I decided to go to a lecture at the Santa Barbara Mission this afternoon. The speaker, an anthropologist named John Johnson, would be talking about Chumash life at the Mission as gleaned from original documents and letters found in the archive library, which sounded interesting. The relationship between the California missions and the indigenous people is a complicated and controversial one, and I admit that I have mostly heard it told as a terrible thing, the forcing of Christianity upon a native culture, with uprooting and enslavement in the process.
Here is an example of this perspective in the form of a quote from a Chumash man with whom my students and I conducted an interview years ago. He said, “The mission system was an attempt to show the heathen Indian savages that this way is the only way. The Chumash revolted against the La Purisma and Santa Ynez Missions in 1824, led by a strong leader who had grown up in the mission and realized it was wrong. But the leaders were separated from their tribes, and lack of ability to communicate with other Chumash at different missions prevented success. The mission system became, in a sense, a prison system, a way to disperse our people and separate the strong leadership from the people. I’ve heard many stories about Indian people being imprisoned in the walls in Santa Barbara, and I do believe that the bodies of Indian people are buried in the missions. Personally, I won’t go there. The missions were painful places for many of the tribal people, not only Chumash, but all the tribes.”
Well, nothing ambivalent about that view.
Johnson has undoubtedly heard it all before. “You’ve got some people who romanticize the Mission period, and you get others who vilify it,” he said in an article I’d read about the lecture. “But there is much more nuance. When you get to the records, it’s not all black and white…”
So I was hoping for further enlightenment, a more balanced picture based on scholarly research and primary sources. Plenty of others appeared to share this hope; the place was surprisingly crowded. I scanned the room and found a good seat in the back, by the door. (That’s one of my neurotic quirks: I always need to know I can make a quick, discreet getaway if I am so inclined.)
But it wasn’t boring. Johnson began with an overview of Chumash life as it was when the Europeans began to arrive. Heavily dependent on marine resources, they were expert navigators and fishermen, using plank canoes, nets, and shell fish hooks. They had settlements from Malibu to San Luis Obispo, especially dense in the Santa Barbara region and eastern Santa Cruz Island, and their language was unrelated to any of the other 87 indigenous languages spoken by California tribes. Numerous examples of their basketry and rock paintings have been found in the area, but ironically, some of the rarest Chumash artifacts are in London, at the British Museum, having been brought there by Captain George Vancouver in the late 18th century. We saw slides of these objects: knives, a harpoon, a bow, and perhaps the only surviving paddle from that time.
What emerged was a sense of a thriving and accomplished people who had landed in a lucky place and were well adapted to their environment. They lived in large dome-shaped homes shaped from willow branches, gathered acorns and holly-leafed cherries, fished from sturdy boats. It always seems to me these locals had it made, compared to, say, tribes whipped by winter winds while chasing buffalo across the Great Plains, or the ones wet and freezing in upstate New York. Let’s face it: this stretch of California has always been appealing.
Anyway, Johnson talked about a fundamental conflict between Spanish governor of California Felipe de Neve and Junipero Serra, the Franciscan priest who founded the missions. Fearing that the missions would be too powerful, Neve thought the Chumash should remain in their own communities even after baptism. Father Serra believed that they should be relocated to the mission. I guess the strong-willed padre won.
And at this point in his presentation, Johnson sought to flesh out some details of Mission life for us by summarizing the answers from the lead friar of the Santa Barbara Mission and the commandante of the Presidio in response to questions from the Franciscan headquarters in Mexico about how things were being handled up there. For example, “Is the Christian doctrine being taught to the Indians in their own language?” Answer: yes, although masses were held in Spanish and Latin.
More interesting were their answers regarding food, clothing, work demands, lodging and diversion. According to these documents, the Indians were given dippers full of cereal and posole three times daily, and kept chickens as well, and were free to wander in the open country gathering food at certain times of year. Blankets, shirts, and blouses were provided, new loin cloths were issued to the men every six months, and the woman were given wool skirts. The housing was identical to what they’d had in their own settlements outside the mission. Each work day was said to have begun two hours after sunrise with a break at 11:15 and seldom more than an hour and a half in the afternoon. Weavers and adobe brick makers were finished when they met their reasonable quotas. Some folks seemed to come and go rather freely, and during leisure time there were gambling games, guessing games, even cards, which were futilely forbidden. For a minute there it was starting to sound a little like camp.
Suddenly an angry dark-haired man in the audience shouted, “What about the rape?! What about the genocide?!”
“This is not the time, sir,” said someone on the staff. In the back, a friar fidgeted. The audience sat patiently, waiting for the distraction to subside.
“Not the time? He’s up there telling little stories, and crimes were committed here! Genocide! Rape!” The guy was getting himself very worked up.”You didn’t hear that woman crying here last night,” he said, or something like that. “You didn’t hear the crying! Where are the descendants? Who else is here?”
One man stood up, I guess a member of the tribe, and suggested they have a discussion in some other context, but the angry guy shouted, “No one else? Why are there no women here? Where are the women?!”
Two Chumash women stood, and one proudly said, “We are here. And we don’t live in the past.”
By now the self-appointed spokesperson for the Indians was being gently escorted out, but he was still shouting in rage: “The past?! We’re talking about genocide! There’s nothing past!” His voice receded as he was led away beyond the courtyard and outside the mission walls. No one seemed particularly concerned. The lecture continued.
The Santa Barbara Mission, known as the Queen of the Missions, was founded on December 4, 1786, and Johnson’s talk was part of its 225th anniversary celebration. It is an historical landmark, but the Mission also continues to serve as an active church, museum, and library. Reading the texts of primary sources gives a more humanized view of what happened here, Johnson said, and there’s a poignancy about it.
Meanwhile…remember I told you I sat conveniently by a door in the rear of the room? Well, I confess I used that portal and slipped away from the lecture just a little before its ending, and I hope I didn’t miss anything crucial, but I’m not good at sitting and I wanted to explore by myself for a bit.
So I wandered around within and outside, then paused for a while looking up at the building, aglow in the rosy light. A young couple sat giggling and nuzzling by the fountain, tourists took snapshots of the statue of Father Serra and each other, a kid zoomed around on a skateboard…
Yes, there’s a lot of palpable history here, whether black and white or nuanced. But a girl in a Flamenco dancer costume was posing gracefully by a white stucco wall, the mountains were majestic in the distance, and I had that feeling I sometimes get in Santa Barbara…like I have landed in the palm of a poem. On the present’s sunlit surface, everything seemed fine.