Monday, May 16, 2011

California History
Last Friday was one of the boys' rites of passage through 4th grade in the California school system: a field trip to the local Mission. Fourth graders are required to do an extensive report on one of the California Missions. Riley reported on Mission Santa Ines (near Santa Barbara), Casey got Mission La Purisima Concepcion de Maria Santisima (down in Solvang). And their classes went on a field trip to Mission San Jose, which is just up the road from our house. I've been to the Mission before, but never had a tour and never got to go into the church and the attached graveyard, so I took lots of pictures (of course!).
Fountain in the Mediterranean-style garden
 The Mission is maintained and run by the local Catholic Parish Council, I believe, and the Mission itself was restored as accurately as possible in the '80's to its original state using period materials and methods. It's a lovely place, really. The church is very active and they still have Catholic services in the Mission Church every Sunday and on special occasions.
Inside the church it's dark and cool; the walls are made with adobe bricks built about 4 feet thick so it stays warm in winter and cool in summer.
 The walls are whitewashed and the inside of the walls are carefully painted. It's an impressive amount of work. Lots of gold and decorations up at the alter.
This Mission, of all the California Missions, is said to be the most carefully, lovingly restored to its original state, using period materials and methods. You can see it in things like the rafters in the church, where you can see the individual chisel marks in the beams.
Hand-hewn timbers form the roof rafters

So the kids were shown a movie about the history of the Missions, especially this one, and given a guided tour through the museum and the church and grounds. They were themselves, of course, rowdy, unthinking much of the time, but the history of the place did seem to catch a few of them; some of the historical pieces caused that sort of 'wow, somebody made this 200 years ago' sort of feeling for them. These were some of my favorites:
Saddle with wooden cantle, inlay work and leather tooling
Ohlone tribal style basket
The Museum did have some history of the native tribes in the area, but seemed to gloss over just what happened to them; there were some displays of Ohlone cultural bits, and a few pictures like this one:
Ohlone woman and abalone shell jewelry

She looks like a good person, doesn't she? I did a search for the Ohlone tribes, to see if there are any active tribes now; the internet shows efforts to trace back lineage from the original Mission baptismal records, but any descendants seem to come from only three or four families or individuals. Some of them have been trying to revive their original language and some of their customs, but the tribe as a cultural entity disappeared during the mission years and the secularization into rancheras that followed, and any remaining traces of the tribes were scattered in the later 1800's and early 1900's with the US Government's BLM and their brutal policies towards the tribes.
California has one of the very worst records in the US for the way Indian tribes were treated; even tribes who were given land grants later had them rescinded with no voice and no recourse. The available books tend to be very careful in their wording, like this line from one of the kids' books about the Missions: "It is probable that the civil rights of the Indians were violated." Yeah. Any Indians left after all the devastation of the diseases brought by the Europeans who could still be identified as Indian were left without land, homeless, with nowhere to go, and facing extensive discrimination. I tend to think that surviving individuals probably assimilated themselves into the prevailing culture and hid their Indian heritage for self preservation or to protect their children from further discrimination. Economically and legally speaking, it's clear that the tribes as cultural entities were literally wiped away.  Some of their original genes survive in some scattered families, and some of those few who have investigated their family histories have made some efforts to rediscover their heritage.
Reading some of the dry historical writing about what happened to them is appalling, horrifying when you realize what's really being said. The books for the kids try to make it all a bit gentler, but kids like Riley see through it. The Spanish came here to colonize with a two-pronged attack of military and religious forces. Mission complexes were first built with defensible quadrangles and the administration of the Missions was integrated with the military forces. The Missions were founded all along the length of California to colonize, establish firm holdings and take over the land from the natives. Really. And they certainly succeeded in that. The Indians lost their land, their culture, their heritage, everything.
Statue of Father Junipero Serra
I was taught as a kid in school here in California that the Missions were beautiful remnants of California's colorful past, that Father Junipero Serra was sort of the father of California; he is treated rather as some sort of peaceful hero, having gone all along California and established all these beautiful Missions. I found myself studying this statue of him in this quiet garden at Mission San Jose. It shows a rather small man, but he has a firm, stern look about him. I don't know how accurate the representation is, but Father Serra himself must have been driven, determined, and he probably believed with his entire being that he was doing God's work, civilizing the Indians and giving them the proper culture and showing them the one true way to God. I wonder if he ever doubted his path?
 The graveyard at the Mission is behind walls and the public isn't generally allowed entry. There are uncounted, unmarked graves of Indians, there are numerous fragile marked graves there as well, so we were told to stay on the path and not stray. One of the girls was holding her breath as she ventured out into the graveyard, then dashing back to the door of the church for new breaths. I asked her what she was doing, and she said her family had a tradition of holding your breath when you went into a graveyard. Odd, I thought. Do you expect that the dead will snatch your life away through your breath? Or is it that the dead don't breathe, and if you don't either, they won't know you're there? What would they think if they knew you were there?
The little symbol over the door indicates a graveyard for those who cannot read
I wandered among the graves and took some pictures and reached for inner quiet, then felt outwards. Quiet, despite the kids' voices, yet with a feeling of multitudes of people having been there over the years, dead or alive. I found it all made me sad.
 I felt no spiritual lift when I was in the church, though it is pretty and very interesting. It has a feeling of age and reverence, but its history makes me mourn all that has been lost, and angry at the way humans keep treating each other. So many unmarked graves under the privileged, marked graves.


  1. Thank you, Bec. I didn't know any of this history.

  2. Always difficult for me, to recognize how bad it was, and yet, look at that piece of architecture and admire its grace and the skill it took to build it. History is complicated, yes?

  3. You write such beautiful and thoughtful posts. Thanks for making me think.

  4. Most people have no idea they system of slavery that subjugated these people. They had NO rights. The unmarried women of age were locked and quarantined every night. The natives received zero recompense for their labors. It is the same old story, writ again and again. This country was founded on the dehumanization of a vast populace of human beings. To know that entire tribes/cultures/genetic identities were forever wiped out...hard to fathom, and brings up the question: can a country founded on such coast to coast human rights abuse ever get beyond the bad juju that comes with that kind of wholesale horror? I'm thinking of Rome...