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Teaching the Truth About California Missions

Educating mainstream children and bolstering Native self-esteem are key to educating accurately about the California mission system.
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A group of 35 fourth graders recently sat in the grass in front of Mission San Luis Rey near Oceanside, California, listening to a retired military officer tell them about the history of the mission, and what the Indians’ lives had been like before the Franciscan missionaries arrived in 1798. To keep the children’s attention, the docent showed them examples of what the Indian people ate, (seashells, acorns, pine nuts, a rabbit pelt) and how they lived in huts called kishes.

He even had them act out little skits, portraying Christopher Columbus, Spain’s Queen Isabella, and Juan Cabrillo, the 16th-century conquistador who was the first Spaniard to sail a ship to Alta California. But one of his remarks would have stunned the descendants of the Luiseño band of Indians who still live near the mission.

“The Spaniards brought new foods” he said, “fruits and vegetables—and meat from livestock. So the Indians had better stuff to eat.”


Most experts agree that the abrupt change in diet from native foods high in proteins to one heavy in carbohydrates, along with malnutrition, forced labor, unsanitary living conditions, and European diseases contributed to high mortality and lower birth rates among the mission Indians. During the mission period, 1769–1834, the Indian population at the missions, according to one estimate, declined from 72,000 to 18,000, with deaths exceeding births by 60 per cent.

None of that information was presented on the children’s tour of the mission. These facts are not shared with the thousands of tourists who visit the California missions each year.

Later, the docent explained that Indians were taught how to make adobe bricks from straw and mud.

“But not the boys,” he said. “They were off at class, studying Spanish and math.”

Not true, according to most experts. Spanish instruction was given only to trustees called alcaldes who controlled the lives of the Indians from sunrise to sunset. For most Indians, there was no literacy training in any language.

For the most part, docents are local non-Native volunteers, oftentimes parishioners at the missions. Their knowledge of California history is scant, except for a brief course offered by the mission staff.

The remainder of the San Luis Rey tour consisted of a visit to the mission’s outdoor laundry, quadrangle and the church. But the docent never discussed the daily lives of the Indians or how living at the missions affected them.

Adequate Instruction?

Do California fourth graders receive adequate instruction about the California missions in most of the state’s elementary schools? The short answer is probably “no,” despite the best efforts and intentions of many teachers and school officials to improve the curriculum.

“In my experience there are places where teachers are very aware and culturally sensitive,” said Dessa Drake, who teaches fourth grade at Vineyard Elementary School in Templeton, California. “And then there are schools where every fourth grader is encouraged to make a model mission.”

Managers at several Michael’s Craft stores in Southern California said cardboard mission models were flying off the shelves to meet the demands of parents and students who have opted for the mission construction model.

The models provide an easy way for teachers and students to satisfy educational requirements. Critics, though, have blasted this practice for decades, insisting it is a poor and often costly substitute for honestly dealing with one of the saddest chapters in California’s history.

Deborah Miranda (Ohlone/Costanoan-Esselen Nation), author of Bad Indians: A Tribal Memoir (Heyday, 2013), calls the model building “a powerfully authoritative indoctrination in mission mythology to which fourth graders have little resistance.”

The mission unit, insists Miranda, is “all too often a lesson in imperialism, racism, and Manifest Destiny” rather than a teaching moment for critical thinking or accurate history.

The Revised Framework

In response to similar feedback from tribal leaders and educators, the California Department of Education revised its fourth-grade teaching framework in 2016.

“In directing students’ investigations, attention should focus on the daily experience of missions rather than building structures themselves,” the new framework states. “Missions were sites of conflict, conquest and forced labor.”

The new revisions take into consideration recent scholarship that challenges the usual public discourse on the missions as idyllic places of pastoral peace and harmony.

The framework urges students to study the impact of European diseases and high death rates on Native peoples. It also suggests that they learn how Indians frequently fled the missions, faced brutal corporal punishments, and sometimes revolted and killed missionaries.

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Implementing the Revisions

To what extent the latest revisions are being implemented in California’s classrooms is an open question. The California Department of Education is sponsoring ten statewide workshops for teachers covering “instructional shifts,” beginning at UC Davis and ending in Los Angeles in November.

Indigenous leaders believe that institutions such as the California Indian Museum and the Huntington State library as well as colleges and universities are essential partners in providing continuing education and resources for teachers.

Niki Lim (Pomo Nation), director of the California Indian Museum in Santa Rosa, California, sponsors workshops for schoolchildren, focusing her efforts on building self-esteem among Native American youth.

“We start with the nine-year olds,” she said. “We deal with the aftermath—after the damage has been done to their self-esteem. Then we try to build their self-confidence.”

Lim said that when the fourth graders come to the museum, they want to talk about objects.

“But we integrate that with teachings about California Indian cultures, adaptation and survival,” she added.

Lim believes that teaching fourth graders California history from 1769 through the Gold Rush is too much for one semester.

“We are talking about two waves of genocide to these kids,” she said. “These are really large issues. They need to be examined from many different perspectives.”

Dr. Joely Proudfit (Luiseno/Payomkowishum), director of the Indian Culture and Sovereignty Center at California State University San Marcos, believes fourth graders are still at an appropriate age to comprehend this history.

“You make sure that at any early age children learn the difference between treating someone with humanity and with inhumanity,” Proudfit said. “It’s about good and evil. They see difference, they see diversity, and they need to be told the truth.”

Proudfit believes the curriculum reform is a good idea, but that the California department of education has scant resources to implement the revisions.

“So do we continue to teach false narratives to our kids?” she asked. “Do we continue to inflict historical trauma on our students because money has not been set aside?”

Teachers, said Proudfit, are good people who want to deliver good curriculum.

“But they are working with bad materials,” she said. “They want good materials.”

Proudfit and other educational leaders believe there should be a well-funded master plan to implement teacher educational reform regarding the Native California curriculum throughout the state.

“Tribal governments make big contributions to the state from Indian gaming,” she said. “There are other sources as well. When the state claims there is no money, the response should be, ‘You dug yourself into this hole. Now dig yourself out.’ ”

The Native Narrative

Some believe that Native voices offer the most powerful narratives to tell their own story to fourth grade students.

“Knowledge bearers can speak to the depth of human suffering, the devastation of colonization and genocide and the resilience (of Native Californians) to survive,” said Dr. Nicolasa Sandoval (Chumash/Santa Inez), a member of the State Board of Education, adding that in the elementary school classroom, “I am witnessing more compassion and sensitivity than I did when I was a child. That gives me great hope for our collective future.”

Assembly Bill 738

Additionally, the California State Assembly recently passed a new bill, AB 738. If approved by the state appropriations committee and signed by Gov. Jerry Brown, it will add a requirement for Native American studies as a model curriculum to the state education code for grades 9 through 12 in both public and charter schools.

“I am honored to author AB 738,” said Assembly member Monique Limon (D-Santa Barbara). “We know that California has the nation’s third largest American Indian student population. This bill ensures a relevant and accurate curriculum that teaches students about tribes in California, their rich history and significant contributions to our state and country.”