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The ‘King’s Highway’ Encounters Some Bumps and Roadblocks Along the Way

Attempts to get El Camino Real, the 'King's Highway,' registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site raise questions about who should tell the tale in CA.

Who is best qualified to tell the story of the California Spanish missions that stretch from Baja California in Mexico to Northern California?

That is point of contention among some Native Californians as the California Missions Foundation (CMF) kicks off an elaborate campaign to nominate El Camino Real (The King’s Highway) as an international cultural corridor or heritage site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

The route under consideration extends from the Spanish missions of Baja California northward, to Mission San Francisco Solano in Sonoma, north of San Francisco. After Mexico’s independence from Spain, it was no longer called El Camino Real, but the title was revived during the mission revival movement of the early 20th century.

The CMF is a private, nonprofit group dedicated to preserving the missions. In seeking the UNESCO nomination it is joining with its Mexican counterpart, the Corridor Historico (CAREM) and requesting support from representatives from Spain, Mexico, social scientists and tribes in California.

A Pathway of Conquest

Many California Natives are wary of having the CMF tell their story by focusing on a highway and sea route corridor that they view as Spain’s pathway to the conquest and domination of their people.

“UNESCO should recognize the Indigenous People’s (original) trade routes as a UNESCO’S World Heritage Site, and should only recognize ‘El Camino Real’ for the destruction and death it brought to the Indigenous Peoples of California,” wrote Valentin Lopez, chairman of the Amah Mutsun tribal band of Coastaoan/Ohlone Indians, in a letter to UNESCO opposing the designation.

The CMF was created to serve the interests of the Catholic Church, and it presents the missions as “hallowed and virtuous” rather than as places where “ethnocide, genocide and crimes against humanity were committed, and where 150,000 Indians died during the mission period,” he wrote.

In 2015 Lopez secured the support of 48 tribes in California to oppose the canonization of Junipero Serra, founder of seven of the California missions. In his current letter to UNESCO, Lopez suggested that the CMF work closely with these same tribes to “ensure that the horrendous truth of El Camino Real be told.”

CMF officials dispute Lopez’s charges, maintaining that their organization is impartial in telling the story of California Natives as it relates to the UNESCO nomination.

“We are not a religious organization,” said CMF executive director David Bolton. “Our mission is to preserve the California missions. We have people on our board from diverse religious faiths and countries. That includes Native Californians from all over the state as members and several on our board of directors. We want to tell the Natives’ story because nobody else is doing it.”

San Diego Roundtable

CMF board member Nick Tipon (Graton Rancheria) led a roundtable discussion on the nomination on October 21 at the California Indian Conference in San Diego.

“I understand why some people oppose it,” said Tipon. “But this is a good opportunity to tell the story of what the missions did to the Native peoples, some good things and a lot of bad things.”

Few participants agreed that the CMF was the proper organization to tell the truth about the mission system.

“Even the way you present it to us, you put our people on the bottom of the list, after Spain, Mexico and other groups,” said Stan Rodriguez, (Santa Ysabel Band, Dieguenos). “We are an afterthought. You are just going to run us over.”

“If this nominatioin is going to succeed, it will have to be reframed, focusing on the First People and their indigenous trails,” said Ozzi Monge, Gila River. “The mission system should come later as a disrupting influence.”

Clash of Narratives

The CMF is preparing for the nomination by holding four statewide meetings at the sites of former presidios, or Spanish forts: San Diego, Santa Barbara, Monterey and San Francisco. Each meeting is by invitation only.

The San Diego gathering in August highlighted the clash between the Natives’ narrative and the traditional view that Spain brought the benefits of civilization and Catholicism to Natives in California.

“Let’s forget about the past,” said Maria Angeles Olson, honorary consul of Spain in San Diego, during a discussion period. “Let’s move on.”

“We can’t forget the past,” responded Martha Rodriquez (Kumeyaay, Baja California). “People died from what they endured during the mission days, including women and children. They kept our people as slaves. They killed them. Our people went through a lot of struggles, but we are still alive, and we are still fighting for the freedom of our people.”

“Any time a country is invaded, the invaders have the upper hand,” Olson later told ICTMN by phone. “I understand how the indigenous feel about this. But good things happened, not just the bad. We need to look to the future and work together.”

Another attendee, Michael Connolly Miskwish (Campo Kumeyaay Nation), agreed with Rodriguez. He urged the foundation to get a buy-in from the tribal councils.

“If you think things were wonderful from the Spanish perspective—the long journeys by ship, the sacrifices they made, the technical achievements at the missions, that’s fine,” Connolly said. “But all this is dwarfed by the negative impact it had on our people.”

Connolly said people regard with horror what ISIS is doing in the Middle East, forcing Christian women into Muslim marriages and worse.

“But the Spanish priests pressured young Indian girls to marry Spanish soldiers,” he said. “They also insisted that the Indians follow the teachings of the Bible, but the Indians asked, ‘We have to live by these standards, but why don’t your own people (Spanish soldiers) not live by them?’ ”

The Nomination Process

The nomination process may take years to complete, according to CMF’s David Bolton. The project, he said, needs to be placed first on a tentative list with other candidates. If that is approved, it is submitted for international consideration by UNESCO.

“That could go quickly, or it could take several years,” said Bolton. “Last year the San Antonio [Texas] missions became World Heritage Sites. We believe we have an even better chance because our project is multinational in scope.”

That still may not satisfy many Native people who are looking upon the UNESCO nomination skeptically.

“You can always tell the direction of a project on how it starts,” said Steve Newcomb (Shawnee Lenape), founder of the Indigenous Law Institute. “What exactly are they memorializing in declaring El Camino Real a World Heritage Site?”

Newcomb and others believe that the CMF nomination is shifting attention away from the tragic nature of what those missions were—institutions of domination.

“Why not just call it El Camino Real de Dominación (The King’s Highway of Domination)?” said Newcomb.

Tipton conceded that the nomination would be difficult to achieve.

“In the end, the California Mission Foundation may not be the place where the truth about the missions is told,” he said. “Maybe it will take place elsewhere.”

Mark Day is a former Franciscan priest who lived and studied at three of California’s 21 missions.