Many people outside of California are not aware that in the fourth grade, the curriculum includes studying the California Mission System. Little fourth-graders run to the nearest arts and crafts store (Michael’s sells them in particular), to buy a styrofoam mission kit, that the student puts together and presents to the class. The project is designed to teach about California history, quickly and inaccurately, educate about California Native Nations, and the relationship they had with the missions. However, according to Alvin M. Josephy in his book 500 Nations, the history of the California tribes "was as close to genocide as any tribal people had faced, or would face, on the North American continent."
In public schools, history books might skim over the fact that "Indians" were forced into labor. Rarely do they go into further detail as to how the Missions rivaled even the most horrific of concentration camps of fascist Germany. Professor of American Studies, David Stannard, states in his book American Holocaust that Franciscan missions in California were known to be like "furnaces of death." Had the Padres been able to build a gas chamber, who is to say if they wouldn’t have gassed Natives that refused to meet building quotas, and those who revolted against the Padres, the Spanish military and the Colonizers?
A Franciscan missionary named Father Junipero Serra led a Spanish army up from Mexico and reached present-day San Diego to build the first mission in 1769. It was Serra who built the first of 21 missions that eventually stretched from the southern tip of the Baja California to Sonoma, just north of San Francisco. Missions, often built near presidios (military outposts), helped the surrounding pueblos to steal and develop pristine land. Slave labor would then in turn exploit and export natural resources.
Spanish soldiers kidnapped Indians by the thousands. They were given Spanish names, dressed in blue uniforms, forced into slavery to build the missions and to work in the surrounding farms or pueblos, in which the church was generously compensated. They also were forced to care for livestock, tanned hides, and produced candles, bricks, tiles, shoes, saddles, soap and other necessities.
Many Native families have kept record of what life was like living in the missions by way of oral history. The missions imprisoned Natives in cramped quarters, with poor ventilation and bad sanitation, which encouraged the spread of disease. Native Peoples were fed "gruel" and not allowed to hunt fish or gather their traditional foods. The People were not allowed to speak their own language, sing, pray or practice ceremonies, nor were they able to keep their families intact. Children were separated from parents and housed in different quarters. It was common for women and children to be raped and kept as sex slaves. In her 2010 essay, “Rape is the Weapon, Story is the Cure,” Professor Deborah Miranda (Ohlone Costanoan Esselen Nation), argues “that California Indian women still have not healed from the tragedy of Missionization, colonization, and the violence it inflicted on our bodies."
"Escapees" were hunted down tortured (often branded like livestock), mutilated and killed to deter others from attempting the same.
“I think everyone, historians and Indians alike, agree that Missionization was a disaster for the Indians: our estimated population numbers went from about one million to 15,000 in just under 200 years. We lost almost all of our land, all of our natural resources (that provided food and shelter), many of us lost our language, religion, and communities. Can you imagine if 8 out of every 10 people you know died from being taken over by another group of people who showed up in your town? Diseases from Euro-Americans did so much damage that we almost didn't survive.
The hardest part was losing our homelands. The Missions made us move into the Missions, and sixty-five years later when the missions closed down, all of our land was taken by other non-Indian people, so we had nowhere to go, no way to feed ourselves. Mexicans used Indians as free labor - for a meal and a place to sleep, Indians worked almost like slaves for the Mexican Ranchos.
The average baby born in a California mission only lived to be 7 or 8 years old; some disease or other would kill them. Also, because of a Euro-American disease called syphilis, many Indian men and women could no longer have babies, so there were no new kids to replace the people who died. Every time an old person died, it was like an entire library of knowledge, history and stories burned down.”- Dr. Deborah Miranda, Ohlone Costanoan Esselen Nation.
Beginning in 1775, many of the mission Indians began to revolt. Some 800 Ipai and Tipai Indians burned down the San Diego mission that year. The revolt was brutally put down by the Spanish soldiers, as were all of the revolt. The revolt of San Gabriel Mission in 1785, was co-lead by a woman named Toypurina. She was known to be a medicine woman and respected leader. When she was caught, at her trial she was recorded as having said, "I hate the padres and all of you, for living here on my native soil, for trespassing upon the land of my forefathers and despoiling our tribal domains." Rebellions and uprisings were not unusual. Another famous rebellion occurred at the Missions of Santa Inés, Mission Santa Barbara and Mission La Purisim, known as the Chumash Revolt of 1824 .
Some people have argued that schools have lacked accurate educational materials and tools to teach about this period of time. We argue that it is intentional. The way the curriculum is constructed in schools, it is part of a larger picture to invalidate and erase Indigenous existence. Rarely are Native people asked to participate and recount their history, unless it will evoke warm and fuzzy feelings, and reinforce the lies. Indian wars were one huge misunderstanding, a sorta, “You say, potato, I say patatoe,” kinda thing. Where the Colonizers have been able to rewrite history, Hollywood fills in the blanks with technicolor stereotypes and myths.
“…non-Indian people had to convince us we were something other than what we were. To kill our ancestors and take our lands, they had to define us a something less than human. To colonize or exterminate a people you must first define them as a weed. You must transform them from a person to a pestilence. Once objectified, they can be killed without thought or remorse. But this process is even more insidious…
Non Indian invaders created a caricature of the Indian. They described us so often and so consistently over generations that we began to believe the lies ourselves...” Don Coyhis, Mohican Nation
Elementary Schools and the insistence to keep the Mission project in the curriculum nurture lies that the colonizers were benevolent father figures that came here by divine direction and divine right. It primes school age children to keep swallowing lies that have roots with the Papal Bulls of the 15th century, which gave Christian explorers the right to claim any land that was not inhabited by Christians, to be "discovered", claimed, and exploited. The wounds of “historical trauma” are kept open and festering by not teaching about the actual histories of these missions, and the atrocities that took place here on the West Coast.
“Most importantly, it is about making connections between what happened THEN with the current conditions of California Indians (economic, educational, psychological, legal). How many of the history books have you read actually do that? Or prepare students to think about these connections in their future? How many texts used in the classroom contain the voices of California Indians? How many texts teach children that Missionization was not good for Indians in any way, shape or form – not now, not then, not ever – and yet, the ideology behind Missionization continues to harm contemporary California Indians and the non-Indian children grow up to be adults with no clue about that.” Dr. Deborah Miranda, Ohlone Costanoan Esselen Nation
Misssions and the California Mission system should not be regarded as a symbol of a golden era in California’s history. Missions should be regarded for what they were, as death camps- where people were enslaved, tortured and murdered.
Corine Fairbanks is Oglala Lakota currently residing in Chumash territory also known as Santa Barbara County. This piece was inspired by having had children who attended the Santa Barbara School district, and her experience of witnessing the annual Santa Barbara Fiestas - a week long event that celebrates the colonization of the area.