Photos from the Vault

Native American settlement near Santa Margarita draws scrutiny

Semu Huaute on Mission San Antonio grounds during an occupation in March 1972.
Semu Huaute on Mission San Antonio grounds during an occupation in March 1972. ©Telegram-Tribune

The 1970s were a time of renewed visibility for the Native American community.

Some interest came from a counterculture searching for something new in Eastern religion or Native American traditions.

Another change was the embrace of political activism on the part of younger Native Americans. The American Indian Movement or AIM was founded in 1968 to further Native American issues.

An ever-changing group of Indians occupied Alcatraz Island for 19 months from November 1969 to June 1971.

In 1973 an armed standoff in Wounded Knee, South Dakota, turned deadly during a 71-day confrontation between Indian activists, U.S. Marshals Service and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Actor Marlon Brando refused his Best Actor Oscar for his role in "The Godfather" at the 1973 Academy Awards ceremony and instead was represented by Sacheen Littlefeather.

According to her website she was one of the original occupiers of Alcatraz Island.

With this backdrop, a local man, Semu Huaute, was the focal point of several stories during the 1970s.

Several web pages list biographical highlights. He was a Chumash medicine man, born into the Owl clan in either Ventura or Santa Barbara County mountains. An obituary in the Idyllwild Town Crier said he was the last full-blooded Chumash. He served during World War II in the U.S. Navy as a gunners mate.

Later in life he was often referred to as Grandfather. He was involved in the Red Wind Foundation until 1980 and spent his last decades as a teacher, lecturer and ceremony performer. He had nine television and movie credits. He died Nov. 11, 2004, at age 96.

On Oct. 29, 1973, Telegram-Tribune reporter Marita Hernandez wrote about a new settlement located 26 miles east of Santa Margarita off Highway 58:

Indians say they came in peace; sheriff's men fear militancy

Two months ago, a small group of Indians who say they want to return to the ways of their ancestors settled on a piece of land east of Santa Margarita.

Since then they say they have encountered generosity and kindness — and sniper's bullets and suspicion.

"We've had terrific cooperation from people in the community. We are very thankful," said Semu Huaute, leader of the group of 40 living on a 20-acre parcel they purchased on Bethel Ranch.

Truckloads of building materials, food, bedding cooking utensils, stoves, and livestock, among other items, have been donated to the group through the coordinated effort of county supervisor Richard Krejsa.

At their new home, there is much activity. They are constructing temporary shelters and preparing for winter, There is a goal — to mold a community of their own.

This is a different mood from the tenseness which permeated life at the encampment the first month.

The Indians then lived in fear for their lives. The camp was the target of numerous sniping attacks, Huaute said.

Fortunately no one was hurt in the gunfire exchanges. On one occasion, however, most of their supplies were destroyed in a fire set by a bullet fired at the camp, Huaute said.

The California Division of Forestry, which assisted in putting the fire out, has a different story of the event, however. A division spokesman said the cause of the fire was a cigarette and that, when asked, one of the Indians said he did not know how the fire originated.

The estimated damage of the fire which burned about 15 acres was $250, the division spokesman said.

The last sniping attack occurred more than one month ago, Huaute said. The mood at the camp has changed, and the tenseness has passed.

"We've made progress," Huaute said. "For one thing, people recognize that we are peaceful."

But apparently not everyone agrees. One recent unannounced visitor to the encampment was a Navy helicopter from Point Mugu Naval Station. The craft hovered over the camp last Thursday, "taking pictures," Huaute said.

The helicopter was sent at the request of the U.S. Treasury Department's Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms division, a Navy spokesman said. Division men were onboard the craft, he said. The purpose of the mission is not known, he said.

The San Luis Obispo County Sheriff's Department is conducting an investigation of its own.

"We will make use of the Navy's aerial photographs," said Undersheriff John Pierce. The purpose of the Sheriff's Department investigation, Pierce said, is to gather information on the group and to investigate allegations made about them.

"They are guilty of no wrongdoing as far as we know," he said.

The Sheriff's Department's concern stems from incidents of Indian militancy which have erupted across the country, such as the contemporary battle of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, and the takeover of Alcatraz Island, he said.

In the inch-thick sheriff's file on the Red Wind Indians are newspaper clippings of the peaceful occupation of Mission San Antonio de Padua campground in March of 1972. Semu Huaute was one of the leaders of that group.

The occupation ended, Huaute said at the time, because a militant group of Indians wanted to join the effort. Huaute said he left rather than radicalize the struggle.

Pierce voiced concern that the same situation could develop at the Red Wind Ranch.

Lt. Timothy Storton, chief of detectives, agreed: "Huaute is honest and sincere in his effort. Our concern is that militant Indians will join the group and take advantage of him.

"We have to know that's going on," he said. "We can't ignore it."

Law enforcement agencies in other western states have made inquiries of the sheriff's office, Pierce said.

"'Are the militants moving down there?' they ask," Pierce said. "Where is AIM (American Indian Movement)?"

Allegations that the Indians are constructing bunkers for fortification purposes have been made to the sheriff's office, Pierce said. Or this reason, the Navy's aerial photographs of the camp will be useful, he said.

"If militants move in and Huaute moves out, we need to know about those bunkers," Pierce said.

At a recent South Bay Senior Citizens meeting at which Huaute and a group of his men spoke, Huaute said they were indeed building bunkers at the camp. The purpose, he said, was to provide them protection during future sniping attacks.

"The Indians will no longer return fire with fire," Huaute said.

As for the Sheriff's Department's fear of militant elements in the group, it is an apprehension also voiced by the Indians.

Huaute has been heard to say he does not welcome militants into the camp nor Indians who may be in trouble with the law.

Such persons may be offered a meal and a place to bed for the night at the camp, but they are not allowed to stay, according to Huaute's statements.

A younger leader of the group put it this way: "AIM speaks with guns, we speak with prayer."

Pierce, on the other hand, believes there is a possibility that the sniping reports are a fabrication of the Indians to gain the sympathy of the community.

No physical evidence of the sniping has been found, he said. Another possibility, Pierce said, is that the sniping reports are factual.

Huaute takes the situation in stride.

"This is the way it is everywhere we go," he said. "We have nothing to hide. We welcome any law enforcement agency to come to our camp."

At the camp, meanwhile, there is work to be done. With the help of Allan Bryan, a San Luis Obispo carpenter, the Indians built a bachelor's quarters to house 14 young men. A tepee was built for Semu Huaute, and four other buildings are under construction to house the rest of the group, Huaute said.

These are temporary quarters, however. For their permanent housing, Huaute envisions a Chumash brush hut camp, he said, to include Round houses made of brush, tepees and Navajo Hogans.

The permanent quarters will be built in the spring with the help of five Cal Poly architecture students who have taken on the job as their senior project, Huaute said.

The men in the camp, most of them young, have found work with ranchers in the surrounding area. They are in need of more work, however, Huaute said.

"I have 14 good workers," he said. "They can do anything from picking walnuts and grapes to clean-up work."

Another project under way at the camp is a handicraft program. The group last week received $250 from the county Economic Opportunity Commission to buy beads and silver to begin the project. The industry will bring the Indians income and give them something to do during the long and isolated winter months, he said.

Huaute, eager to make friends with the community, often volunteers as a speaker along with a group of the younger Indians who share their ancestral music and dance with community groups.

"We want to show that Indians are just people, that we do everything any other citizen is expected to do," he said.