Thursday, May 19, 2011

The California Missions: Las Misiones de California

From the San Francisco Gate, "The dark, terrible secret of California's missions," by Elias Castillo, 8 November 2004:

Mission in Santa Barbara, California

Sometime soon, the House will give final consideration to the California Mission Preservation Act, sponsored by Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., providing $10 million to help restore California's Roman Catholic Missions --those historic sites where Franciscan friars and California's Indians supposedly existed in gentle harmony.

In part, the act describes how "the knowledge and cultural influence of native California Indians made a lasting contribution to the early settlements of California and the development of the California missions." What the bill utterly omits is that locked within the missions is a terrible truth -- that they were little more than concentration camps where California's Indians were beaten, whipped, maimed, burned, tortured and virtually exterminated by the friars.

Mission in San Diego, California
"Corporal punishment is inflicted on the Indians of both sexes who neglect the exercises of piety, and many sins, which are left in Europe to the divine justice, are here punished by iron and stocks. And lastly, to complete the similtude between this and other religious communities, it must be observed, that the moment an Indian is baptised, the effect is the same as if he had pronounced a vow for life. If he escape, to reside with his relations in the independent villages, he is summoned three times to return, and if he refuse, the missionaries apply to the governor, who sends soldiers to seize him in the midst of his family, and conduct him to the mission, where he is condemned to receive a certain number of lashes, with the whip." (San Diego History)

The California Indians, as the proposal says, did have a culture, but they never got a chance to contribute it to California. The Spanish crown decreed in the 1760s that the Indians were to be rounded up, baptized into Christianity and their culture destroyed. It was the same policy that Spain had followed in eradicating the complex and advanced cultures of the Mayans, Incas and Aztecs in Latin America.

Vasali Turkanoff, a Russian captive, was a more rabid detractor of the mission system and bitterly criticized the treatment accorded Indians at the missions. He was particularly incensed by the harsh punishments inflicted upon mission runaways when captured. Typically the Fathers and a squad of soldiers went in pursuit. Turkanoff claimed that when the deserters returned:

They were all bound with rawhide ropes, and some were bleeding from wounds, and some children were tied to their mothers. The next day we saw some terrible things. Some of the runaway men were tied to sticks and beaten with straps. One chief was taken out to the open field and a young calf which had just died was skinned and the chief was sewed into the skin while it was yet warm. He was kept tied to a stake all day, but he died soon and they kept his corpse tied up. (source: San Diego History )
In 1769, that near-genocidal policy was launched, under the direction of Father Junipero Serra, with the founding of California's first mission. One scholar, Robert Archibald, has written that the missions were akin to the "forced movement of black people from Africa to the American South." With the help of Spain's soldiers, the Indians were herded to the sites of the missions. Once there, they became slaves, directed by the friars to build the missions. Once within the mission boundaries, they were forever forbidden to leave. No less an authority than the U.S. National Park Service has documented and described the hellish and tragic fate of the California Indians, especially the coastal tribes. They were not warring tribes, but instead gentle harvesters who lived in equilibrium with their land and seashore.
Mission San Carlos Borromeo in the Monterey

Their terrible fate at the hands of the Spanish and friars was described by Jean François de Galaup de la Perouse, a French explorer and sea voyager hired by the French government to report on the western coastal areas of North America. In 1786 he visited Mission San Carlos Borromeo in the Monterey area and described the severe punishments inflicted on the Indians. The friars, he determined, considered the Indians "too much a child, too much a slave, too little a man." California historians Walton Bean and James J. Rawls, described La Perouse as likening the missions to the slave plantations of Santo Domingo.

Colonial stocks
Commandants of the presidios were also asked to report on punishments used at the missions and their descriptions were at variance with Lasuén's. Uniformly they maintained that from 15 to 50 lashes were the norm although a novenary of twenty-five lashes per day for nine days was sometimes applied. Stocks, shackles and hobbles were also applied to neophytes accused of neglect of work or religious duties, overstaying leave of absence, sexual offenses, thefts and quarreling. (source: San Diego History)

Yet, the Indians did not easily accede to the cruel mission life. They rebelled several times, in one instance burning nearly all of the buildings of Mission La Purísima in Santa Ynez. Historian Robert F. Heizer attributed the flare-up to the "flogging of a La Purísima neophyte" (as the Indians were called in the missions).

In the late 1820s, Mexico rebelled against Spain and won its independence. Within a decade, it also declared that the missions had to vest half their property to the Indians while the other half went to the friars and government officials. It was the beginning of the end for the missions. By the late 19th century, the missions were in ruins, abandoned by the friars who could not continue operating them without the slave labor of the Indians, whose numbers had been decimated by hard labor, starvation and disease. It is estimated that California's Indian population was about 310,000 at the beginning of Spanish rule. At the close of the 19th century, they had been reduced to approximately 100,000.

Restoration of the missions was started at the beginning of the 20th century by well-meaning persons who either ignored the cruelties inflicted on the Indians or simply were unaware of the horrors that had occurred within them. While enough historians have accurately documented those terrible ordeals, however, their findings are not well known. Visit any of the missions and there is no mention of Indians being put in stocks, whipped or chained. Instead, the usual description is of friars and Indians living side by side in peaceful harmony and happily helping each other.

Santa Barbara Mission
Lasuén's ultimate defense of the system which he served rested upon the defective character of the natives. The Father President's refutation included a scathing indictment of the very people whom he served. "Here are aborigines whom we are teaching to be men, people of vicious and ferocious habits who know no law but force. . .They are a people without education, without government, religion or respect for authority, and they shamelessly pursue without restraint whatever their brutal appetites suggest to them. Their inclination to lewdness and theft is on a par with their love for the mountains. Such is the character of the men we are required to correct, and whose crimes we must punish." (San Diego History)

The California Missions Preservation Act is expected to be voted on soon. Besides the potential and obvious conflict of its violating the constitutional separation of church and state, there is the moral responsibility that if government funds are to be used in restoring the missions, the granting of those funds must be dependent on memorializing the suffering of California's native people in the missions.

This nation has recently opened the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. It is a monument to the Native Americans of North, Central and South America. The existence of the museum mandates that the ordeal of California's Indians cannot continue to be largely ignored and forgotten. Too many Native Americans died within the missions, which were supposed to be monuments to God's mercy, forgiveness and benevolence.

Mission in San Jose, California

The act must require that descriptions of the enslavement of California's Indians within the missions and the horrible ordeals they endured be clearly and visible provided to all visitors. America has not buried the shameful history of slavery in its Southern states; instead, books have been written and museums opened so that all may forever know of the cruelties of that practice. Why then, should the shameful history of the missions be hidden and ignored?

Additionally, the act must also require that funds be set aside for research to be conducted on mission grounds for the purpose of determining if mass graves of Indians exist within them. While some missions have clearly marked graveyards set aside for the friars, little knowledge exists of what happened to the thousands of deceased Indians who toiled within the missions. If sites are found containing the remains of those Indians, those areas must then be clearly marked for visitors and declared hallowed ground.

Mission San Miguel Arcangel

California and the nation cannot continue to look the other way at what happened in the missions; it must confront that awful specter and unveil it as a dark chapter of the state's history. It does not matter that those vicious practices occurred during Spanish rule. The missions are now revered as beloved monuments. Their continued restoration must also bring to light the most frightful chamber of their history.


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