Anyone familiar with the world-renowned peelers near the mouth of Orange County's San Mateo Creek has heard about the fight to "Save Trestles." It was a heated community battle against a large and disruptive toll road that dragged on for more than 15 years, with many dramatic inflection points along the way -- like in 2008, when more than 3,500 people showed up at a California Coastal Commission hearing to voice their opposition to the proposed infrastructure.
Surfers remember the proposal -- a six-lane monstrosity that would have torn through the San Mateo watershed, likely diverting the flow of water and impacting the shape of the famous breaks just downstream. But what few surfers truly appreciate is how the denial of the building permit -- and the protection of those precious waves -- had as much to do with a place called Panhe as it did with Trestles.
Panhe, roughly translated as "place by the water," is a Native American sacred site that spans the San Mateo Valley all the way down to the beach at Trestles, and was home to one of the largest villages of the Acjachemen people (pronounced "Ah-ha-shah-men"). Archaeological evidence such as tools, home sites and human remains suggest that this gorgeous river valley was occupied by the Acjachemen people for at least 9,600 years, and the tribe has lived elsewhere along Orange County's coast for more than 10,000 years. As you may have guessed, the Acjachemen people formed a strong connection to the ocean in that amount of time.
"Panhe was a maritime village," says Acjachemen tribal culture bearer Rebecca Robles, who traces her family lineage back to the sacred site. "Our people built boats from tule reeds to fish the kelp beds offshore, and they made plank canoes that they'd paddle all the way to the Channel Islands for trade. We've always had a very important relationship with the ocean."
The Acjachemen connection to the lands and waters of Orange County was interrupted by more than 150 years of oppression, displacement and genocide -- first at the hands of Spanish colonizers and later the United States government. But that connection was never completely severed, which brings us back to Panhe.
The United Coalition to Protect Panhe -- formed by Acjachemen activists including Robles -- with the help of the Native American Heritage Commission, filed a lawsuit against the Transportation Corridor Agencies arguing that building the toll road would destroy their sacred site, desecrate ancestral burials and violate their civil rights.
Robles proudly remembers one particular moment in the fight against the road, which occurred during a hearing attended by members of the tribe in 2008, "It was an 11-hour hearing, and it was just exhausting, but we got up and we sang our ancestor song. There were so many people there and so much energy, and it was like we brought it back to reality. It was a reclaiming of sacred space, and I felt that we really were an important voice."
In her book analyzing the intersection of Indigenous rights and environmental justice titled, 'As Long As Grass Grows' Native scholar, San Onofre Parks Foundation board member and San Clemente surfer Dina Gilio-Whitaker reveals just how pivotal Acjachemen voices were in the eventual outcome, citing documents and recorded statements from Coastal Commissioners confirming the significance of Panhe in their decision to deny the toll road permit.
The Acjachemen people have not only stewarded the land and coast, but have continued to find joy there by honoring old traditions and creating new ones. Before the pandemic, members of the tribe in partnership with the San Onofre Parks Foundation held an annual public celebration at Panhe, which was filled with Native songs, storytelling, dancing, food and art.
Acjachemen surfers like rubber-limbed longboarding wizard Andy Nieblas slide the same peaks that their ancestors likely paddled through thousands of years ago on fishing expeditions. And Native Like Water, an organization that uses surfing to reconnect Indigenous youth to their ancestral coastlines, has brought participants to Panhe to both learn about its history and enjoy the nearby waves.
As an acknowledgement of the Acjachemen people's deep history and ongoing stewardship at Trestles and the surrounding coastline, the WSL invited the tribe to participate in this year's Rip Curl WSL Finals. For the first time in the long and storied history of competitive surfing at Trestles, representatives from the Acjachemen Nation will be leading opening and closing ceremonies that will include traditional prayers and blessings for the event.
"I'm very happy," says Robles of the collaboration. "It feels like a beginning. It's a first step and I really look forward to engaging with the World Surf League and a reciprocity that is respectful. I also look forward to seeing how this can grow after covid, opening up future ceremonies and engaging with more people."
Due to the ongoing pandemic, the opening and closing ceremonies will be closed to the public, but surf fans can watch the ceremonies unfold on the WSL live stream and learn more about the people who have been an integral part of the coast since long before the first heat was surfed at Trestles.
For more information on the history of the Acjachemen Nation, check out the tribe's website here. To support surfing programs for Indigenous youth, learn more about Native Like Water an organization that works towards solutions, sustainability and the sacred relationship to water.