This guest post comes from Pamela Casey Nagler, who is a teacher in California. This piece is part of a series, Why We Need Ethnic Studies.
This is why we need better history courses — more ethnic studies in our high schools.
As historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz has stated, we have “extravagantly romanticized’ the missionary fathers and their missions. What happened in the missions was slavery — it was a system of harsh penalties and incarceration. It was social engineering, where the family and village structure was torn apart and the Spanish fathers reinstated at the head.
At Mission San Gabriel, one out of ten of the Indians who lived at the mission either attempted to escape or managed to escape. By the end of the mission era, after a span of 60 years, the CA coastal Indian population was taken down to a third of its pre-contact numbers. And only a third of the remaining were women — so the population was scripted for further collapse.
The Americans found it easy to capitalize on the Spanish missionary effort — they arrived to find an underclass of landless people, lacking a cohesive culture, many given over to alcoholism or prostitution. The Americans put the Indians they rounded up on the weekends on an auction block every Monday, paid them in brandy on Friday, only to throw them in jail again on Sunday to be resold on the following Monday. Some say debt peonage, but some just call it outright slavery.
The majority of Americans who didn’t favor extermination of the Indian favored removal: either push them onto more remote lands “somewhere else” or put them on a reservation.
In the early 1850s, U.S. Federal Indian agents traveled the state and negotiated so-called treaties by finding 33 Indians to sign. Most of these signatures were received from individuals who were NOT leaders of their tribal groups – some were relatives of other signers. At that time, there were 100 separate tribes who spoke distinctly different languages – literally thousands of autonomous villages. Even so, when the California State Congress considered these treaties that would have turned over a measly 7% of California’s land in the least desirable places, that was considered too generous. Secretly, these treaties were never ratified in the U.S. Congress, but the signers were never notified. Members on the State Senate floor stated that the Anglo settlers needed to be compensated with all of the land because of their ‘investments’ — that is, all their efforts in the past five years enslaving Indians, rerouting streams, massacring villagers including women and children, hydraulically blasting riparian ecosystems in the pursuit of GOLD, pouring toxic chemicals that continue to percolate in our water systems and soil today.
In the last 20 years or so, visiting Catholic archbishops and bishops invited various California indigenous tribes to return to the missions where they issued apologies for what went on in the Franciscan missions between 1769 and 1830. What do these apologies mean now? Empty words.