he told his wife that “I won’t be killed in battle now, because the great American Indian killer is gone to shoot Indians in the sky. So now I will die here on earth of natural causes.”
Eventually, a brain tumor deprived him of much of his vitality. Yet the poetic touch never left him in the final months of his life when he noted that “I still have time to joke with white brother; I make him think I have arrow hidden up my buckskin sleeve.”
Death did come in 1985 from natural causes, a heart attack at age 72. Lobo’s last request was granted – to be buried with his mother in the Mission San Juan Capistrano Indian Cemetery, following a funeral there.
This singular man never seemed to realize the significance of his accomplishments … that because of his assertive fulfillment of the role of Juaneño chief, his great spirit lives on in his home area. It will provide ongoing inspiration to his band and to all people who care about the human rights of history.
The elementary school named posthumously for Clarence Lobo on land that was once his people’s should continue to remind the future generations of the positive impact an individual with commitment to a cause can make.
(Doris Walker, 1993)