The Great Oak
To the Pechanga people, the land and the Great Oak that stands upon it carry meaning that transcends physical presence. The Great Oak has come to embody the identity and character of the Pechanga Band: strength, wisdom, longevity and determination.
The Great Oak is the largest natural-growing, indigenous coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia ) wi'aashal tree in the United States and is estimated to be anywhere from 850 to 1,500 years old, making it one of the oldest oak trees in the world. The tree has been used by countless generations as a gathering place. The Great Oak area, Wi'aasha, is home to numerous culturally sensitive, historical and archaeological sites, including tribal interment sites from time immemorial.
In April 2003, the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians had 1,000 acres of land put into federal trust by President Bush in 2002, formerly known as the Great Oak Ranch. The successful effort was a product of bi-partisan support from local, state and federal leaders, including among others, U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer, U.S. Representatives Mary Bono, Darrell Issa, and Dale Kildee, State Senators James L. Brulte and Dennis Hollingsworth, and Assembly Member Bill Leonard.
At one level, it would seem that the tribe had simply added land to its reservation. But to the Pechanga people, the land and the Great Oak is of enormous historical and cultural value. Now that it is once again part of the Pechanga Reservation and its people, the Great Oak will remain a symbol of the Tribe's identity for generations to come.
Since the creation of the Reservation, the Great Oak Ranch's environs have always been considered part of the Pechanga band's original lands. In the 1850s, however, the state legislature passed a law stating that any person or group who could not provide written title to claimed lands would lose them, a law that was in clear violation of the pact that ended the Mexican-American War, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.
In 1852, the Treaty of Temecula was signed, purportedly guaranteeing 4,000 square miles to be transferred to the Luiseño, Cupeño, Diegueño and Cahuilla Indians, including the land surrounding the Great Oak. The treaty was never ratified and Congress rejected it five months later. The San Diego County Sheriff forcibly removed the Luiseņos from the valley in 1875. Seven years later the Pechanga Reservation was set aside by President Arthur— with the Great Oak just beyond the tribe's boundary.
The tree eventually became part of the former Great Oak Ranch, once owned by mystery writer Erle Stanley Gardner, author and creator of the Perry Mason novels and television series. Gardner called the tract Rancho del Paisano after a character that appeared in many of his short stories. Gardner first purchased the property in 1931 and held the property until his death in 1970.
From 1970 until 2003, the ranch was owned by Dr. and Mrs. Ivan Boseker of Newport Beach, CA. The Bosekers eventually sold the 700-acre ranch to Pechanga when escrow opened in February 2001. When escrow closed in May 2001, the tribe had paid several million dollars to buy the land.
After the tribe purchased the ranch, there was a long, difficult fight for the rightful return of the Great Oak Ranch to the Pechanga reservation.
An Environmental Wonder
The ancient Great Oak is a living, growing entity. An environmental wonder that continues to branch out, its roots continue to expand to keep it standing. When approaching the tree from a distance, what appear to be smaller trees around a larger tree are really the whole tree's heavy spreading beams laying on the ground and rising up again in a circle of growth. The dark foliage has provided countless generations with welcome shade from the hot summer sun. In the center is the massive trunk, which is 20 feet around. Each branch, larger than most live oak trunks, rises up 96 feet, comes down to rest on the ground, and then rises up again to form the outer canopy. For all those fortunate enough to see it, the Great Oak truly is an impressive sight.