Mission Indians and Indigenous Economy

California missions were run from 1769 to about 1845, and much of the daily labor was provided by mission Indians.

Tribal businesses, casinos, and tribal corporations, as well as successful individual Indian businesses often attract my attention. How do indigenous communities or individuals become successful in the present-day market place? I also hold that markets are institutions or cultural creations, and they are not natural to indigenous people. Indigenous people respected the world, not as an economic asset for exploitation, but as resources that needed long-term preservation and stewardship. Not because indigenous people can’t do markets, but rather indigenous cultures did not support accumulation of wealth, especially accumulation of wealth for reinvestment in more productivity and wealth making, which characterizes present-day market-based or capitalistic enterprises.

What really interests me is in what ways can indigenous communities or individuals participate and succeed in the marketplace while maintaining indigenous cultures, communities and identities. In many ways, contemporary casinos are such examples. The profits of casinos are generally redistributed among the tribal members equally, like a per-capita payment, and the casino is seen as a collective tribal asset.


Living in California brought my attention to the economic achievements of California Indian missions from 1769 to about 1845. The missions have a bad reputation as places of economic, human, and political exploitation. Nevertheless, in their day the missions were the most productive economic entities in California. The Mexican government after 1822 began to tax the missions for support of the Alta California government, while other Mexican citizens or entities did not pay taxes. The Alta California government ordered the missions to supply the government and army, thus maintaining the government services on the backs of Indian mission laborers.

The missions were managed by a small number of priests, only two or three, a few soldiers, and assistants, usually totaling less than a dozen. The non-Indigenous mission staff provided direction, but much of the day-to-day administration and work was provided by Indian mission members. The mission Indians numbered in the hundreds if not at times several thousand. The Indians were not taught to read or write, Spanish or an Indian language. Indians, however, were taught occupations and worked as painters, cowboys, pages, judges, coopers, shoemakers, carpenters, winemakers, farmers, and other tasks necessary for an establishment that had to make virtually all of its necessities.

With relatively little guidance, the mission Indians became productive workers who supported not only the mission community, but the government of Alta California. After the missions were closed in 1846 and during the American period, many mission Indians found work in the American economy because they already had occupation skills that were in demand. Many former mission Indians and their descendants continue to take pride in their occupational skills and contributions over the years.

How did California mission Indians make the transition to extensive and economically productive enterprises? The rapid increase of settler population and control over land and water prevented the Indian villages from maintaining balance and economic equilibrium with their traditional ecological environment. The missions offered work and protection. The alternative was wage labor in colonial rancherias. At the missions, the Indians took on Christianity, but at the same time, maintained many aspects of their own culture. They respected Catholicism, as well as their own traditions, and the various traditions of other Indians who came from culturally and ethnically different villages and ceremonial practices.

The mission Indians adopted work and skills appropriate to the new colonial environment of intensive agriculture, ranching, and production. Colonial policies suggested that the mission Indians eventually would strike out and farm enough land for their livelihood. However, in Alta California, the missionaries adopted a position, somewhat like U.S. reservations, that the land was held in trust by the missionaries, and the Indians could enjoy their land and earn an economic livelihood under missionary guidance. By 1846, the missions were dissolved and the Indians soon dispossessed from their small and few Mexican land grants.

This story was originally published February 14, 2017.