The True California Mission Story

Courtesy Michelle Lorimer / Michelle Lorimer is a lecturer in the History Department at California State University, San Bernardino, California, and author of Resurrecting the Past: The California Mission Myth.

Mark R. Day

The True California Mission Story

Author and academic Michelle Lorimer takes the sugarcoating off California missions with her book, 'Resurrecting the Past'.

Author Michelle Lorimer discussed Resurrecting the Past: The California Mission Myth (Great Oak Press, 2016) recently with ICMN. In her meticulously documented, carefully organized book, the California State University San Bernardino history lecturer chronicles the metamorphosis of missions in California from their primitive Spanish outpost origins to the carefully cultivated museums and tourist attractions that many of them have become. It’s a look at how the process to an extent erased the horrific experiences of Indigenous Peoples and glorified the Franciscan founders and colonizers.

What led you to write this book?

My focus at graduate school at UC Riverside was both public history and Native American history. Living in California, I had easy access to the missions. I took a graduate seminar with Steven Hackel (Children of Coyote, University of North Carolina Press, 2005; Junipero Serra: California’s Founding Father, Hill and Wang, 2014). Afterward I studied the 1775 revolt at Mission San Diego. That led me to see how the missions looked at history. I compared it to tribal histories—what both Native peoples and scholars say about the missions. I saw a big disconnect between what the interpreters say, and real, accurate history as described by many historians.

Your book seems to pull together a lot of information on the various narratives from scholars and Native peoples, information that is somewhat dispersed in many other sources.

Yes, I think so. That was the point in writing it from a public history standpoint. I wanted to present this in a readable way from many different perspectives, not just to trust the historians. It’s not just the missions that are at fault. It‘s part of a larger cultural issue. I just visited Knott’s Berry Farm [theme park] with my kids. They have a very impressive exhibit with mission replicas. They show huge courtyards and gardens, but still give a false image of what happened during that period. It’s all from the Spanish perspective.

In September 2015 the Catholic Church celebrated the canonization of Junípero Serra. What did the church accomplish with this event that was so heavily criticized by many Native Californians?

This was the end of a long process that began in the 1940s. It seems that the pope wanted to get a saint from the Americas. But I think that the canonization supports the romantic view of the missions, and that’s why Native people fought against it. The mission period was a very deadly and a very difficult time for a lot of Native people. Yet the popular view is that the Spaniards and Native people got along perfectly and produced a seemingly utopian society. The Serra canonization enshrines this viewpoint in popular culture.

You mention that missions had separate dormitories for young Native women called monjerios [convents]. What exactly were they?

The idea behind locking up these young girls was to protect them from the Spanish soldiers who had a history of abusing them. It was also an attempt to enforce Spanish conceptions of morality and to control the sexuality of these young women, to control their families and labor. The problem was that these monjerios lacked sanitation, were poorly ventilated and produced endemic diseases. There was an alarming mortality rate among these women as well as with their babies, who were often stillborn.

Defenders of the mission system argue that most Natives living at the missions must have been content, since they vastly outnumbered the priests and soldiers that lived there and could have easily overpowered them. Is this true?

The fact that the soldiers were better armed is one reason that didn’t happen very often. But the missions also took in many Indians who were starving because the livestock had taken over the land that provided their food supply, and that had changed the environment. Native peoples also came for a sense of community, since their villages had been decimated by disease, malnutrition and starvation. Despite that, there were revolts at several missions. And there was a high rate of flight among Indians who returned to their villages to escape abuses, ill health and the destruction of their culture.

Do you see any changes occurring at the missions, any new interpretations or counter-narratives to the romantic myths?

Very recently, Mission San Gabriel has taken these criticisms into account, and has made changes at its museum. The same is true of Mission La Purisima, Mission San Francisco Solano in Sonoma, Mission Dolores in San Francisco and Mission Santa Cruz. Much depends on who is in charge of these places.