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The History of the Acjachemen People

PC: Allison Jarrell


Orange County, California is the ancestral territory and land of the Acjachemen Nation, or the Juaneño Band of Mission Indians. Prior to Spanish colonization in 1775, the Acjachemens occupied areas ranging from Aliso Creek to Northwestern San Diego for 10,000+ years. However, they were also present in Lake Elsinore, Catalina, and the San Clemente Islands.

Due to California’s diversity of ecosystems, plants, and animals, the Acjachmens had access to a variety of natural resources, which were integrated into their lifestyle and culture. Though there were different types of plants and animals based on the habitat present, the Acjachmens found ways to utilize each species for a specific purpose in their lifestyle. Additionally, they believed that all the habitats and land were sacred; they needed to be protected and used carefully to ensure their livelihood (

PC: Kris Preston

Coastal Sage Scrub

The coastal sage scrub is the dominant habitat type in Orange County. It is a lowland scrub community that flourishes in semi-arid conditions. Plants, such as California Buckwheat and Lemonade berries, feature water resistant and retention properties, such as waxy leaf cover or a shallow but elongated root system. As for animals, the area is typically inhabited by small to medium-sized species, such as desert cottontails, ground squirrels, and coyotes; however, mule deer can also be present in the habitat.

The Acjachemens were a hunter-gatherer tribe, and in the coastal sage scrub area, they would primarily target rabbits, deer, and squirrels. Though these animals played a role in their diet, the Acjachemens shared the meat with predators, such as bobcats and coyotes ( Since rabbits/deer/squirrels are prey animals, they are generally alert of their surroundings; any unfamiliar scents or noise can startle them into running away. In order to approach animals while hunting, the Acjachemens would use California Sagebrush, White Sage, etc. to mask their scent and blend in with the surrounding, aromatic habitat.

Coastal sage plants not only helped the Acjachemens hunt; certain species were used as medicine and food. Blue elderberry is a good example of a sage scrub plant that exhibits both properties. The Acjachmens would usually harvest the blue elderberries around early May and into the summer season. During this process, they would collect the flowers and berries. They would brew the flowers into a tea to alleviate stomach aches, menstrual cramps, colic, and fevers (Walker et al. 2004). As for the berries, they were not directly eaten because the seeds are poisonous. Instead, the berries would dry on a mat and then be made into a syrup (

PC: Jean Pawek

Riparian Zones

Within the coastal sage scrub, there is another habitat type called riparian zones. Riparian zones are strips of vegetation that grow around sources of water, such as a creek or river, so they act as semi-terrestrial and aquatic areas ( Animal species found in the area remain the same, but more deciduous and larger vegetation can grow in riparian zones. Plant species can include tule reed, oak trees, and sycamores.

The riparian zone features another plant that played an important role to the Acjachemen’s diet: oast live oak ( The Acjachemens would start collecting the acorns around fall and make it into a mixture called Wiwish (Rigby 2012). This process involved grinding the acorns into a flour using a mano (grinding stone) and metate (grinding bowl) and then mixing it with water (

Riparian plants were not only used for food and medicine, but served other purposes including: materials for shelters (kiitchas), creating boats (tomol), and basket weaving. Interestingly, items from the coastal sage scrub would be used to enhance or accompany the final products from the riparian resource. For example, after developing a circular shelter with reeds/branches/tule grass, aromatic sages were spread in the interior to deter insects, while pelted animal skins provided insulation and bedding. Additionally, harvested elderberries could be made into a dye to color coiled, tule reed baskets.

PC: Diana Robinson

Intertidal & Ocean

Finally, there is the intertidal and coastline region. In contrast to the two more inland habitats, the intertidal and coastline area lack vegetation. Additionally, the coastline is a fluctuating environment. The mixed semi-diurnal tide system means there are two high and low tides each day. These incoming waves influence which animals washed up and were accessible. For the Acjachemens, it served as another source of food, tools, and even trading routes.

The intertidal area, which was accessible in tidepools or low tide, served as a source for food since it supplied the Acjachemen with shellfish. Abalone was a prominent staple that provided various benefits. Abalone is a type of marine snail and the body found inside the shell is edible. After consuming the abalone’s body, the shell would be repurposed for bowls, decor, and fish hooks ( Utilizing abalone (or any animal bones) as a fishhook, combined with the riparian tule reed boats, allowed the Acjachemen to go further out to sea and fish (read our article on abalone and their conservation here!).

As mentioned earlier, there were tribes present in the Channel, Catilina, and San Clemente islands. By traveling across the sea in tomols, the inland tribes would use the resources or items created from the coastal sage, riparian, and coastline habitats and trade with these neighboring tribes. Items include trading dried fish, obsidian, acorns, waterfowl, salt for soapstone and otter pelts (

Closing Thoughts & Acknowledgements

It is important to acknowledge that modern day development in Irvine and other parts of Orange County, CA is on the ancestral land of the Acjachemens, and other indigenous tribes (ex. Tongva). We are grateful for the original stewards to the land where we live and work, who despite the history of violence, racism, and forced displacement, still hold strong cultural, physical, and spiritual ties to the land.

Forced displacement and urbanization meant converting and intruding into ecological spaces that were once cherished and used by the Acjachemens. However, indigenous, educational, and environmental groups within Orange County provide opportunities to explore intact habitats and communicate their role in sustaining the Acjachemen nation. The Juaneno Band of Mission Indians: Acjachemen Nation ( shares the tribe's history and information relating to events, meetings, etc. Then there’s the (, which is a family-owned Native American educational group that communicates indigenous/Acjachemen Culture. Finally, OC Habitats integrates related information into education hikes in the coastal sage, riparian, and coastal habitats.

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