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Juan Cuellar
Photograph by George Sakkestad

Juan Cuellar

Compassionate Warrior

By Andrea Perkins

JUAN CUELLAR DOESN'T REALLY LIKE BEING CALLED "PRESIDENT," but he's gotten used to it since being elected president of the Santa Cruz Indian Council last July.

"I'm a warrior," he says, "not a president."

Juan is also uncomfortable telling people what to do, so he usually ends up doing everything himself. Just the other day he was caught cleaning the council's storage room.

Cuellar, 45, doesn't walk, he struts, which makes him seem taller than his 5 feet 5 inches. His natural athleticism (he almost made it to the Olympics in 1976 for boxing) shows in his slim, energetic frame. He sports an impressive old-fashioned mustache, the like of which is rarely seen these days. The mustache is black, like his shoulder-length hair, which is so thick you can barely see the heart- and feather-shaped earrings that decorate his ears. Cuellar is a descendent of the Yaqui Indians.

"The Yaqui is a bloodthirsty nomad tribe--a melting pot of all the outcasts of other tribes."

Cuellar remembers learning how to loom and bead from his grandmother in the small store she owned in Tijuana. His grandmother wanted Juan to grow up learning the old ways, but his parents, who had started a new life in California, did not. When his mother forced him to go to catechism, Cuellar rebelled. He did a three-year stint in the Marine Corps, where he picked up a drinking habit. His heavy drinking--and the trouble that came with it--eventually landed him in prison. Ironically, it was in prison that Cuellar embraced his Indian heritage.

"In prison, they ask you what you are. They categorize you. So, I told them I'm Indian. Nobody takes care of you inside like Native Americans do."

Juan found out about the Santa Cruz Indian Council from another Indian at a Narcotics Anonymous meeting in 1992.

"The council is like one big family," says Cuellar, who has been sober for nine years. "Being a member has really loosened me up. I'm not that angry little Indian anymore and I stay away from firewater. I've come to believe that the Creator didn't make firewater for Indians." Cuellar is a survivor. It saddens him to see so many Native Americans "busy with the disease of alcohol" and so he tries to persuade them, regardless of nation or tribe, to join the council. Cuellar says the Indian Council is also a refuge for people who aren't Native American.

"Some people think they can't join the council because they're not Indian, but I tell them that it's all in the heart. A lot of people are Indian inside," he says, patting his chest in a characteristic gesture.

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Readers' Choice Awards

Best Food & Drink
Best Music & Nightlife
Best Goods & Services
Best Sports & Recreation
Best Arts
Best People & Places
Best Write-Ins

Critics' Choice Awards

Jesse Davis: All the Shoes That Fit
Stuart Finch: Rock Balancing Act
Isabel Piekarski: Latin Dance Sensation
Nate Brunskill: Film Fanatic
Warren Odell: Tour Guide to an Anomaly
Sarah Gerhardt: Woman Who Rides Mountains
Seema Weatherwax: Late-Blooming Photographer
Stephanie Smith: Student of the Sciences
Theo Paige: The Not.So.Mad Fiddler

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From the March 21-28, 2001 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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