CASFS – “The Mission Myth”

Do you remember constructing dioramas of California missions as a fourth grader? I did, although maybe not quite as elaborate as this one.


The curious thing is that the California Board of Education is still perpetuating the lie of what really happened at the missions. 4th graders are taught little to nothing about what actually happened at the missions, and are still building clay dioramas glorifying the missions of California. During 64 years of the mission period in California, there were 62,000 Indians that died. Father Junipero Serra, a Franciscan, was in charge of all these missions. These were the same Franciscans that forcefully brought Christianity to Mexico. Interestingly enough, because the Franciscan friars were such meticulous record keepers, there are in-depth notes of the cruel and brutal treatment afflicted against the California Indians, from consistent lashings, chains, shackles, stocks, whips, and lack of food. Additionally, there were explosive outbreaks of disease, including syphillis, measles, mumps, dysentary, tuberculosis, and pnemonia. In Franciscan writings American Indians were compared to monkeys, and it was believed the only way to control them was through brutal physical treatment. A visitor during the mission period remarked that the missions were all too similar to the slave plantations of the Caribbean. Some friars were killed, and some missions were burned as a result of Indian uprisings, one of the largest being the 1824 Chumash uprising, with Blackfoot allies.

Despite horribly oppressive conditions, American Indians had many methods of cultural and self-preservation.  They would meet secretly in the night, keeping alive their language and stories.  Some Indians were trained to paint religious imagery and icons.These painters sometimes transcribed images of strength and symbolism in the paintings that were unknown to the Franciscan friars. Some symbols of note include horses, whales, and re-appropriated Christ images. For instance, in a Chumash painting from mission Santa Inez of the Saint Raphael, rather than a fish under the Saints arm, there is a depiction of a whale, an important animal in Chumash culture. Other methods of subtle cultural preservation occurred in the learning of Spanish, and the standing translations of what the Spanish words meant in the American Indian language. Native leaders did as much as they could to lessen the cultural trauma during the mission period, and it was through ingenuity and great intelligence that American Indian culture was sustained through the Indian genocide. 


This weekend I attended a conference entitled Amah Mutsun Speaker Series, The Spirit of Resilience in the Face of Oppression. If you’d like to learn more about the real history of California, please investigate some of these resources.

Books by Lisbeth Haas, Professor of History and Chair of Feminist Studies

  • The Bracero Movement in OC
  • Saints and Citizens, Indigenous Histories of Colonial Missions and Mexican California

UCSC. Elias Castillo, author of the forthcoming book

  • A Cross of Thorns: The Enslavement of the California Indians by Spanish missions.

One presenter at the conference was Lucio Cloud Ramirez, a Phd candidate in health and cultural psychology. Lucio is currently studying American Indian cultural psychology, and the connection between health and cultures that have cultural practices that are rooted in community reciprocity. These practices (some of which were outlawed by the US Federal Government) include wealth redistribution, clan structures, restorative justice, world renewal beliefs, and balanced agriculture). For instance, the ceremony of potlatches, or the ceremonial redistribution of material wealth, was outlawed by the government. Perhaps a harbinger of early capitalism? Each of these structures provided for an integrative social structure, in which an individual felt valued, as though they had a role and place in society. According to Lucio’s studies, European Americans living in the United States did not show the same correlation between community belonging and well-being.

Currently Rick Flores, curator of California Natives at the UCSC arboretum is curating a “Relearning garden” for the local Amah Mutsun people. The Amah Mutsun were denied reservation land, and therefore lost knowledge and connection to their food and medicine plants. The garden provides a space to actively steward their sacred plants, share traditions and stories, and most importantly, pass this knowledge on to younger generations.

Please investigate this links below for more information about the history of the Amah Mutsun Indians –




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