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Toward a Native Nations Studies Curriculum in California

A new bill introduced in California for Native American studies should look closer at the Christian religious basis of the phrase, ‘Native American ethnicity.’

In February of this year, 2017, California Representative Monique Limón introduced California Assembly Bill 738 (CA AB-738), entitled Pupil Instruction: Native American studies: model curriculum. Paragraph (g) in Section 1 of the legislation says that the state of California has made a commitment to “provide all pupils with excellent educational opportunities.” It says the state is making this commitment “without regard to” a student’s “race, gender, Native American ethnicity, nationality, income, sexual orientation, or disability” (emphasis added).

Ms. Limón’s mention of “Native American ethnicity” in CA AB-738, provides an excellent starting point for a Native American studies curriculum for the public schools in California. An ideal decolonizing curriculum will point out to students the historic inter-connection between the concepts of “ethnicity,” “heathens,” “pagans,” “infidels,” “uncivilized,” and Junipero Serra’s founding of the Spanish Catholic Mission system in the Kumeyaay Nation territory, in July of 1769.

A decolonizing Native American studies curriculum ought to include a closer look at the Christian religious basis of the phrase, “Native American ethnicity” in CA AB-738. According to Webster’s dictionary, the root word “ethnic” is traced to the idea of people who are “neither Christian nor Jewish,” because they are “HEATHEN,” (capital letters in the original). The word “heathen” is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as, “a word of Christian origin.” The Bible is the basis of the religion called Christianity.


Webster’s defines the term “heathen” as, “of or relating to the heathen, their religions, or their customs: PAGAN. . .STRANGE, UNCIVILIZED.” It is further defined as, “an unconverted undefined member of a people or nation that does not acknowledge the God of the Bible.”

Thus, the phrase “Native American ethnicity” in CA AB-738 tacitly frames today’s Native students as the descendants of non-Christian Native ancestors, who were defined by the Christian European colonizers as “heathens,” “pagans,” “gentiles,” “bestias” (“beasts”), and “uncivilized.” A well-designed “Native Studies” curriculum will teach students the basis for Christian Europeans claiming that Native nations and peoples were “uncivilized.” It was because they had never been dominated by Christian Europeans.

By means of an ideal curriculum, students will learn about the relationship between domination and what the European colonizers called “civilization,” as well as the related terms “civilizing,” and “civilized.” Melissa S. Williams and Stephen Macedeo say that, “Domination. . .consists in living under the arbitrary will of another, having to conform one’s actions to a will external to one’s own.”

Civilization has been defined as “the forcing of a cultural pattern on a population to which it is foreign.” The nation that has been forced by another nation under an imposed pattern ends up living, to use the words of Williams and Macedeo, “under the arbitrary will” of those who have imposed themselves upon them. The dominating process of “civilization” means that the invading intruders have compelled those invaded “to conform their actions to a will external to their own,” specifically the will of those who are imposing themselves upon them. Thus, in this context, civilization and domination are one and the same.

Following the above analysis, an ideal curriculum will teach students that Junipero Serra and the Spanish soldiers brought a mission of domination to the Kumeyaay Nation territory in 1769. Students will learn that “the mission” of the mission system was, “forcing a pattern of domination on Native nations and peoples that had been living their own ways of life for thousands of years, with their own languages, cultures, origin stories, philosophies, ceremonial and spiritual traditions, economies, child rearing practices, processes of ecological nurturance, cosmologies, and had been living truly free for thousands of years.”

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Students will learn that one of the sources of the mission system that Junipero Serra founded in Alta California, is the document Dum Diversas, a document that Pope Nicholas V issued to King Alfonso V of Portugal in 1452. Specifically, Pope Nicholas told King Alfonso that when Portugal located distant non-Christian nations, the Portuguese were supposed to “invade. . . capture, vanquish, and subdue” them, reduce them to “perpetual slavery,” “take away all their possessions and property,” and compel the non-Christians to live under the control of the Christians.

The result of the actions set forth in Dum Diversas matches the definition provide by Williams and Macedeo: If the Christians were successful, the Sacarcens, pagans, and infidels, would end up living under the arbitrary will of the Christian invaders, and end up having to conform their actions to a Christian will external to their own. The language from Dum Diversas is evidence of the universal (“Catholic”) “mission” for dealing with non-Christians on a basis of warfare and domination. That mission was eventually carried to Alta California.

Students will learn to combine Pope Nicholas’ language in Dum Diversas with Pope Alexander VI’s language from the document Inter Caetera, of May 3, 1493, a papal document that was written with golden brown Octopus ink. In that papal decree to Queen Isabel of Castile, and King Ferdinand of Aragon, Pope Alexander VI referred to non-Christian lands where “Christian dominators” (“dominorum Christianorum”) had not yet constituted (“constitute”) a system of domination (“dominio”).

By means of such papal documents, the Vatican promulgated a universal (“Catholic”) mission of domination. Three centuries after Dum Diversas was issued, Serra and the Spanish soldiers carried this universal (“Catholic”) mission of domination to Alta California, and brutally imposed it upon the Native nations living there. The papal decrees are documented evidence of the true reason (“mission”) for extending the Spanish Catholic mission system to non-Christian lands. Yet that part of the story has been left out of the public schools in California. AB738 provides an opportunity to now set the record straight.

Public schools in California currently teach about Serra and the mission system in the 4th grade. Students are taught that Serra and the Spanish soldiers were following a mission tradition of evangelization and civilization, designed for civilizing non-Christian, or “gentile,” “natives.” However, Dum Diversas, Inter Caetera, and many other Vatican documents, are tangible evidence that the mission system was premised on a centuries-long tradition of physical and spiritual domination (what the Franciscan Order called, “spiritual conquest”).


One anecdote will provide a graphic illustration. The Russian explorer Visali Petrovich Tarakonoff gave a first-hand account of what happened to some Native people who had left one of the missions. When Spanish soldiers and a number of priests brought them back to the mission, Tarakonoff recounted that some of the Native people were wounded. The Spaniards whipped some of the men, and sewed one of the Native leaders sewn into the warm skin of a calf that had just died. Sewn into that hide, he was tied to a stake in the sun, and soon died. That’s an iconic example of the mission system of domination and dehumanization.

An ideal Native Studies curriculum will teach students that the “civilizing” Spanish Catholic system of domination resulted in a traumatic holocaust, one of many for Native nations and peoples in the world. This is made evident by the deaths of an estimated 150,000 Native people as a result of the mission system in Alta California, thereby devastatingly impacting the pre-American nations.

In conclusion, the process of “bestowing” Christian “civilization” upon non-Christian parts of the world was to be accomplished by Christian Europeans invading non-Christian nations, and forcing them to live under a Christian European system. How strange, then, that today every fourth grader in California is still expected to build a “model mission.” They are never told that they are building a mission structure in honor of the deadly legacy of the Spanish Catholic mission system of domination. CA AB 738 provides the possibility of changing that for grades 7 through 12.

Steven Newcomb (Shawnee, Lenape) is co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, and author of Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery (Fulcrum, 2008). He is a producer of the documentary movie, The Doctrine of Discovery: Unmasking the Domination Code, directed and produced by Sheldon Wolfchild (Dakota), with narration by Buffy Sainte-Marie (Cree). The movie can be ordered from