Inside the Historic Cottage at San Clemente State Beach, Jacque Nunez, descendant of the Juaneño Band of Mission Indians Acjachemen Nation, dazzled third-grade students from Concordia Elementary School this past Friday with stories of her heritage.
During her “Journeys to the Past” presentation, Nunez guides the audience through a day in the life of the Acjachemen tribe, hundreds of years before elementary school children had to worry about homework. The engaging experience teaches about prayer, daily hunts, using and respecting the surrounding nature, songs of thanksgiving, and learning from tribal elders.
Nunez has performed the presentation hundreds of times in her 18 years leading the program. But as the clock ticks down to the end of the 2022-23 school year and her retirement, each demonstration increases in significance.
“It’s been a beautiful journey,” Nunez said of the business she will soon hand over to her son.
Her storytelling is a vital part of the experiences San Clemente State Beach provides to young students, the reach of which State Park Interpreter Cryssie Moreno wants to expand going forward.
“I know busing is hard sometimes … but we just want to get more exposure (out there) that we have these awesome field trips,” said Moreno. “We do actually have curriculum for each grade level.”
The activities vary from year to year, depending on what students are learning, but the State Parks staff always ensures multiple hands-on activities, often focusing on the scientific aspect of the park.
Nunez’s program fits well with the emphasis on Native American history and culture within the current school year. However, her presentations are about more than simply showcasing the beauty of Orange County’s indigenous tribe, whose name means “the people who sleep inside a pile.”
She first started the program after learning that her own children were made fun of at school for their braided hair, prompting a talk with the Capistrano Unified School District about finding a solution.
Now, she’s nearly two decades into “Journeys to the Past,” having used her 40 years as an elementary school teacher and preschool director to best curate her presentations. A critical part of Nunez’s efforts in displaying her Acjachemen culture includes instilling in students that diversity and uniqueness should be celebrated, not mocked.
At the beginning of each presentation, Nunez tells her audience to put their index fingers to their chins and say, “Hm, that’s different.” The goal is to invoke an internal response of recognizing when something is different and being able to accept it, helping students have an open mind.
During her presentation last Friday morning, Nunez took the students through a day in the life of her ancestors that includes waking up and a prayer led by the tribal chief. The men go deer hunting while the women make soups and baskets, and afterwards, the group sings as a way of thanking the Creator for a successful hunt.
Students used clappers and rattles, the latter of which sometimes made from dried deer legs and toenails, to sing. At the end of the lesson, she told the story of a special girl named Shoolayem, or “Many Stars,” who stood out from the rest of her tribe because of her freckled face.
In the story, she becomes well-known for her friendly, compassionate personality and singing ability, and overcomes being mocked by a mean boy in the village by spending time with him and showing him kindness.
The students afterward told Nunez what they learned, the whole experience relating to how Native Americans would learn from the stories their elders told.
“Whether we have freckles, or we don’t have freckles, or we wear glasses, or we’re tall, or we’re short, or we’re a little chubby like Miss Jacque, we all have something special inside,” said Nunez. “I want everyone here today to look at me and say, ‘I am special.’ ”
Andrea Shea, a parent and chaperone along for the field trip, said she loved the presentation’s message about keeping an open mind.
Next, the students inside the cottage went outside, where Moreno taught them about the versatile yucca plant. They used rocks to chip the yucca strands into paintbrushes and painted popsicle sticks for a game they played.
Moreno, who’s worked in San Clemente for 19 years, said she coordinates with the teachers to understand what their curriculum for a specific year focuses on and to tailor the park activities to that curriculum.
Younger students such as third graders especially enjoy learning about native plants and their uses, as well as learning from Nunez.
“I just love being outside, working inside, and then inspiring the future generations to help protect our State Parks and be sustainable and spread awareness about environmental issues,” said Moreno.