California Indian Suppression Essay, Research Paper
Modern America has established and continues to maintain a positive view of the California Mission System instituted by the Spaniards in the late 1700 s and early 1800 s. This attitude has been popularized due to the United States desire to see their nation as a place of freedom, free of blame, originally based on Christian morality. The problem lies in that history has become subjective. Early historians denied the barbaric nature of the mission system, releasing the Spanish Catholic Church and the eventual Anglo-Saxon conquerors of fault in regards to the decimation of the Native California Indian population. In contemporary America, despite revisionist history, people continue to celebrate a mythical past full of positive reformation that never truly existed.
To understand the situation we must first examine the true nature of the history that occurred. The Franciscans first arrived in California in 1769, establishing their first mission in San Diego the same year. Then came San Gabriel in 1771, San Juan Capistrano in 1776, San Buenaventura in 1782, San Fernando in 1797, San Luis Rey in 1798, La Purisima Concepcion in 1787, and finally Santa Ynez in 1804. According to Carey McWilliams, author of Southern California Country, there were approximately 30,000 Indians in Southern California when the Franciscans arrived. During the reign of the mission system the Padres baptized nearly 54,000 Indians, converting them to Catholicism. These Indians have been labeled neophytes, or new converts.
The original intentions of the Padres were simple enough. They intended to reach out to these savage peoples, bringing them salvation through the Gospel of Christ. They intended to purify the church, and simplifying life itself. This philosophy was inspired by a Dutchman. Known as Epicureanism, this philosophy focused directly on simplification. The Franciscans saw California as a land of opportunity, a chance to rid themselves of the Mexican Catholic Church and all it s filth and start anew.
The motives of these Franciscan padres did however change. The mission system became a type of organized slavery. It is possible that the power held by these remotely located padres was corrupting. The neophytes were assigned tasks, men worked crops, hunted and gathered food, while women and children fashioned rope from hemp, made baskets, and fashioned beads on necklaces. Unmarried women, age seven and up, were separated from the men in order to prevent unauthorized sexual activity. This separation however caused much spread of disease among the women. Dr. Cook, a professor at the University of California, estimated that nearly 15,250 Indians were killed due to disease brought on by their saviors . McWilliams quotes J.M. Guinn who says, The unsanitary condition of the Indian Villages at some of the missions was as fatal as Indian War.
It obviously was not the Franciscan s original intention to lay waste to the Indians. However it was the end result. The following quote from McWilliams depicts the tragedy clearly.
With the best theological intentions in the world, the Franciscan Padres eliminated Indians with the effectiveness of Nazis operating concentration camps. From 1776 to 1834, they baptized 4,404 Indians in the mission San Juan Capistrano, and buried 3,227; while in the Santa Ynez they did somewhat better, having baptized 757 and buried 519. In not a single mission did the number of Indian births equal the number of Indian deaths. During the entire period of mission rule, from 1769 to 1834, the Franciscans baptized 53,600 and buried 37,000. The mortality rates were so high that the missions were constantly dependant upon new conversions to maintain the neophyte population, which never, at any period, exceeded the peak figure of 20,300 reached in 1805. So far as the Indians were concerned, the chain of missions along the coast might best be described as a series of picturesque charnel houses. For it was the mission experience, rather than any contact with the Spanish culture, that produced this frightful toll of Indian life. During the same period, from 1769 to 1834, the wild or gentile Indians did not decline in numbers. (McWilliams, p.29)
It is clear that, based on the statistics presented by McWilliams, that the Padres did little
to benefit the livelihood of the Indian population.
The question must be asked why this knowledge is not common among the California residents, or taught to those who visit or study the early Spanish and Indian cultures. It lies in America s belief as a whole that we are always right. The Spanish and eventually Anglo-Saxon conquest of the Indians is celebrated in our modern culture as the triumph of civilization over savagery. In truth the early historians took the Spanish Mission system at face value, assuming it accomplished what it truly intended to do. However, seeing as history cannot be undone, it is too easy for Americans to slip the truth under the title of Manifest Destiny and move on. McWilliams once again comments on California s fabricated but popular history.
A land of magical improvisation, Southern California has created it s own past, with a special cast, and script written by it s favorite troubadours, John Steven McGroarty, George Wharton James, and Charles Fletcher Lummis. Unquestionably the production, with it s improvised traditions and manufactured legends, has been a huge success. There have been few visitors to Southern California who have not made a tour of the missions, purchased a postcard with a picture of Ramona s birthplace, and attended a performance of the Mission Play. (McWilliams, p.21)
Proof of America s desire to hide it s own failures can be devised from an examination of the popularity and financial success of some of it s recent films. American s like to see themselves as the over comers, not as the imperialist, or in the case of Spanish missions, the bystander who watched the native population being decimated, then when offered the opportunity completed the task with their own conquest of the California landscape. Two of the most popular blockbusters in the last couple of years have come in Saving Private Ryan and The Patriot. Both movies are heroic blood filled films where the Americans are the victims, forced to fight for what is rightfully theirs. Saving Private Ryan focuses on the tragedy of the loss of American lives in World War 2, and a nation valuing one soldier s life for the sake of a mother who sent four brothers off to war and has only one capable of returning home. The Patriot is the story of a militia soldier who fights off British oppression. While on the other hand The Amistad; a movie about slave trading in the South was a flop concerning its Director s reputation (Steven Spielberg). It can be said that people in general do not whish to accept the faults of their forefathers. They may not be directly responsible for tragedies committed against a particular culture in history, but there is a sense of guilt that results when one is forced to accept atrocities that were committed on one s own soil.
Revisionist history has brought to light the failure of the Spanish Mission System, yet popular history continues to tell a different story. This glorified view of the past is maintained and celebrated in a number of ways.
A government funded education system teaches children at a young age of the Missions of California as the beginning of our great history in America. In the fourth grade California elementary students build Popsicle missions, then they take field trips to visit the nearest mission to marvel at the architecture of the Franciscans. The irony lies in what they see and how it is portrayed. The mission at San Juan Capistrano contains a beautiful courtyard. The fact is that this courtyard was once the sight of floggings and other forms of discipline implemented by the Spanish priests in order to tame the savage Indian population. A large statue of a Franciscan priest comforting or teaching a young Indian depicts a sense of paternal care. This may have been the intention of the Catholics, yet it is far from the reality of death and decimation that existed.
The modern trend of Mission Restoration is preserving a mythical past of positive reformation that is inaccurate in it s representation. San Juan Capistrano has raised over 20 million dollars in order to restore and maintain what one could truthfully call a compound. If this were an effort to remind visitors of the atrocities one culture could accidentally commit against another it would make sense. However it is seen as preserving a beautiful piece of our history.
Finally the modern popularity of mission style architecture is, in a sense, celebrating a culture that decimated a native population. It is an interesting thought; why do we build millions of track homes with stucco walls, mission style arches, and tiles roofs. Does Germany build miles of Auschwitz-style homes for normal families to move into?
All in all the major atrocity committed by our modern society is simply naivety. It is not my intention to persuade individuals to not buy Spanish style homes or hate the Spanish for what they did. I only seek to inform of the truth, and ask that they represent it accurately. The Franciscan Padres who operated the California Mission System were largely responsible for the degradation and dilapidation of a native culture. Food for thought, would the California Indian population need to rely on Indian Casinos and tax-free sales on reservation had their culture not been divided and conquered?